I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while. This seemed like the right week – a week filled with nude magazine covers and advertising debacles (both of which are happening more frequently) – to share the mental notes I’ve been collecting for the past few weeks. This post is personal, and I imagine it will be for many of you reading it. Let’s just dive in to the self-esteem/body image pool of doubt together, shall we?
First, I’ll tell you a little about me, just to get my baggage out of the way. Mmmm, baggage.
Since puberty, I’ve been chubby (though I prefer the term curvy). I’ve never seen my abs. My thighs have never had a gap. My face is round. My hips and breasts are full. I don’t look like the rest of my family, including my co-blogger Kelsey, who is 6’1″ and thin
(though she often doesn’t believe me when I say that). I’m told I resemble more bosomy great aunts, but they aren’t around for comparison. I’ve always loved food and hated working out, but I try to eat semi-healthfully and exercise a couple of times a week. In the past year, I was put on a medicine that made me gain quite a bit of weight rather quickly, so that’s also fantastic.
I also come from a family ripe with their own insecurities, which I’m sure is common. And this is no fault of theirs, it’s just to make the point that we learn from our surroundings. My parents have fluctuated in weight all their lives, and they talk often about gains and losses. At big family holidays with my dad’s family, my very thin uncle will drink half a beer to avoid calories and needle my dad in a brotherly way about his weight, though he’s (currently) in the normal range. My aunts compare gym tips and talk fiber and how they look great for their ages (which they absolutely do). I am the only – and have always been the only – overweight cousin in our tight knit group of seven. The difference is there, but the negative feelings I internalize about those differences are my own doing.
The real low point of my self-esteem issues happened not at my heaviest, but at my most insecure. I spent years – that’s not an exaggeration – feeling like I wasn’t good enough to even attempt a move on one particular guy because I was heavier than him. That’s the honest truth. I would make excuses to myself and others, saying, “Oh, he just doesn’t like me that way” or “I don’t want to ruin our friendship.” Both of those statements were (I believe) true, but it doesn’t change the fact that the biggest thing holding me back from the attempt was my belief that I was big. As a feminist, nay, as a person, I’m ashamed to admit this act of self-esteem-based cowardice.
So, that’s me. I know I talk a lot about family and fitting in, but we all know that’s not the real problem. We’ve all been trained to think a certain way about beauty. Look at the most recent Victoria’s Secret “The Perfect ‘Body'” controversy, in which an advertisement with that slogan featured ten thin, “perfect bodied” models in Body by Victoria bras. It certainly did not represent every body, let alone even a smattering of body diversity. Luckily, VS got the memo, but, as they only changed the words of the ad, it still looks much like they only care about dressing those blessed with society’s favorite beauty standards. I appreciate brands like Dear Kate who have responded with a more diverse representation of models.
(Side note: I once went to a yoga class titled “Yoga for every body!” I thought it was a beginner class. People were doing inversions within the first fifteen minutes of the class, so Victoria’s Secret isn’t the first to pull a switcheroo with this particular turn of phrase. The class should have been called yoga for people who are already really good at headstands. But I digress…)
When I tweeted something about said controversial ad, someone accused me of shaming the models for being thin and working hard for their bodies. Calling attention to the blatant irony of the image and phrasing is not thin-shaming, which is just another side to the multi-faceted body-shaming coin of misery. Even women I’ve met in the real world who look as close to model-esque as I’ve ever seen often don’t feel like they look like models. The thing that I’ve learned from my thinner friends, or, well, just my friends in general, is that we all have our hang-ups.
Honestly, if anything deserves shaming, it’s the overuse of Photoshop. I’ve looked at fashion magazines since I was very young, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to look their best on a glossy cover. It’s when those general standards of brushing off zits moves to enhancing waists and cleavage and butts and lips that things go too far for me. Let’s look to two celebrities in contrast, both of whom don’t need editing. Keira Knightly recently went topless in a photoshoot to counteract all of the enhancements that had been made to her body over the years, showing her small breasts as they are. In contrast, Kim Kardashian showed off her very heavily Photoshopped assets (pun intended) on the cover of a magazine, offering up the kind of Disney-princess trimmed waist that is all but unattainable. They’re both beautiful, and I have no problem with nudity. They both look really great in their respective photographs. The contrast between their approaches deserves attention, however, in that one is actively fighting against the Photoshopped mainstream, while the other builds her brand around “perfection.”
Speaking of celebrities, I was taken aback with I found out Diplo was shaming Taylor Swift’s booty on Twitter today. (And I was taken to laughing when I saw Lorde’s response.) There’s a special kind of meanness that comes with insulting a person’s appearance. I’m not saying I’m above it – we’re all mean to each other. I’ve made comments I regret. You’ve made comments you regret. We’re probably the meanest to ourselves. To quote Lena Dunham’s Hannah on Girls: ““Any mean thing someone’s going to think of to say about me, I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour!” And this is where we get to the part about making things a little better for ourselves and others.
As much as we all struggle with our self-image, self-esteem, self-pity, etc., we have to remember that things are changing. The fact that images like the one from Dear Kate exist is a testament to that. That there was such an outcry against Victoria’s Secret over their mislabeled ad is a point in that direction, too. Slowly, clothing brands are taking notice that we aren’t all straight sizes – we are curvy, tall, petite and everything in between. It’s not that we don’t have a long way to go, but things are moving forward toward inclusion.
Another personal step in the right direction is to expose yourself to the many body types that exist in the world. I find Instagram especially useful for this. I follow accounts from models and actresses, yes. I also follow accounts that are all about showing body positive examples of all shapes and sizes. One of my current favorites is self-proclaimed “self-love advocate” @honorcurves, who started the #HonorMyCurves hashtag. It may sound hokey (and sometimes it is), but you can’t read some of her posts without being inspired by the beauty of your own body and the bodies of others.
Finally – and this is the ultimate kicker – we have to work to own our own bodies, our own shapes. Though I’ve definitely not overcome my hangups completely, I’m not trying to hide who I am. I’ll wear what I want to wear, horizontal stripes be damned. I’ll buy the size that fits me, not worrying about whether the smaller number makes me feel better about the physical space I take up. I’ll try to exercise more for the sake of health, not weight loss. I’ll work not to attach my worth to my waist size. Most of all, I’ll try to be kinder to others and especially myself.