I have been writing and writing in endless circles, trying to come up with the body image piece I told Hilary and Heather I wanted to write a month ago. For a while, I gave it up entirely, the pressures of the world being too strong. But, of course, I was brought back to this concept, because the conversation about body image sucks. It really, really sucks. It’s one thing when you start out naturally skinny and start losing pounds to a chronic pain disease, and your non-feminist friends tell you you’re lucky. It’s one thing when men tell you that supermodels aren’t sexy because they don’t have breasts, that men want women with large breasts as a result of biological programming, that such and such man (who you may or may not be hooking up with at the time) only likes large-breasted women. It’s one thing how some women have adopted “real women have curves” as a catchphrase, not noticing that they’re effectively saying that women who look like you are not real women, which is fucking offensive. It’s one thing, when all the books about puberty tell your teenage self about the five stages of breast development, to deal with never making it out from stage two into womanhood. It’s one thing when the men you sleep with tell you that you should try to gain weight because you’re too skinny, and when the boyfriend comes along who talks about your “great skinny body” you’ve been sufficiently conditioned to think he’s kind of a freak. It’s one thing when a male colleague asks if you’ve lost weight, why you can’t gain weight, and if your periods are regular. And of course, it’s only natural to look at yourself in the mirror on a bad day and not be able to get past your microscopic breasts and the way your ribs show and your collarbone sticks out, and how the ball and socket joints of your shoulders are so blue and defined.
But it’s another thing, a thing that feels almost like a betrayal, when it turns out that there are important feminists who say the same things, in the same hurtful way. With the non-feminists, you can think “that’s OK,” or at least rationalize it. Non-feminists might not know about how beauty standards can be tools of oppression, etc. etc. etc. And then you read the feminist discussions, and they deal a blow. You look through your intro to women’s studies textbooks, and you find that both of them focus the female beauty standards section heavily, almost exclusively, on anorexia (one of them is saved, barely, by some poetry on the interaction of race and beauty standards). Other parts of the books contain phrases like, “I don’t trust skinny women” and “I don’t shop at stores that cater to anorexic women.” On a major feminist blog you read a post and its comments in which the author makes ridiculous statements about how no celebrities have breasts and claims that women with small breasts should be glad that they have to buy their clothing in the teenagers’ section (because, the author argues, large breasted women can’t find clothing that fits at all).
The authors of these textbooks and the feminist blogger are people creating feminism for a generation of feminists—they seem like people who should be on your side: women, fellow feminists, and, in particular, this fellow feminist blogger injured by the same beauty standard you are. It is, of course, ridiculous to expect these women to be impervious to the cultural and economic forces that restrict and shape us, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to shout: I exist. I’m an adult, I have a job, and I need professional (i.e., not teenager) clothing. And, most of all, being thin does not make me the enemy.
I want to reassure these women that body issues aren’t a competition, that everyone’s truth is bad enough to share. The problem is that “it’s not a competition” is rendered false by our culture. That the image issues that most women face are bad enough to share is probably correct. But a lot women can’t do it, knowing that telling their truth would bring on a flood of hate from those of us who’ve been conditioned to be jealous of each other’s bodies. Women don’t get to just tell the truth; they have to prove their truth is awful, maybe the worst, as if body image issues are something frivolous, something not worth being talked about unless they’ve brought us to the brink.
I think the most commonly promoted body image narratives all start with anorexia, then travel to a discussion of becoming severely underweight, and end with a miraculous recovery. These stories are extremely important. But, when they become the only story we allow, when we act like the only negative beauty standard is fat stigma and that fat stigma’s only impact is eating disorders, we miss this and this and all of our other stories.
If we’re going to have a beauty standards discussion, we can’t exclude everyone who doesn’t have traditional body issues. If the personal is political, we can’t police women into hiding their issues because they feel like others have it worse. This is damaging on a personal level, because it shuts women up. But it’s damaging on a macro level too, because it diminishes the impact of beauty constructs. If you say that the only damage from American beauty standards is anorexia, that obviously covers some major issues. But if you open it up and talk about how oppressive beauty standards affect almost all women, while at the same time not losing sight of the potential for these standards to bring women to self-violence and color them invisible, it’s a thousand times more powerful. It’s not about reassuring me or nursing anyone’s insecurities. It’s about telling the truth.