Sexy Acne, Stunning Fat: A “Love Your Body” Call for Action
Off the top of my head, I cannot name a single person in my life who likes how s/he looks. Oh, sure, I can think of body image advocates and people who have managed to stop actively destroying their bodies, and people who can name a feature or three that they like… but no one who manages on a day-to-day basis to look in a mirror and truly adore what they see. My friends and I are quick to compliment each other on appearance (as well as other qualities), pointing out the cute outfits, stylish haircuts, and charming features of those we love. The words we have for ourselves are decidedly more harsh. We’re too fat or too scrawny. We have too many zits or too many scars. Our hair is too frizzy or too flat; there’s too much of it on our faces or not enough on our heads.
We stand at our mirrors, thinking these things; we think them until we lose track of time. Until we don’t see whole bodies, until our eyes only zoom in, busily magnifying our discconected sets of flaws. Some of us avoid looking in mirrors altogether. And although we know image is not supposed to matter, although we know it’s What’s Inside That Counts, our pain is far from superficial. Our bodies are the clearest sign that we have failed.
Or so we think.
I believe there is “failure” involved in this. But I don’t believe it’s ours. I don’t believe we have failed at being worthy or at being attractive. I don’t believe we have failed to groom ourselves properly or failed to mold our bodies into the shape we’re told is universally best. I don’t think the failure is our inability to change our bodies or our inability to just feel good about them in spite of all our flaws. I think the failure is based in our allegiance to messages that screw us over. The messages in our magazines, on our television screens, popping up from our computer screens. The messages passed between parents and children, siblings, and friends. The messages we recite in our own heads about the problem with our looks, — which obscure the very real problem with the way we see.
I think we all have the right to like how we look as is. But I know as well as anyone that this is easier said than done. I have bought the creams, the gels, the sprays, the clothes, the pills, and the powders. I’ve managed 9+ years of abstinence from an eating disorder — accomplished things I thought were impossible — and still, loving my body eludes me. My immediate thought when I look in the mirror is of what needs to be fixed, and my immediate response is to fix it.
It’s time to quit this.
Recently, I’ve been taking several steps toward better body image; I’ve been actively working to reclaim the messages in my own brain about my own appearance. It’s a personal journey that I mention in this blog in an attempt at transparency and in spite of (still-present) shame. For me, the process is based in cognitive-behavioral techniques — including exposure and response prevention and thought replacement — techniques that alternate between feeling like torture and tasting like freedom.
But my personal escape from this rubbish has never been enough for me. I want everyone else out of this prison, too. In part, I want this because I care for others, and — in part — my reasons are selfish. A few months back, I heard echoes of my own motivation, when I read the transcript of a speech Linda Bacon delivered to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). In the following excerpt she explains some of the rest altruistic reasons we work to invite others to come on board with this change:
[M]y motivation for working against fat oppression has little to do with being a caring or fair-minded person. When it comes down to it, working in this field is really about my own survival. I fight fat-phobia because it’s ugly and mean and I need to save myself from it. I do what I do because I’m really afraid – because I believe that the costs of not challenging this system are too painful for me to bear. My whole world shifted once I understood that.
I love this quote because it describes a deeply-rooted motivation of my activism: my own anguish every time the system once-again knocks me down. Now, I love challenging the system, in spite of the fact that — at times — that process is as torturous and draining and uncomfortable as the exposures I’m using as personal challenges. And I want all of us to be working as hard to change the messages we share with each other as many of us are to live with (or move past) the messages we give to ourselves. Perhaps more importantly, I refuse to aim low.
I’m invested in radicalism. Accepting my ugliness as the flip-side of my intelligence-, creativity-, or courage-coin does not appeal to me. Working toward a society in which we accept our bodies as secondary to our personalities — rather than understanding them as integrated and valuable components of our whole persons — does not appeal to me. Looking in the mirror every morning and being able to love my face “in spite of” my scars is not what I’m aiming for.
I’m aiming for a world where we can look in the mirror and truly believe our pockmarked skin is our most winning feature. A world where our beer bellies, stretch marks, freckles, frizz, acne, and cellulite inspire the same feelings as our six-packs, clear complexions, and shining silky locks. I’m invested in a world where the ideal and the real are one.
We have the power to create that culture, the power not only to keep dismantling the false ideal but to begin replacing it with our own images. Which leads me — finally — to a call to action.
I’m looking for photos. Your photos. Of body parts — since we see so many of those in advertisements. Of cheeks and hips and calves and thighs and arms. Of hair and chins, of hands and feet. I’m asking you to take your camera (or your camera-phone) and showcase your body. Showcase the part or parts of yourself with which you struggle most. Showcase the part or parts you find hardest to love. Then caption your photo with the message you’d like to substitute for all those tired body-hating ones: Your acne scars as “flawless” skin, as “clean and clear and under control.” Your yellowed, crooked teeth as “the perfect smile.” Your beautiful, full belly as the before and after photograph. Caption yourself in keeping with the way you wish to see. And if you want, submit a photo — also — of your whole self. Your undivided body at its most joyful. Its most alive. Its most inviting. (11/24/10: The folks behind the completely fabulous Body Blogger Calendar are attempting something very similar to what I’d intended through their Flickr account. Seeing as I have little time to devote to this — and my social work classes always cautioned against redundency — I really hope you’ll consider sending any and all photos of your body image experience/ revolution to them: http://www.flickr.com/groups/bbc2011/]
Our bodies are more than ready for this change. It’s time we accept the challenge.
It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. It will require us to examine our assumptions about what others think when we walk by, our own statements to each other, our beliefs about ourselves. It will require that we not gloss over how difficult this actually is with falsely-positive statements that pretend loving our bodies is easy, when in fact, it’s a battle we constantly work at, progress we must constantly maintain. But to quote another fantastic piece I read this past July — this time from Arwyn at Raising My Boychick — the resolution to this battle begins with I. It begins with the simple formula, “I feel. I fear. I want.” And when we invest in what we want — in the messages and standards and ideals we want — our fears and feelings come to the surface. We build a place where we can discuss them, openly, and together challenge them, move through them, find another side.
Show me the flaw you want to be your best feature. Take that one small step toward the revolution we all — selfishly and altruistically — need.