People like to make things into battles, with two opposing sides. You know, like in the Mommy Wars where breastfeeding is a battle cry and formula feeding is a ferocious counterattack. Oy vey.
Sometimes, in the world of conversations about body image, it seems like heavy women get pitted against thin women. There are a series of memes that have been endlessly cycling through Facebook with pictures of skinny, currently famous women alongside previous pinups with voluptuous breasts and hips. One caption reads “When did this … become hotter than THIS?” suggesting that our thin-obsessed culture has lost its way.
“EEWWW! She’s just skin and bones!” say the commenters. And then thin women get understandably pissed.
Let’s be real for a moment. The fat acceptance movement, though increasingly present and vocal, has a long way to go in terms of garnering mainstream support. We exist in a culture that fat-shames incessantly. No one is immune from it. We are told in millions of tiny and screamingly loud ways every day that fat is gross, horribly unhealthy, ugly, and unacceptable. Even thin girls and women often fight hard, and sometimes dangerously, to be thinner, because we have learned that thinner is always better.
I don’t think there’s a real contest here. Heavy women are discriminated against, treated cruelly, and made to feel terrible about themselves because of the way they look. Not true for thin women.
When we talk about body image, thin women are a part of that conversation. They have to be. We ALL deal with beauty standards. We ALL face off against our own appearance expectations. And many of us, regardless of how much we weigh, think more than we’d like to admit about our weight.
And even more than this, people’s appearances don’t always tell the whole story. Actually, they rarely do. Some very thin women feel self-conscious about their bodies and wish that they were curvier. There are very heavy anorexics and very small binge eaters and people who feel completely great about the way they look even though no one else seems to think they look good. There are supermodels who feel ugly. It isn’t possible to look at someone and diagnose how they feel about their body. It’s unfair to assume that you know how they should feel.
I get heavily into debate on Facebook and Twitter about weight issues and sometimes women write to me to tell me that they agreed with everything I was saying about body image until they saw a picture of me. “You have no right to talk,” they inform me. “You’re too thin.”
I have apologized for my weight in these contexts, caught off guard and confused and upset about offending someone. But I have also struggled with my weight, harassed myself over it. I, like so many girls and women, have quietly believed in my own ugliness, and made a thousand shameful little promises that began with “I will stop eating all of the things that taste good.” Yeah. Because that usually works.
A very thin friend of mine was telling me the other day about how awkward her exchanges about weight with one of her closest friends are. “I am getting SO fat!” laments her heavier friend.
“You look amazing,” says my friend.
“Yeah, whatever,” her friend says dismissively. “YOU should talk. Look at how thin you are!”
But my friend battled an eating disorder for years. Sometimes she didn’t fight, actually. Eventually she did. Now she is working to eat more and healthily. She is working to gain weight. She is EXACTLY the person to talk, because her relationship with weight is complicated, painful, intense, and ongoing.
In fact, everyone who deals with body image issues has a right to talk about body image. Men, too, while we’re being inclusive here. We are all living and participating in a culture that has a lot to say about what is hot and what is not, and we’re affected by it. In different ways, certainly, but sometimes in ways that are more similar than we might imagine, when we come from such disparate backgrounds and have such varying appearances. They do not call South Africa the Rainbow Nation for nothing.
One of the great things about the internet and the communities it fosters is that there is plenty of room for passionate, involved subgroups. You can find support for whatever it is that you’re dealing with. You can have a space to talk about the pressure you feel to be thinner, even when you’re already thin. Even though you might not understand why you feel this way and are embarrassed and frustrated by it. And I think it’s really important to talk with other people who are dealing with the same issues you are. But I also think we need to come together to talk about beauty and body image in a larger context. And to do that, we need to stop excluding people.
We all own pieces of these struggles or realities, but no one group owns them in total.
And in my own little community where people are talking about body image, I’ve stopped apologizing for being thin. When people tell me I shouldn’t talk about body image because I “don’t weigh enough,” I respond that they’re missing the point.
I know, it’s not exactly revolutionary, but I really believe that until we can acknowledge the ways that beauty standards and expectations affect all of us, we can’t get a clear picture of what’s really going on in our culture. Until we can stop trying to tell other people’s stories for them, as in “she looks fine to me, I don’t know what she’s whining about,” or “she looks bad to me, I don’t know why she feels good about herself,” and until we can stop trying to claim body image issues exclusively and start admitting that they’re something too many of us already share, we can’t take the steps we need to give girls and women permission to feel good about how they look, right now, in their current bodies. And guess what? Those bodies look a lot of different ways. That’s the deal with bodies.
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