Bodies should be praised for the amazing feats they accomplish every second of the day, not for how they look in a bikini. So rather than shaming thinness to empower “real” women, Emily Heist Moss asks: Can’t we all just get along?
A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend I respect—we’ll call her Tina—a woman with whom my opinions usually align, posted this comment next to a site for plus-sized bikinis:
“Fleshy is sexy! Women are not meant to have bodies like 14-year-old boys…This is what most women look like…Beautiful!”
I winced, as I am wont to do whenever I see the word “women” followed by “supposed to,” “meant to,” “should,” or “shouldn’t.” Prescriptive verbs, when it comes to female bodies or female actions (or male bodies and male actions, for that matter) make me want to pull out the soapbox and start getting up in some people’s faces. But, I’m a 21st century kind of girl and I don’t really know what a soapbox is, so instead I furiously comment on Internet posts.
It’s worth stating here, for the record and for contextual honesty, that I am a big girl. Curvy, voluptuous, “a little extra,” thick, chunky, possessing of what a sales lady once told me (at age 11, no less) was a “bubble butt.” Take your pick of euphemisms, but the fact is that my BMI is securely in, and unlikely to leave, the “overweight” side of the scale. I am also a woman who runs, practices lots of yoga, plays tennis, and takes the occasional Zumba class. I am a woman who has been bigger and smaller, who comfortably wears a bikini, who sometimes pinches the fat on her upper arms, who moans about her sweet tooth, who admires her triceps in the mirror during chaturangas.
I tell you this because I think it’s important that you know the mindset from which I come when I explain why I just cannot get on board the body shame train, no matter how much the skinny bitches deserve it. This is not a case of a petite wisp of a woman defending her peers and this is not a case of a fat woman trying to protect herself from ridicule. This is a case of a woman with a complex relationship with her body trying to do other folks a solid and acknowledge that most people have complex relationships with their bodies. Throwing any of them under the bus, even to temporarily level the playing field, is not good for anybody (or any body) in the long run.
I responded to Tina’s post, praising the bathing suit spread, but pointing out that claiming women are “meant” to be shaped a certain way isn’t really fair. Some women are just thin, or hipless, or flat-chested, and that doesn’t make them less feminine, or less “real.” Within minutes, Tina responded:
“I agree but I also have been very thin and very overweight, and when thin, I am at least acknowledged as human, the overweight are not…So once we can allow the perceived ‘overweight’ their humanity, then we can start teasing out the nuances. I don’t see the ultra thin version of myself or my thin friends being dismissed and ignored like the fleshy version of me or my fleshy friends. When we hit an even playing field, we can start discussions of diversity in beauty…Basic respect and humanity comes first. We need to re-humanize flesh first, lack of flesh doesn’t face that issue.”
Pretty compelling, right? We do dehumanize overweight people and we do pin negative attributes on fat people, assuming they are lazy, ignorant, or messy, as if those traits are inextricable from extra pounds. How often do we see magazine spreads with photos of decapitated fat bodies with red arrows pointing at the fleshy parts? We collectively view fat people as easy targets for slapstick humor, gross stereotyping, and comparisons to animals. In this characterization of the appalling dehumanization of fat people, Tina and I agree.
Our opinions diverge when nuance gets involved. Tina thinks the nuance can wait, and I don’t. As she succinctly put it, “basic respect and humanity comes first,” but I believe that we have to extend that respect to everyone, including our skinny, muscular, willowy, lean, flat-chested, narrow-hipped, gazelle-like friends. Using language that suggests that they, based solely on the silhouettes of their bodies, are not shaped the way women are “meant” to be shaped is decidedly disrespectful.
My end goal here, the ideal world I imagine when I daydream, is one in which we respect bodies for the awesome feats of biology they perform every day, every hour, every minute, every second. Forget the headstands or my rapidly improving backhand, and just credit my body for the breathing, blinking, swallowing, hearing, digesting, shivering, and sweating. These are not sexy functions, I know, but my ability to please a man’s gaze in a bikini or fill out a dress just right doesn’t hold a candle to all of the other fabulous, incredible, magical things my body can do.
As our Facebook debate continued, Tina added this:“If it means letting ‘fleshy me’ have the cultural spotlight for a bit to help educate, then ‘skinny me’ is cool with that, as skinny women should be, because even skinny women can grow fleshy with age. Why not make both acceptable and beautiful? Fat pride until we reach that day…”
Tina’s belief, that the movement known as “Fat Pride” is necessary to humanize and celebrate the range of human figures, is on the rise. Call me a fellow subscriber with an asterisk. You think those Dove Real Beauty ads don’t work on me? Of course they do! You think I don’t get a little giddy when I see a rare ad for yoga pants featuring a yogi who looks like me? Of course I do! We all want to see ourselves reflected in pop culture in positive ways, and fat people are usually deprived that external reinforcement of self. This is not fair, and it’s a worthy imbalance to rectify.
But the solution, even just for now, is not to elevate fat bodies above thin bodies with arbitrary ideas of “realness” or “woman-ness.” Games of alternating elevation, of us vs. them, of trying to outdo, outshine, out “real” each other are not the solution. The solution is to shake each other excitedly, all the time, and yell, as loud as you can, “You guys, aren’t bodies the coolest?!” In a line from my favorite body positivity essay by Hanne Blank, “There’s no wrong way to have a body.”
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.