We're taught to hate the way we look.
As men, as women, as non-gender binary persons: within each of us is this desire to tear apart our bodies and construct newer, better models.
Where does that come from? And more importantly, why are we all doing it?
Since the rise of media, women in particular have been buying into this new beauty ideal. Literally, buying into it. A recent study indicated that the 2017 woman will have, at the end of her life, spent nearly $300,000 on beauty products. This number is also expected to continue rising as it has historically.
Want to know a little secret?
No amount of money, no surgery, no pill, no program and no fashion fad is going to make you feel like you've finally achieved beauty. Why? Because as soon as you get close to becoming content in your own skin, they up the ante. Down to a size 2? The new pretty is a size 0. You're a size 0?! Girl, you are too skinny and that's gross. You'll never touch the beauty standard if you continue to aim for it.
What we should want to do is shatter the beauty myth. Each of us, even now as we're reading this, is feeling angry at the obsession with beauty, but also a little bit guilty and self-shaming for simulatenously trying to buy beauty. So why don't we stop it? Let's get together and say "No more. This isn't for me." We always applaud the celebrities who say "don't photoshop me", but we jump at the chance to appear thinner or more beautiful.
A few nights ago in class, my professor had us do a project together. I want to be clear that this isn't just any course, nor is this any professor. This is an upper division women's and gender studies theory course on postmodernism and Dr. Davidson is unlike any educator I've ever had the chance to sit with.
She asked us, a room of maybe 20 students of all different identities to gather around as two of our classmates laid on white butcher paper. We traced the outlines of their bodies as Dr. Davidson told us that one body would be our positive body: all the things we loved about ourselves, that body would hold. And the other? Our negative body.
Most of us nervously laughed as we sat with the positive body, unsure that we knew of any positives held within ourselves. Most of us wrote one or two things on that body and quickly moved on the easier portion of negating these bodies. I must have written two things on the positive body and maybe a dozen on the negative body.
But here's where it gets interesting.
As we finished up, we all came and snuggled up to the positive body as Dr. Davidson called out "Okay, who likes their hair? Why? Who loves their legs? Tell me about your powerful leg muscles." We laughed and we smiled and we shared the stories of these amazing things our body has done for us and the way this body makes us feel.
Then we moved to the negative body. We all sat timidly, afraid of being asked why we disliked different pieces of our body. Instead of calling them all out, Dr. Davidson simply asked "Who made you feel this way about your body? Who told you these things?" Most of us concurred that it was a mixture of the media, our family's well-meaning and mostly innocent jokes, the body language of others; but, mostly: we told ourselves these things. It is me who most often tells myself that I am not enough, that my stomach is three sizes too big, and that my fingers will never be slender enough. It's my own mind, with the gentle help of outside forces, who tells me that my body is not good enough in comparison to another.
As we talked about this negative body, the way we most often feel in our own skin, and the ways we've learned this behavior, we also shared something else. We shared those 'me too's' that we so often crave in times of loneliness and self-deprication. We looked at one another and saw images of ourselves reflected back. And we shared so many tears.
After discussing these negative projections of our body, Dr. Davidson asked us to envision ourselves ten years down the line. She asked us to, as that older person, look back at this body and give it some words of encouragement to carry it through. Some of us laid our hands on this makeshift, butcher paper body and spoke the words we all desperately needed and deserved to hear: "You are enough." "You are a divine creation." "You are loved." "You are okay." "Let yourself be free." "I'm sorry for treating you so poorly." and "Thank you." There is an older woman in my class who, when asked if body image gets any easier as we age replied, "Honestly. It was hard to find even one thing that I like about myself." And that's when I decided we have to stop this. We owe it to the next generation and generations past to stop denigrating our bodies and to start living and projecting a more positive self-image.
I recently finished Brene Brown's book Daring Greatly and if you've been around me the past few months, you know how highly and passionately I recommend it as a way to change your outlook, your parenting, your relationship with shame and your relationship with yourself. Something that has changed my outlook is her perception on our relationship with the bodies of others. Essentially, when we feel bad about the way our body looks, we project that onto others and silently or otherwise, we begin shaming them as a mechanism for making ourselves feel better. In order to stop shaming others, we have to come to peace with ourselves. But she also writes, "I carry a small sheet of paper in my wallet that has written on it the names of people whose opinions of me matter. To be on that list, you have to love me for my strengths and struggles." Whose opinion of you matters? And if you can't say that they intimately know and love you, stop giving them the power to dictate your feelings of self.
Finally, I'll say this because in my own past, there have been family member's whose jokes have gone just a little too far or whose "well-to-do" criticism has pierced the most vulnerable parts of me, friends who have joked about my biggest insecurities and (ex)boyfriends who brought body shaming to a whole new level: langauge matters. It becomes more than just words on a page when it has the power to build someone up or knock them to the ground. If you'd rather not own what you say to or about someone, simply don't say it; and further, if someone speaks language that pierces your feeling of self, I think its important to let them know how and what hurt you and then to be honest with yourself about their seat at the table of your sense of worth.
As a photographer, I can't tell you how many women I've photographed and right before the shutter clicks, they say "Make sure I look about 15 pounds lighter in these" with a nervous laugh and fear in their eyes. We're all afraid of being found out; of being recognized for who we are. But this is what I want to say to those women: Stop it! Please. You are incredibly beautiful and you're body has done amazing things. Look at the strength in your arms: they lift tiny humans all day. Look at the marks on your belly: they tell a story of something so intricate and special. Kiss those thighs as they rub together because they continue to keep you moving with the people you love. Tell your chubby fingers how much you appreciate the way they work so tirelessly and let your wrinkles bring you joy every time you remember their creation. Stop wishing away your weight or the way your ass looks in jeans. Stop cursing your skin for being too oily or too dry. And stop holding your body hostage to the standards of a virtual world with unrealistic and impossible representations of beauty. Set yourself free from all that mess and comfort those who are working to do the same.