During my childhood, my mother and grandmother constantly dieted. Both women continuously struggled to either lose or maintain their “ideal” weight. Having a thin build, I never thought much about my own weight. I biked around my neighborhood every day and ate lots of fruits and vegetables. I was happy with my body. But just because I liked my physique, didn’t mean I liked my appearance.
I got teased, getting called “Casper” for my alabaster complexion as I could never tan. In junior high, acne blemished my skin. My hair was my nemesis; long, thick and unruly. I used chemicals, irons and products to burn and shellac it into submission. I spent hours obsessing over it, trying to make it look attractive.
In my final year of high school, my acne cleared up (thank you Retin-A) and a flat iron became my best friend. In my 20s, kickboxing, jogging and pilates carved lean muscles into my body. I became proud of my appearance. I stopped condemning my skin and hair, realizing the beauty in fair skin and thick locks. I embraced my looks. Once I hit my early 30s, things began to change.
Becoming a vegetarian and later vegan years ago made me acutely aware of what I consumed and put in my body. While I ate lots of healthy food, I ate. A lot. What can I say, I love food (mmm…vegan cocoa cupcakes…mmm). Despite what some books try to tell you, not all vegans are skinny. Being so active, I never really thought about portion control. Add to that a desk job, free food at events (one of the perks of working at a university!) and genetics, weight gain stealthily crept up on me.
At about 50 pounds overweight, I’m not always thrilled with the way my body looks or feels. My health just isn’t the same, as I get winded going up a flight of stairs. While I definitely want to get in shape, part of me revels in my petite (I’m uber short) yet very curvy physique. Why should I have to be skinny just to be beautiful and sexy? Why must women shrink as if disappearing from existence? Yes, I enjoy wearing cute dresses, putting on make-up and getting my hair done at the salon. Does my hair still piss me off at times? Of course. Does it frustrate me that I can’t fit into all the clothes I want to wear? That shopping has become an even bigger nightmare?? Absolutely.
But fuck beauty norms! My self-worth is not dependent on my appearance.
Today happens to be NOW’s Love Your Body Day, “a day when women of all sizes, colors, ages and abilities come together to celebrate self-acceptance and to promote positive body image.” I celebrated by blogging, tweeting about feminist TV characters, and watching Real Women Have Curves, a fabulously feminist film starring the charismatic America Ferrara. Ana (Ferrara) who lives with her Latina/o family in Los Angeles, spends the summer after graduating high school working in her sister’s garment factory while dreaming of college in NYC. In my favorite scene, Ana sheds her clothes in the steamy, unventilated factory. In her underwear, Ana’s mother tells her she looks “awful,” that she should be ashamed and berates her for being “fat,” something she does throughout the film. Ana replies:
“Mama, I happen to like myself…Oh so that’s it. Make myself attractive so that I can catch a man. Mama, I do want to lose weight. But part of me doesn’t because my weight says to everybody, “fuck you.” Mama, how dare anybody try to tell me what I should look like or what I should be when there’s so much more to me than just my weight.”
Preach! The women in the factory then compare their cellulite and stretch marks, one saying, “Look at how beautiful we are.” Ana tells her mother they are all “real women.” I found it so refreshing to see “real women,” not photoshopped Barbie dolls on-screen. I found it even more exciting to watch a film that discusses fat shaming, beauty standards, and how women’s intellect and aspirations matter more than their looks. [UPDATE 10/16/13: I still like this movie but I now find the notion of “real” women problematic. Who’s “real?” Who gets to be counted as “real?” Are women who are thin not “real?” We need to stop using the word “real” unless we’re talking about the toxicity of photoshopping and how the media and beauty industry props up those imaginary images as the ideal women should aspire to be.]
The media bombards us with images of thin women, their buxom boobs spilling out of tight garments. We’re all supposed to look the women on-screen: white women, long silky hair, full lips, thin bodies, curvy hips and breasts. Yet many of us will never look like that. Nor should we. We shouldn’t have to change our bodies to conform. We should embrace our appearance for ourselves — not for our families, society, or a man.
Despite the media’s sexist images fused with society’s warped beauty standards, I don’t hate my body. In fact, regardless of my size, I’m starting to love what I see in the mirror.
Image of LYBD poster by Kyla Hollis via NOW.org