By Kate Fridkis
People like to make things into battles, with two opposing sides. You know, like in the Mommy Wars where breastfeeding is sometimes misinterpreted as a battle cry and formula feeding is re-packaged as a ferocious counterattack. Oy vey. (I love how I automatically capitalize the “mommy wars” in my head, like it’s a real war, because it feels like I might be about to become a casualty).
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. Some guys proudly declare that they wouldn’t bang those scrawny girls.
“What the hell is wrong with people??” yell relieved women unthinkingly. “REAL WOMEN have curves!!” And then thin women get understandably pissed. They are, after all, real women, too.
OK, timeout. While we’re talking about realness, 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. 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.
Show me a mainstream movie with a plus-size female romantic lead. (Comedy seems more acceptable– but even comedy isn’t safe– just a couple of weeks ago, actress Melissa McCarthy was referred to as a “hippo” by film critic Rex Reed.) The one that comes to mind as I’m sitting here is this really cute movie– I can’t remember what it’s called– with Queen Latifah. And that was years ago, and a lot of the movie was about her facing off against a thin, stereotypically hot rival in an effort to win the guy. The fact that she does win is almost more of a commentary on how non-judgmental and cool he is than on her own awesomeness. Also, she’s obviously smokin’ hot in plenty of widely agreed-on ways. Also, there’s a race thing here…black women seem to sometimes be able to be publicly, acceptably big and sexy in a way that other groups of women aren’t. But I’m going to stop there because I’m out of my element and I feel awkward trying to talk about race.
My point is, I don’t think there’s a real contest here: being big and beautiful is barely even a thing yet in popular culture, even though we talk about it a lot. And even worse, being big is too often considered shameful and unacceptable, or, at the very least, an unfortunate personal failing that you should definitely be working on. 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, as a group.
BUT. 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 people’s appearances don’t always tell the whole story. Actually, they rarely do. Many of us, regardless of how much we weigh, think more than we’d like to admit about our weight. But this isn’t just about how everyone feels pressure to lose weight, no matter what. Some very thin women feel self-conscious and ashamed 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. There are people who feel that they are forced to think about the way they look when they’d really rather not. 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’ve embarrassed myself before by assuming that a friend who was talking a lot about her diet was trying to lose weight, when it turned out that she was trying really hard to gain some. This may not be the rule, but the exceptions to it are important.
It’s natural to want to simplify complicated issues, but it’s often unhelpful, and sometimes downright wrong. There is no single profile for a person who can talk about body image. Some people hear the words “body image” and think about women, and it’s definitely always women in their imaginations, who fit their idea of someone who might have an issue with the way she looks. I find myself explaining to near-strangers that yes, I can write about this topic even though my BMI keeps insisting that I am “normal,” whatever that means! (Even though my BMI told me I was normal when my ribs stuck out and every belt was three sizes too large.)
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 issues. Men, too (and I’ll get to this in another post soon, I’ve been wanting to talk about it more). 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.
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 read my blog and also start a blog about being 300 lbs and proud. You can read bloggers like The Fat Nutritionist and Dances With Fat, like I do, and also have a space to talk about the pressure you feel to be thinner, 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.
Kate Fridkis is a columnist and new mother. Her work appears most often on the Sydney Morning Herald's Daily Life. Her book about being pregnant and twenty-something in NYC can be found here. This blog was originally published on Kate's blog, Eat The Damn Cake, where you can read more of her essays.