Nowadays, when I sit down to write about body image I hear a cacophony of passionate and conflicted voices in my head. This is because I read articles on the topic nearly every day, and the current rhetoric is extremely polarized.
Some feel that how you look should hold absolutely no value, create neither advantages nor disadvantages, be utterly irrelevant. Although I find this viewpoint a bit extreme, I understand its roots. Right now, today, in Western culture women are constantly objectified through movies and TV, advertising, casual behaviors like catcalling, video games, music videos, the list goes on. Every article about a woman politician or CEO begins with a description of how she looks and what she’s wearing, a practice never used when writing about men in power. Women are taught that how we look is of tremendous importance. In fact, many of us may harbor the belief that conforming to the current beauty ideal isn’t just a goal, but a requirement for successful living. There is SO much emphasis on how we look that it can feel like the only way to turn the tide is to force a communal stripping-away of bodily, visual, style-related importance and value. Swing the pendulum as far to the other side as possible and trust that balance will come about in time.
Some feel that reaching a place of body neutrality or body love is a worthy goal, and one that can help you reach other, unrelated goals by creating a platform of positivity in your life. The number of strong, pervasive forces and industries that thrive on the collective body hatred of women is staggering: Cosmetics, shape wear, plastic surgery, diets, exercise programs, gyms, health and fashion magazines, personal trainers, hair dye, anti-aging products, this list goes on, too. A simple way to push back against these forces – one person at a time – is to encourage body love and to help women see their own unique beauty. This also makes sense to me, as you might have guessed. I believe that individual empowerment is a slow but vital way to create social change. And honestly? As a woman who has felt awful about her body for decades, I just want more women to feel less awful about their bodies. Period.
Some feel that the body positive movement was created with good intentions, but in the end, just reinforces the idea that how women look is of the utmost importance. Some feel that being told to “love your body” is an oppressive mandate that creates undue and unproductive pressure. Some have pointed out that the movement can be extremely exclusive of marginalized groups, failing to consider multiple viewpoints and leaving people out in the cold who could really use support. And that discussions of figure shape, figure-flattery, and clothing choices do far more harm than good. It pains me to read these opinions, but I can’t deny their underlying truths.
I consider myself to be pragmatic, a problem-solver, and an optimist. And when those traits and this body of rhetoric collided, this is what emerged from my addled brain:
You have a body. You may not like it, you may not want it to matter, you may want to distance yourself from it in every possible way, but you cannot deny that as a human being, you have a body. Without that body, other parts of your essential self that you might value and cherish – your kindness, intellect, achievements, creativity, passion, strength, power, insight, talent – would have no home, no base, no medium in which to grow and thrive. Without your body, your non-body identity couldn’t exist.
And since you have a body and as long you’re alive you will always have a body, creating a positive, supportive, nurturing relationship with that body is NOT a waste of your time and energy. Making decisions about how you want to dress or look puts you in touch with your body, teaches you about its shape, and can help you express some of your inner self to the outer world. Each person must approach this relationship in her own way and choose to filter out opinions and advice that feel inauthentic or corrosive. And that may mean avoiding style guidelines, limiting exposure to strongly worded writing about the importance of body love, a media fast. But although your looks should not and do not define your entire worth, you still have a body. And although the conflicting messages about the importance of physical beauty can be painful and confusing, you still have a body. And that body is not separate from your essential self. It is enmeshed with all aspects of your identity.
You have a body. You always will. So it certainly couldn’t hurt to make peace with it.
Images courtesy Eric Parker (left), Morgan (right)
This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.