Illustration by Nicholas Luchak
I don’t remember exactly when I started hating my body.
I do remember, however, the first time I tried to do something about it.
I was in elementary school (Grade 4 possibly?) and I was very unhappy about what I considered to be my excessively hairy “gorilla arms.” Alone in the bathroom, I spontaneously decided to rectify the situation by shaving my arms with my mom’s razor.
The end result was less than satisfying. It was my first time wielding such a tool and I didn’t know how to use it properly; I raked it down my dry arms a couple times, slicing myself repeatedly and leaving behind varying lengths of pokey stubble.
The next day at school, I was informed by one of my peers that shaving only makes the situation WORSE and that my gorilla arm hair would almost certainly grow back thicker and darker. Le sigh.
Hating one’s body is a big part of being female in our culture — partly because we live in a consumerist society in which companies sell us stuff by making us believe we are inadequate, and partly because we live in a patriarchal society in which women are oppressed as the sex class.
Encouraging us to stay fixated on and unhappy about our physical appearance effectively props up both the economic and patriarchal status quo because it keeps us distracted — consider how much time and energy and money women spend on, say, toenail maintenance or body hair removal — while also making us complicit in our own sexualization, thereby providing a handy rebuttal to any attempt at critiquing the way things are.
“Well obviously you don’t have to [insert expected beauty standard here]; if you don’t like it, just don’t do it! You’re choosing to participate, therefore it’s YOUR FAULT.”
Never mind that failure to comply to arbitrary beauty standards means women will be deemed unfuckable — which, in a culture in which women’s value is disproportionately based on physical appearance/sexual desirability, translates into being unemployable, ignored (or conversely, harassed), unlovable and, ultimately, worthless.
Women are socialized to identity as sexual objects which exist for the pleasure of others, and we become really good at it. Trained from a very young age to conflate body image with self image, we learn to conceptualize ourselves not as whole human beings worthy of love and acceptance and the pursuit of happiness and sexual pleasure but rather, as a collection of problematic physical parts in need of fixing or disguising.
Our hair is too frizzy or too curly or too grey; our breasts are too small or too droopy or too uneven; our skin is too dark or too freckled or too pimpled. Our hands are veiny. Our nose is crooked. Our collarbones stick out. Our thighs touch. Our fat armpits need suctioning. Our saggy elbow skin needs lifting. Our imperfect labia need trimming and our loose vaginas need tightening. Our face needs to look happy at all times.
Split ends. Bingo wings. Muffin top. Saddle bags. Chicken legs. Man hands. Cankles. Gorilla arm hair.
Ask any woman to name five things she hates about her body and I bet she can rattle off a list without even thinking about it.
Note: this is not to say that men don’t also suffer from negative body image. (Companies want to sell them stuff, too.) However, I would argue that indoctrination into the process of hyper-criticism and self-loathing starts a lot earlier with women, and that it’s both more relentless and more intense.
By way of example: my partner and I were watching TV not long ago when a commercial for some sort of skin product came on (I wasn’t really paying attention so I didn’t catch the brand). Part of the pitch was that it “hides the appearance of pores.”
“Did you hear that?” he asked, aghast. “I get that someone might not want wrinkles because wrinkles are associated with getting old — but pores are SKIN. What’s wrong with having skin?”
“Didn’t you know? Women aren’t allowed to have skin,” I snarled back.
Consumer culture makes everyone feel less-than in some way. Still, men are permitted to have skin.
Recently, I came across this piece in Interrupt Mag, an audience-created online magazine.
As the setup explains:
“By the age of 13, 53 per cent of girls say they are unhappy with their bodies. When were they happy? In order to find out, Marie C. photographed and interviewed girls between the ages of four and eight and asked them what they liked about their bodies. These girls share wisdom the rest of us have forgotten.”
The result combines photos of adorable girls with short descriptions they wrote about themselves and, in some cases, pictures they drew of themselves.
At first it made me happy. (Quotes include “I like that my hair can shake” and “I like my body because it’s magic.”)
Then it made me sad.
I thought about how these girls are growing up in a world in which they will be told, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, that there is something wrong with how they look. That there is something wrong with THEM and that they better get to correcting it ASAP, because no one likes an ugly woman.
These messages are everywhere — thousands upon thousands of them, an onslaught coming fast and furious like a never-ending barrage of punches. (This video does a good job of capturing what I’m trying to articulate; I cry every time I watch it, even as I understand the irony that it was produced by Dove — a company that exists to sell beauty products.)
It’s only a matter of time before some of those messages find their mark and start to sink in. The author of the Interrupt piece notes one four-year-old girl first told her she doesn’t like anything about her body before changing her mind and deciding she loves everything about it. (“She then draws herself as a princess with long hair and no longer wants to talk about the ‘I don’t like anything’ part of her answer.”)
A four-year-old girl.
I turn 38 next month. I have far more self-confidence now than I did when I was in my teens and twenties. I care a lot less about what other people think about me. I can name you many things about my personality that are awesome. I love myself.
I don’t know that I love my body, though. I considered the question posed to those girls and I struggled to answer it. (I like my tattoos, but does that count? They’re merely adornments to the temple, not the temple itself.)
As a feminist, it’s embarrassing to admit that I’m still working on accepting what I look like. I’ve read The Beauty Myth. I’ve watched Killing Us Softly. I’ve interviewed Jean Kilbourne, for fuck’s sake. I’m supposed to be able to cast off the shackles of sexist beauty standards. I’m supposed to be enlightened about this stuff; to recognize that the game is rigged because the arbitrary beauty standards expected of us aren’t actually achievable.
I’m supposed to riot, not diet.
Last December, I was the heaviest I’ve ever been. Intellectually, I knew I was a good person: smart, funny, sexy, interesting, creative. I felt fat and gross. With a beach vacation in the future and some time on my hands, I set a goal to lose some weight. I started counting calories and exercising, and I lost some weight and I started feeling better about myself because I started liking what I saw when I looked in the mirror.
And I got teased by a friend who thought it was “funny” and “ironic” that a feminist like me cared about her appearance and wanted to look good in a bathing suit. Le sigh.
I do care about my appearance and I do want to look good in a bathing suit. Am I a bad feminist? Or am I a female human being?
Melissa McEwan, one of my favourite bloggers, is fat. In this insightful post, she notes:
It remains a radical act to be fat and happy. If you’re fat, you’re not only meant to be unhappy, but deeply ashamed of yourself, projecting at all times an apologetic nature, indicative of your everlasting remorse for having wrought your monstrous self upon the world. You are certainly not meant to be bold, or assertive, or confident — and should you manage to overcome the constant drumbeat of messages that you are ugly and unsexy and have earned equally society’s disdain and your own self-hatred, should you forget your place and walk into the world one day with your head held high, you are to be reminded by the cow-calls and contemptuous looks of perfect strangers that you are not supposed to have self-esteem; you don’t deserve it. Being publicly fat and happy is hard; being publicly, shamelessly, unshakably fat and happy is an act of both will and bravery.
Cultural conditioning runs deep. Old habits die hard. As women, we are trained to hate our bodies. Loving them, then, becomes an act of resistance. It’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s something worth working towards.
After giving the question much thought, I have decided that I like my eyebrows. They’re dark and thick. I can wear them full, ’80s-era Brook Shields-style, or I can have them waxed into clean, precise arches. I will never need eyebrow pencil.
What do you like about your body?