Sure, we all know we should love our bodies just the way they are, but Kerry Cohen says that’s simply not the case for most women. So why can’t we talk about our own body image issues without being judged?
I used to have a friend who owned a second-hand clothing store, and she grew so tired of hearing women say mean things about their bodies that she posted on the mirrors in the dressing rooms: “You are beautiful.” She also posted a sign that said, “No negative body talk allowed.” It was a nice gesture, one we can expect from one woman to another. The message, that we are all beautiful and perfect as we are is a lovely fantasy. I wish so much it were true. But when I listen to women talk endlessly about their bodily flaws, and when I see the way they talk about themselves in media, I know that this fantasy is not real yet.
Still, no negative body talk is allowed. During the Olympics, xojane.com published a tongue-in-cheek blog by a woman about how photos everywhere of the Olympic athletes made her feel fat. Commenters were outraged. They criticized xojane.com for allowing such sexism into their blogs. They said it was utterly insulting to suggest that a female athlete must be stripped down to her worth as a body to objectify. And yet, I know more than one woman who has confided in me that they felt the same way. Seeing all those perfectly sculpted bodies, no matter for what use, reminded them of their own imperfections. But, they knew to stay quiet about that, lest they be judged.
A similar reaction came up when I published a piece here in which I admitted that as a woman who knows empirically she is not fat, I am plagued by intense body hatred related to my shape and weight. Women who identify as fat-positive, women I respect greatly, were furious that I suggested that being fat meant I was unlovable, because in doing so, I was saying that I believed this to be true about other women. Any woman who struggles with body-image issues knows how inaccurate this is. Our hatred is fully limited to our own bodies. What’s more, so many of us are feminists. We know how stupid and unrealistic and destructive the cultural standard is when it comes to bodies. We can cite Susan Bordo and Paul Campos. We’ve read Fat is a Feminist Issue. But we cannot shake the terrible hatred we have about our own bodies.
I would love for this not to be true. I would love for us not to consider anything about our bodies imperfect. I would love to only see perfection when I look in the mirror, or when I shop for bathing suits. But I don’t. And I’m not alone. Almost 50% of American women are trying to lose weight. At age 13, 53% of American girls are “unhappy with their bodies.” This grows to 78% by the time they’re 17. We live in a culture that is laden with images of the ideal standard for bodies. That image is not a real thing: It is a size 0-2 with no blemishes, no pockets of fat, and no hair. But that image is pervasive, it is insipid, and it is unrelenting.
When commenters say, “Don’t say that,” when they say, “Don’t talk about your body-hatred,” they are silencing the problem, and silencing leads to shame, and shame, in my opinion, can be worse than the original problem. It becomes “not merely unspoken,” as Adrienne Rich wrote in Lies, Secrets, and Silence, “but unspeakable.”
It is one thing to comment on Gabby Douglas’ hair, or to focus on the USA teams’ choice of non-red, white, and blue clothing after her win, which Fox News did. It is one thing to criticize other women for their weight, for their appearance in any way. It is quite another to talk with self-awareness about one’s own twisted perceptions about her body. And even another to do so with the hope that by talking about it we can open up necessary discussions about how to change the self-hatred.
That friend of mine was well intentioned. She just wanted people to say nice things about their bodies, to stop putting themselves down for their appearances. You see it all the time. Just today I found this comment on a website where facts about body image were posted: “Love who you are, stay healthy, mentally and physically, keep your life balanced. I believe is the secret to being happy. When Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Live well. Love Much and laugh Often.” That’s all lovely and hopeful. It’s all delightful in notion. But none of it is actually helpful. A study at the University of Waterloo noted that affirmations, such as “I am lovable” and “My life is filled with joy!” made people who already had low self-esteem feel worse about themselves because they don’t believe it. It isn’t useful to keep all our focus on what we want, The Secret be damned, because then we feel worse and more alone when we don’t get there. More importantly, we won’t get where we want if we deny entire parts of ourselves that are actively blocking the way.
So, why do we bristle when people talk about their bodies in a negative way? Is it because we want our culture to evolve? Or is it because we are trying to tamp down that same self-hatred inside ourselves?
Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the acclaimed Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. She’s been featured on Dr. Phil, Good Morning America, and the BBC, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and many others. Learn more at www.kerry-cohen.com.