So a designer I like posted a link to this post today, written by Lisa Marie Basile, who is, by her own reckoning, neither fat nor skinny, and about how she feels pressure, primarily from other women, to pick a side (the sides, presumably, being the binary options of “fat girl” or “skinny girl,” an identity based on her body, while simultaneously being rejected by both sides for not being enough of either, since she is an “in-betweenie.”
I have no doubt of the truth of all her experiences she shares. Women talk about their bodies…no, let me amend that: women criticize their bodies, with a readiness and facility that is breathtaking, really. They criticize other women’s bodies, too. I have heard one woman, speaking of another, say “She really shouldn’t be wearing that,” the implication being that her body is an unacceptable match for the arrangement of fabric she has chosen. I hear men say it, too, but frankly, I think we need to deprogram ourselves first before we have any hope of deprogramming them. In many situations, it is how women bond: they talk about their bodies, what they hate about them, and their current diet and/or exercise regimen, as if this were the sum total of their minds and experiences and activities. To listen to an average group of women talking, especially around a table with food on it, you’d think they never went to school, read a book, had a hobby or an adventure, or a really great dream they’re intent on realizing. Nope. It’s all about their bodies, or rather, what’s wrong with their bodies, and what, for the love of all that’s holy, they are diligently doing about it, because DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT is absolutely mandatory.
I recently looked through this entire gallery of unphotoshopped swimsuit photos, and I saw a lot of women thinner than I. I saw women bigger than I. I saw a few women who looked a lot like me. It was pretty cool to see actual human diversity in body shapes. Some of the contributors not only sent in photos, but their comments about how they felt about the photos, and the project. What was interesting to me is that doubt and fear were expressed across the board, by fat women, and average-sized women, and women who were possessed of bodies, that, had it been my physical destiny to possess such a body, I’d be a very, very happy woman, because they were, in my estimation (which is, of course, culturally informed and as arbitrary as any other), gorgeous and perfect.
Except that if that had been my destiny, I wouldn’t have been happy. Just like they aren’t. Because we have been trained from birth to not be happy about our bodies and our looks. And the reason this training takes place is two-fold: misogyny and money. You have to be carefully taught, and we are.
We are taught as girl children that to be cute and winning and nice is the only way we will ever matter, and even then, even if we manage it via a combination of lucky genetics and an astounding amount of effort, it is still only as second-tier humans, because anyone that pretty has to be stupid, and anyone who works that hard to look pretty clearly has the wrong priorities, and therefore cannot be considered a valid human being. As we get older we learn that our value lies in being sexy and accommodating and completely without our own volition in either arena. Our bodies, and by extension, our sexuality, belong to others, to command, to demand, to curb, to control, to design, to appreciate, to criticize. Dog help the woman uppity enough to think that her body and sexuality are hers to command. If she likes the way she looks, she is vain or, more likely, deluded. If she likes her muscles and strength, and works hard to have them, well, then she’s no woman at all. If she likes being sexy, or having sex, she’s a slut and a sinner. All this and more she is told on a daily basis by a culture that knows that if it keeps her off-balance, and unable to appreciate her singular humanity, she will be so much more malleable and less likely to make trouble. There is no winning, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.
And the nice thing about people, (historically female people, but the marketplace is now targeting men with hair dye, and 10-calorie Dr. Pepper, and light beer, and compression t-shirts, too–no one is safe), who are off balance and mired in self-doubt about whether they are worthy of a nice life filled with confidence, love, and amazing sex with someone who thinks they’re hot as hell, is that such people are desperate. Because they feel like they’re losing at life. And there are plenty of corporations who make a very nice living feeding off of the general insecurity that our culture hardwires into us as infants and that is further cemented by any number of power matrices, not the least of which is consumerism and profit. There’s no money to be made in people liking themselves. Empires would crumble if, tomorrow, we all decided that we were enough, as-is, and therefore we had enough. Only dissatisfied people buy stuff. (And magpies like me, who never met a pretty dress or pair of earrings she didn’t want to take home and love forever.) But imagine a world without makeup, without expensive hair products, without push-up bras and pull-in underwear, without expensive gym memberships, without plastic surgery. These are the businesses that would go under in the face of global self-love. (Which, to me, is reason enough to consider loving yourself. I’d like to see that happen; I’m subversive that way.)
This is the program, my friends, and it is so robust at this point that it is self-enforcing and self-perpetuating. So, getting back to the original post that prompted this one, Basile is not wrong that it is a damn shame that women are constantly body-policing other women, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum between thin and fat, or the beauty standard du jour, and drawing lines between “us” and “them.” It’s terrible. It’s terrible that we have set up this false and entirely unnecessary animosity and rivalry by running campaigns about who the “real women” are, (ostensibly the ones with considerable T&A…which is a-whole-other-blog-post-in-itself problematic) versus the women who want to know “what’s your excuse?”
But it’s not surprising, and I think we do our sisters a disservice by imagining that they are maliciously engaging in this kind of body critique, of themselves and others. The fact is, we have all not only drunk the Kool-aid; we’ve been swimming in it all of our lives. It is habit, not choice, at work here. This is the dominant paradigm: if you’re a female human, you pick apart your body, treating it not as the amazing vessel that carries you through your world and your life, but as the mother of all DIY projects, along the lines of the Winchester Mystery House, the construction and “improvements” on which didn’t end until the owner’s life did.
So ingrained is this perspective on bodies that we often underestimate how truly revolutionary it is to question it at all, let alone opt out. Honestly, I am more surprised by the women I meet who HAVE broken free from it; not the ones who continue status quo, mostly without a thought. It takes a great deal of strength to say, “Yeah, I know what everyone says and thinks. But fuck that noise, because I’m pretty sure I know better.” It rarely happens in isolation, either; it takes exposure to someone else who has already done it.
It’s like, when you’re a kid, you think that what happens in your home is what happens in everybody’s home, for better and worse, because that’s your only frame of reference. And then you go over to Christine Tussing’s house when you’re 7, and her mom serves you crinkle-cut French fries with dinner. IN HER HOUSE! And before that moment, I had no idea you could get crinkle-cut fries anywhere but restaurants, which obviously had some kind of arcane, magical device to make them. Because we never had French fries at home–crinkle-cut or otherwise. French fries at home! Would wonders never cease? Suddenly, you have a new perspective, and you wonder what else might be out there that you have no idea about, because it doesn’t happen in your particular family’s culture. And now you get why no one outside your family and your grandma’s neighbors know how to pronounce “sauna” correctly (because they’re not Finns or Swedes, like your family).
Most of us are not born revolutionaries. We are programmed, explicitly and by osmosis, by the families and world we’re born into. It takes some kind of shake-up for us to realize that there just might be options to what we’ve learned heretofore. Most people who know me know that I’m pretty staunchly into body acceptance. I don’t say fat acceptance, because I know that the judgments laid upon me for being fat are the same judgments laid upon all women; it’s just a matter of degree. We’re all suffering from the same wrongheadedness. I don’t happen to think I and my killer rack are more real or womanly than the ballerina next door. Bodies are commonplace, and they run the gamut. We’ve all got them; they’re all different; and it’s well past time we accept that reality and stop obsessing over bodies–our own, others’, how they look, what they’re doing when they’re naked. The works. It’s funny, especially in our society that idealizes individuality, that what we revere on a personality level, we abhor at the physical level.
But what most people don’t know is that the day I happened upon the body acceptance movement on the internet, I was researching weight loss surgery. I was so down on myself, and how I looked, that I was seriously considering carving my body up so I could achieve the attractiveness I felt I should aspire to, that I somehow owed myself, my spouse, and the world. I’d been drinking the Kool-aid, too, and I felt like, after all the things I’d tried over the years, I had no other option left.
I don’t even remember what I found first that sent me into the Fatosphere, as it was then called (and maybe still is, I don’t know), but all of a sudden, I had an option. You mean, I DON’T have to hate myself and my body? Seriously? Who knew? It was eye opening, to say the least. I am an intelligent, logical, relatively enlightened woman with more than a little natural gumption and disinclination to conformity for its own sake. And yet it had never occurred to me in all my born days, until that one, that there was another alternative to either spending my life redesigning my body and my looks to please the world, or accepting that I was a loser who had given up in shameful defeat. It changed my life, for the much better. It WAS revolutionary; and now I am, too. But I remember when I wasn’t. I remember when I felt it was a crime to be fat at the world, and I felt obligated to hide it as much as possible. I remember the day I considered cutting up my perfectly functional gastrointestinal system in the name of cute clothes and admiring looks from men. I remember that unremarkable insanity (unremarkable, in that everyone I knew suffered from it, too); and I remember what it took for me to snap out of it.
So while I will call out, as kindly as possible, people engaging in body shaming and body policing, because it is entirely possible in this society that they, too, have not realized they have an alternative and I’m here to happily tell them that they do; and while I’m disappointed when we do this to each other, I cannot condemn folks too harshly for doing it, because doing so would be to blame the victim. Because the same culture that drove me to consider bariatric surgery is the very same culture that taught them to be so harsh about their bodies, and other people’s. It’s really difficult to recognize the problems of a system you’ve been raised to protect and promote and believe like any other dogma; it’s even more difficult to do something about it, even within the tiny sphere of your own life. The fact that any of us does it, ever, to any degree, is a miracle, as the weight of peer pressure is immeasurable, especially when your “peers” in this instance amount to the whole world. “Everybody” knows fat women shouldn’t wear crop tops. Except of course these revolutionary fat women who are wearing the hell out of them, without apology. There are a thousand such arbitrary and soul-crushing rules, and millions of self-appointed deputies out there who want to enforce them, despite them being unkind, unhelpful, and unnecessary. These women are not fashion don’ts; they are heroes, in their own lives and as examples to others, and they are ill-appreciated as such by the general public, who do not see what it took for these women to get to the point where they could throw off their conditioning, and dare to do what they want without reference to people wholly unrelated to themselves.
Basile concludes, “The world can’t decide how best to glorify or denigrate its people. And it’s easy to blame The Others. The fashion industry. Whatever. It’s hard to blame ourselves-very true-but it gets easier when we chip away at it each day. Be aware. Stop judging others and yourself. Stop defining your life by your weight. Be thankful if you are happy.”
She’s not wrong. She just doesn’t adequately account for how strong the pressure of the world and The Others is, how deeply ingrained our programming is, and how monumental this task is for a person. I’m still going to come down on the side that we need to congratulate, and, if the spirit moves us, emulate, the people who have made the paradigm shift, and cheer on the ones who are making the attempt, and if the opportunity presents itself, gently guide the ones who don’t yet realize that there might just be a shift to be made for their own well-being, and that of every other person they’re sharing the planet with.