Let me cut to the chase. Despite some strides made in recent years, ultimately, we are still battling a deep seated idea that only certain female bodies are desirable and desired. I know what you’re thinking, “No! Not me! I love all bodies.” But if we really delve into our behaviours we’d be able to identify plenty that refute this belief. But who’s to blame, really? From a very young age we are force fed images in magazines, ads, social media and in our social circles that constantly remind us how we should look. And if we can’t achieve this specific look than clearly we are not good enough, we lack willpower and we need to work really hard to change. It’s come to the point that lamenting about your looks and ceaselessly working on changing your body has become part of the female identity. It’s so uncommon that it’s almost jarring to hear a woman proclaim that she is 100% satisfied with her body. While men also face body issues, women are disproportionately affected by body shaming and so I direct my focus there. Also, I am a woman. How’s that for stating the obvious.
Because of this relentless message that our bodies take up too much space in this world, we resort to diets. Diets that punish, and bully, and make us believe that IF ONLY we possessed self control we could attain perfection. That simply, the only thing standing between us and flat abs is the resolve to resist a cupcake. But most of us can’t. And that doesn’t make us weak, it just makes us human. Our bodies don’t like dieting. We are essentially programmed to like whatever the opposite of dieting is. But the answer isn’t to find a solution to this inborn encoding, to discover new ways to trick our physiology. The answer is to make peace.
Here is the question that I have been pondering for some time now: at what point in history did we decide that criticizing, disparaging, judging, censoring, praising, assessing and condemning women’s bodies was okay? When did we decide what the ideal woman should look like? And I know some will point to the fact that curvy women were venerated in the past, but isn’t that just another form of what is happening today? I imagine that during the heyday of plump bodies, there were still “the right type of plump” and the “not plump enough” or “too plump” and undoubtedly the “too skinny” bodies. Ultimately our attitude remains the same but the image of the ideal body changes. Most recently I have seen the problematic trend of eschewing skinny and worshipping strong bodies. Strong is good! Strong means healthy! Strong is noble! Our new found worship of strong emblazoned on shirts and bumper stickers everywhere! Let me tell you something, strong is just a thinly veiled attempt to identify the current idea of an ideal body. Because if you’re not strong, then you are “other”, the not strong body, the body that needs to work harder to become strong. And so we find ourselves at square one, making women feel like they need to fit into a mold. I challenge you to Google images of “strong is the new skinny”. I did. Out of the first one hundred images, only about 8 (and I am being generous here) portrayed a body that wasn’t rippled with well defined muscle and glistening with sweat. Don’t tell me that we are past the point of idolizing slim. Body acceptance (acceptance of ALL bodies) is still a very, very long away.
Now please understand me. I don’t believe that body acceptance should come at the expense of rejecting those with muscles, or skinny bodies or slender frames. I don’t think that is the approach at all. In my utopian view of the world, ideally we come to a point where bodies are just bodies, the vehicles for our minds and hearts, the instruments that carry out our actions and dreams. Where size does not matter and people (women) aren’t constantly battling with themselves to change.
I do wonder if before all of this there truly was an era where body shape, size, fat percentage, dimensions really did not matter. I have to imagine that prehistoric societies did not trouble themselves with such trivialities as they tried to outrun predators and directed their energies at survival. Perhaps even for several generations after that bodies were just simply bodies. Then things went haywire. And specifically for women. I oscillate between rage and sadness when I see or hear of situations where women are forced into believing bogus diets, mislead by so-called experts, bullied by unrealistic ad campaigns, disparaged by healthcare professionals, disregarded, overlooked, shamed. And what is frightening is that attempts to wage war on women’s bodies are becoming far more ambiguous, so that even the most offensive enterprises seem benign. Like with the aforementioned strong body movement.
I don’t want to end this diatribe on a sour note. It’s not all hopelessness and doom. While a global shift in paradigm will require far more bold and drastic solutions and a great deal of time to undo the damage of generations, we can all start to chip away at the current norm. It starts with you. Stop criticizing yourself. Throw away the scale. Look in the that mirror and see yourself for your qualities and NOT your body shape. You are one fine human being and I don’t need to know your jean size or your hip measurements to see that! This sounds clichéd, but if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself. Protect children from hearing body shaming in conversation, songs, on social media and TV. And it’s tricky. You know that song, the one about that bass? That’s not an anthem for body acceptance. Listen to those lyrics a little closer: the message is accept big bodies and reject ‘skinny bitches’, the song’s words, not mine. (This is what I mean when I say it’s a lot more ambiguous these days.) Stop greeting friends with “You look great! Did you lose weight?” This is problematic on many levels, and so ingrained in our psyche as normal dialogue, but continues to reinforce that weigh loss equates with greatness. Chose activities based on your likes and not on their calorie burning potential. Pick a variety of foods based on what you enjoy, not on a long list of ‘shoulds’. Those ‘shoulds’ are ever changing and often not based on any actual merit. So forget strict food rules and trust yourself. Trust your beautiful, wonderful, vibrant, capable, competent, flawed, perfect SELF.
We need to win this war, one battle at a time, so that we don’t waste another second of our precious, short lives on this ongoing conflict. Imagine, just really imagine, what we could accomplish if even just a fraction of energy wasted on altering our size was diverted to something more positive. I am not going to pretend like I have the solution. It hasn’t been an easy journey for me to arrive at this place and perhaps one day I will share my experiences. But I definitely know how I have changed my words and continue to adopt behaviours to promote body acceptance for myself and those around me. Will you join me?
As always, share your comments and thoughts below!
With much love and gratitude,
Well said Ilona. I’m totally in.