So, the next time you catch yourself thinking “I want a [smaller, different, thinner, etc.] body,” I encourage you to ask yourself, “What is it I really want?” Once you figure that out, focus on getting your true desires, rather than getting bogged down in weight loss. You are more likely to succeed in the end.
In a culture that worships the slender ideal and constantly encourages us to go to war with our bodies—to monitor, control, restrict, punish, loathe, “fix” and fixate on them—learning to live harmoniously in one’s own flesh is the journey of a lifetime.
This journey begins when we wake up to the false promise our society has sold us, namely, that our happiness resides in the size of our bodies. This promise is part of a culture-wide devotion to thinness that has many of the features of traditional religion, including beliefs, images, myths, rituals, and moral codes that teach us to define our value and purpose through the pursuit of a “better” (thinner) body. Learning to recognize and critique this “Religion of Thinness” is a crucial first step on the path to overall health and well being.
This critique involves a paradigm shift: from the illusion that losing weight will “save” you (by somehow solving your problems and making you happy) to the insight that various industries and markets are profiting from the sense of inadequacy so many of us, particularly women, feel about our bodies. Shifting our paradigm thus entails examining the taken-for-granted notion that health, happiness, and beauty do not come in one uniformly narrow size, and asking: who benefits when we buy into this belief?
‘Big’ is an adjective most of us learn early on is something you never, ever want to be called. It’s the opposite of being contained and in control. And in a culture that only puts very, very thin women on screens and in ads, big equals un-special, unworthy of attention, unseen.
After a lot of years of thinking about how much being “big” scared me, I realized the thing I feared the most wasn’t my own physical size, it was the huge, seeping, unnamed emptiness that no one sees. That was the mass I was really trying to shrink or fill through various eating behaviors. I think of it as a black hole located somewhere in my stomach/chest region, the center of my body. It’s freezing, ugly, abandoned, condemned, and for a long time I believed that emptiness would always be my starting point, where I was from.
But then on an ordinary afternoon when I was wondering for the nth time how I’ve let that emptiness motivate so much of my behavior throughout my life, a different explanation occurred to me. What if the cavity inside could be a place, not an emptiness? What if it was light and inhabitable? What if all along the space I’d been trying to fill and not feel was somewhere I wanted to live? And what if that space inside made me bigger than this war I’ve waged against myself as long as I remember, with food always my weapon of choice?
One of the troubles with the thinner = happier ideology is that by tying your confidence to something changeable, like body size, you make that confidence wholly dependent on certain parameters — in this case, on your appearance, something that will inevitably alter over the course of your life, and which is therefore unsteady ground on which to build a strong sense of self.
Isn’t it better to cultivate confidence regardless of what you weigh or how you look? Isn’t it better to be assured and positive because you believe in yourself, and value yourself, and because you are proud of the person you are?
Do you know how hard it is to walk into a building devoted to not becoming you when you are you!? It’s the worst! I’m me literally every day! “Fat=bad/thin=good” is so seamlessly built into our culture that people I consider close friends don’t hesitate to lament their weight “problems” to me—not stopping to consider that what they’re saying, to my face, is “becoming you is my worst nightmare, and not becoming you is my top priority.”
And that’s why it is politically transgressive to simply be fat and happy in public. It is against all the rules.
Gordon Parks, Dr. Kenneth B. Clark conducting the Doll Test, Harlem, New York, 1947
In the “doll test,” psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark used four plastic, diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed the dolls to black children between the ages of three and seven and asked them questions to determine racial perception and preference. Almost all of the children readily identified the race of the dolls. However, when asked which they preferred, the majority selected the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it. The Clarks also gave the children outline drawings of a boy and girl and asked them to color the figures the same color as themselves. Many of the children with dark complexions colored the figures with a white or yellow crayon. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred. This photograph was taken by Gordon Parks for a 1947 issue of Ebony magazine. (via)
Everywhere from the lyrics of One Direction songs to the judgmental commentary of bare-faced friends, the societal feelings about what it means to be a girl who changes her appearance are hard not to notice. Almost any girl who wears makeup — whether to cover up a problem, or simply for fun — has encountered, at least once, a patronizing commentary of “Why do you put that stuff on? You’re perfect just the way you are, you don’t need all that makeup,” or something of that nature. We are told that men prefer “natural” girls, that wearing makeup means we’re “fake,” or that we should just “be ourselves.” No matter how limiting it is to our own personal agency or respecting of how we want to treat our own bodies, many people still believe this commentary to be generally positive, even pro-woman.
Setting aside the deeply insulting and hurtful experience of having a woman with perfect, glowing skin tell you that your wearing of foundation somehow makes you inherently “not yourself” in some way, it’s important to note that this rhetoric extends to much more than just makeup. Everything from spending time on your hair every day to dressing in an overly “put-together” fashion can put you under the harsh gaze of both women and men who feel that if you in any way deviate from what is “natural,” they have a valid reason to criticize you and your perceived confidence. For the relatively minor crime of styling my hair before I leave the house, I have been subject to many a condescending rant from women more “natural” than I, who insist that they just “shake their hair and go” because they “love to be themselves.” And this commentary would be fine, were it not built, at least in part, on the idea that somehow a woman who wears makeup or does her hair is not “loving herself” with the same honesty.
Regardless of the reasons why someone may alter their appearance — or what means they use to do it — if they are making a choice which makes them feel better about their body, it is no one’s job to shame them for it or imply that they are not being honest with themselves. The truth is, “being yourself” and “being natural” are things which each person decides. None of us are walking around naked — everyone is doing something to change the way they look, at least slightly. We get haircuts, we have different clothes for different occasions, we shave, we do things every day which make us more suited to our environments and allow us to express different ideas through our appearances. There is no arbitrary line drawn in the sand over how much you’re “allowed” to alter yourself before it’s considered compensating, or dishonest, or deserving of derision.
A woman who is dressed to the nines and in a full face of makeup is just as much a woman — and just as deserving of respect — as one who lives every day bare-faced and in simple garments. If you happen to feel at your personal best and most attractive when you are at your most minimally altered, good for you. But it is never anyone’s job to tell a woman concealing her blemishes, or putting on a pair of Spanx, or styling her hair, that she is somehow less real. The only thing we should be shaming, when it comes to what women do, is our weird cultural need to maintain control over other women’s bodies.
Washington, DC, Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007.
The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
4 minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
45 minutes: The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged 100 dollars.
Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. The questions raised: *In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? *Do we stop to appreciate it? *Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, how many other things are we missing?