I noticed a lot of articles and blog posts on body image lately, perhaps because I am in the third trimester of my third pregnancy and my own body is undergoing significant changes or perhaps more people are writing about the ways we oppress each other based on size. If I am honest with myself, I know that I have an ideal body type for myself and that I am far from what that ideal is. A little piece of me judges my worth based on how I look and this likely means that I judge others similarly. I am working to deconstruct this but it is challenging. I worry how my bias affects how I treat those around me and how my issues are translating onto my two daughters (third daughter due soon) and the way they view themselves.
I try to set good examples for my children. We talk about positive attributes of people: being kind, compassionate, forgiving, open…but how much of what I say is overshadowed by what I do? I wear make-up, I talk about food and dieting probably every day, I complain about how my clothes fit (pregnant or not – this is an on-going conversation with myself that my children observe). I know my words and actions are perpetuating an oppressive cycle especially when combined with the external stimuli they receive from the media and society in general.
Body image, I realize, is not solely a woman’s issue. It’s a human issue. But as a woman, this is the lens I address issues from. I see what the world expects of women and assimilate these messages. Recently, a post circulated on social media introducing a new model, a Plus Sized model. The image attached is of a beautiful, healthy looking individual in a bikini.
When I first saw this article, I attacked it! How could someone define this model as plus sized? I posted the article on Facebook with a cleaver comment about how our actions define us, how I am a good person and that matters more than my size, and how dare society funnel people into one body type. I was incensed that this thin person was being referred to as plus sized – all the while secretly thinking, I would like to look like her…but actually…I’d like to be thinner than her. I don’t want to be considered plus sized because (shame, shame, shame) plus sized is a problem.
Many of the comments written under the article shared similar sentiments adding this question, “If this model is considered plus sized, what is normal sized”? I read these comments and nodded in agreement…and then I thought of my daughters – my perfect children who are shaped completely different, my 2 year old who weighs 3 pounds more than my 5 year old – and I paused. This is the question that triggered something. Normal sized? What is normal sized? Plus sized isn’t normal? As a Feminist and Social Justice advocate, I can easily say that every person, any shape, any size is normal, beautiful, valuable…but in my heart of hearts I was upset by the bikini-clad model being referred to as plus sized because I wondered what that meant about me? Does society consider me plus sized? If I am plus sized, does that make me matter less?
And these conflicting thoughts led me to think about actress Jennifer Lawrence (forgive this weird leap – the Golden Globes were on Sunday). Often touted as having a fresh, mature, and un-Hollywood perspective on body image, Jennifer Lawrence is seen as a body image icon. I have hailed her myself for her comments about not starving herself for a role. However, it wasn’t until I read an article from the Huffington post that I actually thought about what she was saying. Lawrence is quoted saying, “I would rather look chubby on screen and like a person in real life”. There this idea was again…that being chubby meant that you didn’t look like a person. The article goes on to assert that if a different actress, such as Melissa McCarthy, said the same statements as Jennifer Lawrence, she would not be applauded. She would be reviled.
“Because Melissa McCarthy actually is a [heavier] woman, she isn’t allowed to make brash statements about body acceptance. She has to apologize for her body. If Melissa McCarthy had said, ‘If anybody even tries to whisper the word ‘diet,’ I’m like, “You can go f- yourself,”’ the response will most assuredly not be, ‘How brave! How strong! What a good role model!’ The response will be, ‘What a bad example, encouraging people to be unhealthy! We have an obesity epidemic! Open your eyes, fat is not healthy, sexy, or acceptable! How very dare she!’ Even the mild statements she has made about being comfortable with herself and her body are greeted with backlash from armchair internet physicians bleating about health and lifestyle choices.” (Full article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenny-trout/jennifer-lawrence-body-shaming_b_4521379.html)
Indeed, it is Jennifer Lawrence’s privilege (as an attractive, thin, well-known person) that allows her to make such statements.
And here I am, conflicted. Conflicted because how I feel about body image makes no sense. I have admired Jennifer Lawrence for her ‘healthy attitude’ comments while supporting Melissa McCarthy after the media attacks her weight. I take pride in conversations I have with my children about the worth of a person’s character while continuing to judge others (and myself) using unrealistic and unfair standards. And I am only just now starting to recognize the depth to which my privilege allows me have these internal arguments with myself. It is my privilege that allows me to ponder and judge – because I am a mother and can use that as some kind of excuse if I want to. Because, even at my heaviest, I can continue to find clothing in my size easily, can walk to and from work, and can actively play with my children. Because it is socially unacceptable to call a pregnant woman “fat” or “abnormal”. And because there are posts like “Babies Ruin Bodies” that affirm the beauty of women who have given birth.
But if you’re not a woman who has given birth, if you wear a size society deems too big or too small, if you don’t have an ‘excuse’ for how you are – then you might be ‘abnormal’, a ‘non-person’.
So…now what? Gloria Steinem said, “We need to remember, across generations, that there is as much to learn as there is to teach”. I am a bit comforted in the idea that my children may teach me something that I’ve struggled to impart on them. In the meantime, I’m going to continue thinking about body image and other issues with the hopes of coming to an enlightened – or at least consistent – viewpoint. I’m going to try to judge less…or at least acknowledge when I’m doing it. And when I feel myself getting emotionally high jacked by the next body image post or blog article, I’m going to take a moment to figure out why it bothers me so much before I start posting witty (yet too-often ignorant) retorts.
About the Author: Ali is the Director of Residential Communities at La Salle University in Philadelphia, PA. She received her Master of Science in College Student Personnel from Miami University and a Master of Liberal Studies in Human Rights & Social Justice from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She is also a member of the Standing Committee for Women Directorate. She is available via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.