Trigger warning: Eating disorders, body image, body-shaming
Let’s talk about Body Negativity.
I’ve read countless blogs about body positivity. Blogs that tackle the issue from every possible angle. I’ve read about so many people, so happy, not giving a fuck how they look. I’d love to feel that way. I’d LOVE to be able to call myself body-positive.
But I went to a single-sex girls’ school. I also had at least three times the number of maternal figures during adolescence than most people have (my mother, my father’s girlfriend, my nanny). I have a very beautiful younger sister. I’ve internalised a lot of toxic shit in my time.
I’m not trying to be body negative. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t find the kind of confidence I read about on body positivity blogs easy to practice. I don’t think many people do. I feel shamed whenever I read these blogs. I end up checking my most basic thought processes on a daily basis and feeling furious at myself.
There are two schools of thought in the body positive movement. The first is that “all bodies are beautiful”. It holds that beauty is subjective and that every single body – fat, thin, black or white, disabled or able-bodied – is beautiful to someone, and that that someone should be you.
It holds that the best way to make someone feel less insecure about how they look is to compliment them, and build their confidence. It’s quite an old concept, beauty in the eye of the beholder and all, but as easy as it is to understand, philosophically speaking, it’s difficult to embrace. We have grown up seeing one kind of body type represented in the media. It’s a hard message to deprogram. And we’re not idiots, because we know that most people don’t live in this slender world we’ve created for ourselves. A lot of us are ugly, in that the majority of people who see us will think we are.
It feels terrible, as a feminist, to say this, but we do ourselves no favours by pretending that’s not how the world sees us. In doing so, we deny a patriarchy that places the young, the white, the thin (often referred to as “fit”, though we all know the two do not necessarily go hand in hand) and the able-bodied head and shoulders above the rest of us. As Louise McCuddon says:
“There’s something very unhealthy about the narrative of ‘women are our harshest critics.’ I’m not mine. And it’s insulting to be told, however kindly, that the problem is in my own head. You can’t tell a person who simply is being told that they’re ugly in the eyes of heaps and heaps of people – whether its TV shows, comedians, their classmates, ‘lads’ and their nonsense banter – that they’re just, bless them, incapable of interpreting other people’s actions .”
McCuddon’s quote brings us to the other school of body positivity – the “what you look like doesn’t matter” school. This contends that, when you get down to it, it doesn’t matter if you love your body or not. There are fifty thousand other things about you – your intelligence, your compassion, your bravery, your integrity, or whatever else you have going for you – and really, the best thing you can do is to stop worrying about how you look. It tells us that we need to stop talking about our bodies all the time, that instead of talking to little girls about how they look we should talk to them about how they think, and that we should cut out “fat talk” altogether. We should stop greeting each other with “wow, have you lost weight?” because the compliment itself is transient, whereas the message that “the first thing I have noticed about you is your appearance” stays much longer.
But, again, maintaining this level of confidence is difficult when the vast majority of the world isn’t behind you. I’ve been trying, but unless I completely avoid people, at some point someone is going to talk to me about my appearance – from a compliment from a till assistant in the supermarket or a stranger on an escalator, to a long conversation with a work colleague about how fat she feels. As a woman, it is impossible to avoid this, and if you’ve stopped bothering to see yourself as “beautiful”, these moments can start to hit you even harder.
We do ourselves no favours by talking about this as if it is a straightforward decision each of us can make. The world is not body positive. If you are a woman, you exist in a society that literally hates your physical presence. It doesn’t matter what you look like, you’re not right. The women in the media who we are told are beautiful have been photoshopped and airbrushed into impossible forms. If you need more convincing of this fact, I learned last week that 98% of women develop cellulite, about the same percentage that develop breasts. Yet when did you last see a woman with cellulite in the media, except in the celebrity shame columns in women’s magazines? This is a natural reaction between fat cells and oestrogen, and yet for some reason, as a society we’ve decided it’s disgusting. That having both oestrogen and fat cells in the body – without which the vast majority of people would not survive – makes us ugly, that the result shouldn’t exist. That 98% of women need to be “cured.”
So we can talk about how ludicrous and arbitrary it all is, but we cannot overlook how serious it is, how difficult it makes women’s lives. Women engage in habitual body monitoring, we think about the position of our legs, our hair, the light, who is looking at us and who is not looking at us. That is a massive amount of wasted cognitive function. Around 3.5% of women suffer from Anorexia or Bulimia, and 18-20% of anorexics die within 20 years of developing the condition. Last week the Vagenda retweeted a large number of pictures of men’s “thigh gaps”. The men found it funny, they’d never thought about this aspect of their bodies before. I expect the vast majority of women think about the size of their thighs on a daily basis. The tag “thigh gap” on tumblr brings up a message that says “If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, self harm issues, or suicidal thoughts, please visit our Counseling & Prevention Resources page for a list of services that may be able to help.” To most men, a “thigh gap” is just a natural feature of their body with no reflection on their worth as a human. Meanwhile, some women think it is worth more than their life.
Self-love is not easy. It requires constant affirmation and can crumble any second. So I understand why we don’t want to talk about body-negativity. But we have to. Because we can only stop ourselves internalising the thousands of messages and negative feelings we experience every day if we acknowledge and critically examine them, rather than burying them out of sight.