CW: eating disorders, descriptions of body shame
For most of my life, I felt aggressively territorial of body positivity. Why should skinny girls get to appropriate the power of body positivity to feel better about themselves when they aren’t even the ones who need it?
Every woman I’ve ever known seems to share my subconscious belief in the ultimate cryptid: not Bigfoot or Mothman or reasonable healthcare, but the “perfect” woman. We believe perfect women exist because we assume their existence in relation to our imperfect selves. We know, logically, that perfection is an impossible distraction enabled by social media, but why is that logic so hard to live by?
The ugly truth is that every woman hates her body at some point in her life. You can read those words, and even know them to be true, without actually registering their depth. Body dysmorphia shouldn’t feel so lonely if everyone experiences it. But if everyone experiences it, why does it feel so lonely? When you read the words “every woman hates her body,” you don’t feel like Every Woman. You feel like one girl, the way you always have. One girl who will never be perfect the way some girls are just perfect.
According to statistics, I am shorter than the average woman, heavier than the average woman, and angrier than the average woman. I have never been a fan of statistics. My younger sister, on the other hand, is tall and skinny. When we were kids, I would make fun of her nose and eyebrows to keep her humble. That’s messed up, I know.
My tall and skinny younger sister was diagnosed with anorexia when she was sixteen. It took me a long time to register the depth of her symptoms. I knew she had been obsessing over her weight and diet, but I never talked to her about it, admittedly because of the difference in our appearances. Not only was it paralyzingly awkward to bring up such a touchy subject, but I felt like a joke playing it out in my head: if you’re trying to get thinner, your curvy older sister telling you to stop seems backhanded. Maybe I could’ve helped her sooner than our parents did if I’d called her out despite my superficial reservations. I don’t know. The disease haunted our house. I’d snap at my sister for shivering in warm weather, and she’d snap at me for eating in front of her, and together we’d waste precious time by avoiding each other.
It felt wrong, all of it. I used to stand in the kitchen, staring at the knife drawer, vividly imagining myself cutting my stomach off. After a few minutes, I’d shudder out of the trance and resolve to simply starve myself, which never worked. My sister didn’t know about those moments—she was perfect. Tall and skinny. I was the one who needed an eating disorder, not her.
Eventually it became clear that her destructive patterns were not about achieving the perfect body. Eating disorders never are: they’re about resolve. Pushing yourself to the brink so that nothing else can. They’re about spite: forcing the people who raised you to watch you suffer. Most of all, they’re about control. Handing the reins over to the most dangerous voice in your head so that it stops begging for your attention. But it never stops. Women everywhere spend their whole lives fending off that voice…or dedicate their livelihoods to indulging it, like Gwyneth Paltrow.
There’s comfort in the feminist spin: men don’t spend every moment asking themselves how to be more perfect, so we should stop giving them the satisfaction of our perceived self-improvement efforts. I lean on that wake-up call as much as I can. I go months without shaving my legs and wear skirts anyway, so it looks like I don’t care, but I still can’t stop thinking about it. If the other half of humanity doesn’t spend every moment asking themselves how to be more perfect, then why won’t that voice in my head shut up?
I know men and mascs are fighting their own body positivity battle, and it absolutely deserves more visibility. But the way I was body-shamed growing up—and the way I’ve felt ashamed of my body—is distinctly feminine.
That’s what I’m getting to here, what it took me years to see: the shame doesn’t come from being shorter and heavier than average, even though it stings to hear a doctor say you’re overweight. The shame comes from growing up in a woman’s body. All of us, no matter what we look like, have hated our body at some point. The grass is always greener. The other girls are always more perfect. Women are conditioned to hate their bodies; skinny and curvy sisters alike continue to obsess over their physical image because female self-hatred empowers the patriarchal status quo we grew up with.
Body positivity belongs to everyone. You might pass a girl on the street and wish you looked like her, but for all you know there’s a list in her head of everything she would change about her body given the chance—and she’s running through it for the thousandth time. Skinny women may not understand (or sometimes even empathize with) the trauma that comes with being ostracized for your body type, but that doesn’t negate the universal inner war of perfectionism. Even the “perfect” girls want to be perfect, otherwise Gwyneth Paltrow would be doing something else with her life.
Body positivity is for everyone, even my tall, skinny sister. All the jealousy disappeared when she showed me what we had in common all along: wanting to be different. Nowadays we celebrate self-love together. I make us soup and she helps me write articles about body positivity.
I don’t want to cut my stomach off anymore. Pro tip: it’s easier to love your body when you move out of the house where you were taught to hate it. It’s easier to love your body when you remember we’re all in this together, High School Musical style. Every woman is impacted by the socialization of body-shame; it’s not a competition for who’s been hurt the most (or the least). If we want to change the status quo, we have to respect each other. We have to recognize that the crippling pursuit of perfect femininity only protects the patriarchy from its greatest threat—radical empathy. We have to hear each other’s stories and make each other soup and enjoy the true gift of womanhood, which is openness.
This article was inspired by the Seattle NEDA Walk happening this fall. Thank you to UW’s NEDA ambassador, Maddie Collom, for collaborating with Her Campus UW.