Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new series of posts on The Feminist Anthropologist in which I am featuring guest posts from other talented writers and bloggers. This wonderful post on female body image is by my friend Charlotte Marriott, the immaculate poet and author of The Smallest Island. If you have an idea for a guest post, please send it to brenna.mccaffrey(at)gmail(dot)com.
DON’T LOOK DOWN, don’t look down, don’t look down: the epitome of which, since I was first coming into womanhood, has been the bathroom scale. I used to be weighed frequently as a precocious member of Weight Watchers—a group in which my middle school French teacher was also enrolled, as she informed my seventh grade French class, much to the unutterable despair of myself and my twin sister. I’m not naming most names in order to protect the innocent…and the not-so-innocent.
At twelve, did I really need Weight Watchers? I wasn’t overweight. My mother thought that my sister and I would learn valuable life lessons about eating right, having not realized that the program of 1975 is completely different than that of 2003. W.W. in 2003, as well as today, is all about “Points” and to get into the mandatory weekly meetings (which, though in the same enormous room, were barricaded by a seemingly soundproof screen), everyone must “Weigh In,” and a lot of times there’s an overtly amused old “Weigh-In” lady there to prey on the young and announce whatever number comes up like it’s a lottery jackpot, or tell you something stupid, or compare you to your gorgeously slim mother when said mother isn’t looking. Needless to say, Weight Watchers was not my scene. Long story short, seventh grade saw me defying my mother by throwing a handful of Betty Crocker’s cake mix into all of the two-Point shakes and smoothies she bought, and still charging myself only two Points. A downward—or shall I say, upward spiral had begun to take shape.
But you can’t blame Weight Watchers, my mother, Betty Crocker, or the French teacher for any bad feelings that may have arisen, because a large number of those feelings were innate, and I don’t know why. I can recall, as early as the age of two or three, feeling like I didn’t measure up to the neighbors’ granddaughter, Lisha, in terms of beauty. She wasn’t thinner than my sister or myself, but she had straight hair whereas ours was tightly curled, so her hair looked a lot longer, and as much as I enjoyed playing with her, there was always a dark cloud hanging over me, whispering that I wasn’t as much of a girl because I didn’t have hair to my shoulders. My convoluted idea of where these comparative feelings started: a combination of the fact that I am blonde while my mother has dark hair and Disney Princesses. I get it that Jasmine, Tiana, Pocahontas, and Mulan were groundbreaking for Disney, but I’m still waiting for the Princess who looks like me, and I think Disney would probably require a lot more persuasion to make my Princess. All Disney Princesses are ideal figures. Ideal figures are easier to draw and of course, they comply with the big screen’s Papal bull of female beauty: they are thin and perfectly shaped, they have giant eyes, and perfect busts. Because they are animated, they also tend to have giant heads (to minimize their respective bodily girths) and tiny feet, like living Barbies. A child of 1990, I am much too old for Tiana; Belle, Pocahontas, and Mulan were my Princesses. They were the most intelligent and the least “girly” as far as I was concerned, yet their looks became significant as I internalized these cartoon goddesses and pretended I was them, but never swanned into them.
This brings me to my hair. In terms of appearance, I most revered the dark-haired Princesses, and of riders on the Magic Schoolbus, identified most with Phoebe, the white girl character who came in brunette (you know what I’m talking about). My hair in real life is frizzy and dirty-blonde. Under a microscope lens, it looks like six different colors. I have secretly tried, over the years, to appoint Carole King as my new paradigm of beauty, because her hair is similar to mine in many ways, but I’m still so awfully self-conscious, especially when I’ve fluctuated up in terms of my weight, that within ten minutes of entering a room with my hair down, I have a brief anxiety attack before pinning it up with anything I can find—if necessity dictates, I’ve even tied my hair to itself…using itself. But I have resolved to make a point of never altering it. One day it will be white. Another, it may not be there at all. But I’m going with what I’ve got. I feel silly enough just putting on makeup sometimes without changing or faking my hair.
One thing that makes my self-consciousness worse when comparing myself to other women is my failure to match the heteronormative paradigm. Whether I’m attracted to someone or not, regardless of another person’s gender, there is always the sinking feeling that I am being judged through a sexual lens because of my own instincts, and it makes me awkward. I don’t feel like this when I know someone particularly well, or maybe I do, because I know that my life would be very different if I were shaped a bit more like Belle or Pocahontas or Mulan. This is where my overcompensation factor comes in. I try to build up confidence in another area, normally my intellect, reminding myself that my IQ is in the genius range (not Stephen Hawking genius, but up there) and I am the author of three books. Guess what? We’re not talking about intellect. We’re talking about the societal paradigm for beauty, and I don’t fit there, not for lack of trying, and it breaks my poor little genius heart all over again.
I have a friend from college who I’m very proud to know; she is a plus-size model and she is absolutely gorgeous. Fashion has never held much interest for me, much less modeling, but I do have a ritual of my own. I don’t know if this helps the 8-and-up community in general, but it surprisingly helps me. I have literally been every size from 2 to 18 since I stopped growing, always wishing to be smaller, but no matter what I am today, every morning when I get up, I go in the bathroom, take off my shirt, and stand in front of the mirror. I give myself a couple spinsies and tell myself that I am beautiful, even if I don’t think so. I tell myself that I am smart. I tell myself that I am proud to be a virgin by choice. I try to look at my body with admiration, because it is beautiful, because I did not design it or create it, because I am a greater Artist’s creation and that Artist must have meant it. God doesn’t make mistakes. I fluctuate without even trying, and I am learning that that is fine.
In the cultural climate at hand, “fat” becomes the new mother F word, and to be described as such becomes the boggart lurking in millions of cupboards today. Personally, most of the men who have passed judgment on my own body have done so from a deep hypocrisy, as, though I’ve never solicited opinions, I have been deemed subpar by not only those Apollos freshly sprung from the Ken doll mold, but also the beer-bellied, the balding, and the shamelessly hairy. Likewise I have been judged by all manner of women: the older women at Weight Watchers meetings who preyed upon the confidence of the young, one of my aunts who described fourteen-year-old me as a stack of tires in my black bathing suit, my peers in high school and even one or two in college, and even the director of my tenth-grade musical when I weighed a whopping 140 pounds, which I think I wore well, told me that I was fat and that I couldn’t sing. (This is neither here nor there, but I am an amazing vocalist.)
Another early memory involves sitting beside my friend Theresa at lunch in the first grade. I distinctly remember noticing how tiny her wrist looked in comparison to mine and thinking to myself that I should not eat the pizza I had just bought. Nobody did that to me outright. My feelings were the product of subconscious exposure to something I could never be. It was not until much later that I realized my…shall we say, organic person could still be attractive. Either that or attractiveness didn’t matter. As I moved into high school, I struggled with my weight to the point of panicking during trips to the mall.
A beloved family member who saw me fluctuate so extremely during high school has since moved hundreds of miles away, and my visits with him are now few and far between. When he tells me that it looks like I’ve lost weight, even if in actuality I’ve gained 20 pounds since I’ve seen him, I know that he thinks he is complimenting me. He thinks women must be thin, and he thinks “you’ve lost weight” is the right thing to say to one. I simply thank him, inwardly enraged at what his experience has taught him about vanity, but that’s another story. He is like a lot of men; he has been taught that compliments on the physical, superficial self are what we as women are desperate to hear. Because he thought I probably didn’t receive many compliments on my looks, and because I know that he loves me, his comments have always registered with me as innocent: a misspent kindness.
But there’s definitely a dark side to men’s perception women as desperate for approval, and it’s probably more widely realized than my uncle’s compliments. This dark side is easy enough to highlight. All you need to do is find someone to hit on you. There are actually men (and women, if you’re LGBTQA) out there who think that we’re desperate to be loved to the point of offering ourselves sexually. And while I’m not one of those women, I know that those women do exist. It hurts me to know that there are emotional predators who hope our self-esteem is so low that they can use us to get off. Don’t be one of those women who gets used. I’m not saying that there aren’t nice, normal men and women out there who would genuinely like to be your partner, but I urge you to please figure out the difference first. One woman’s newfound courage of her convictions is a great victory for us all, and there are billions of us.
It would be erroneous to assume that average- and plus-size women are the only women who struggle with the issue of body image, and unfair not to mention that apparently there is such thing as thinking oneself too thin. Not scary thin, which is a separate beast entirely, but to view oneself as aesthetically flat or even boyish. The stark standardization of female beauty also hurts male-bodied transwomen, our too-frequently forgotten sisters, who are often excluded from the range of what is considered an acceptable expression of femininity. Where I struggle to minimize my D-cup breasts, I have had friends, female-bodied and not, who felt that their bodies were not womanly because they were not curvaceous. In the past I have joked that I would happily donate to a few skinny girls until we were all the same, but is sameness the quality we seek? Doesn’t that sound a little…Orwellian? Must we all assimilate to the same end, the same goal, the same form? Are we becoming Doctor Who‘s Cybermen? Are our bodies the current frontier for some nouveau perversion of Marxist thought?
I wish that gender was as invisible to the rest of the planet as it is to me, because the concept of “real women” is not one that I understand. I have always held that anyone who declares herself a woman is in fact a real woman. We are naturally diverse, but because we notice those differences, must we eliminate them? Every time I read an interview with someone who has suffered an eating disorder, I notice how many survivors point to wishing they had attended Catholic schools, or anywhere that supplied a uniform. I do think that sameness is the goal, so while I sprint for fitness on the elliptical in the basement, I can’t help but feel a little guilty for falling into the same bad feelings about my body, exactly how it is today.
I am very intrigued by the idea of reclaiming negative words, normally related to race, gender, and LGBTQA issues. Similarly, I think one universally understood word needs reclaiming. It’s not the word “fat,” however. “Fat” is nasty and too far-gone. As grateful as I am for Fat Pride activists and the work that they do, it’s not a word that I want applied to me, and I think most women and people in general would agree. The word that needs reclaiming is “beautiful.” Personally, I think everyone is intrinsically beautiful. It’s a given, like life. However, beauty should not be reclaimed as a positive, because then it is gauged by superficial means. In the wake of competence, intelligence, integrity, creativity, and that old standby basic human dignity, “beauty” must be reclaimed as an afterthought.
So this one goes out to to all the girls who ordered a dressingless salad because some idiot said, “You don’t need onion rings,” even though you were secretly jonesing; this is a shoutout to everyone who heroically avoided chocolate on her last period. You know whether or not you’re healthy. You know what weight(s) you like best on yourself. But whether you are currently in that comfort zone or not, label yourself with universal positives even if you have to work to believe yourself. Nobody else gets to weigh in.