Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Last week, I was wandering through McKay's used bookstore looking for a way to spend the $15 credit a friend had given us. I found a wedding book, a journal, and I randomly picked up an older (and quite drab) looking book (for 75 cents) called, When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies: Freeing Yourself from Food and Weight Obsession (Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter). The cover is boring, the content is thrilling.

Speaking of women's self-hatred, they write that if this self-loathing were experienced by only a small number of women, we'd wonder at the source of the problem. But the fact is that fat feelings--or bad body feelings--occupy the minds and hearts of the vast majority of women. "Bad Body Fever is neither viral nor bacterial, but it is epidemic."

Last week, looking over a crowd of college-aged gals at dorm worship, I said quite literally those exact words. I told them that we have a beauty distortion epidemic on our hands, it affects nearly every woman I've ever met, and it must stop.

But women haven't always harbored this kind of livid self-hatred towards their appearance and their bodies. If you go to an art museum, you will not find any paintings of women that resemble (even slightly) the bodies of Molly Sims, Giselle Bundchen, or Britney Spears.

According to historians, women's bodies were not regarded as "packaging" until the eighteenth century. Naomi Wolf argues that the hatred of "fat" did not emerge until women began to join forces and reject their inferior status. She writes in The Beauty Myth that "soft rounded hips and thighs and bellies were perceived as desirable and sensual without question, until women got the vote." The more powerful women become, the more pressure there is for us to get rid of the "packaging" that makes us inferior. That makes our bodies different from men.

I'm not at all saying that I long to have the body of a man. But I know the privileges and rights and freedoms that come with being male and I'd be crazy to say I haven't sometimes wanted it. They write, "A woman's body hatred is her internalized version of cultural misogyny. She tells herself each and every day that her body is wrong and that she takes up too much space in the world."

I get this. Almost two years ago I got a nasty, anonymous comment on my blog accusing me of smelling up trash chutes with my vomit and warning me to shut up because no one was listening. I remember distinctly thinking He's right. I'm taking up too much space. I should just keep my mouth shut. Why did I ever think I had a story worth telling? These thoughts of self-doubt, of being too big with my presence and my voice triggered intense insecurities in my body and my safety. I questioned very seriously whether I was taking up too much space. Saying too much. Being too much. Eating was a struggle, as was seeing myself as worthy of taking up anymore space than absolutely necessary.

The authors talk about how when a woman says, "I feel fat" she really means, "I don't feel good enough" or "There must be something wrong with me." Like the eleven year-old girls awaiting the start of the play performance they'd been rehearsing for weeks: "I feel so fat" one anxiously said to the other. "No," her friend responded. "You look great. But look at my stomach." We turn our bodies into metaphors for our feelings. We talk about our bodies instead of the anxiety. They write, "We live in a culture that accepts body hatred and dieting as normal components of femininity." In fact, if a woman declares an end to tirelessly manipulating, probing, and depriving her body, she is breaking the rules.

There's a groaning that I feel.
In my story.
In the stories of women.
In publications.
In movies.
In dressing rooms.
In kitchens.
In bathrooms.
It's this groaning to reconcile the truth we know of ourselves with the "truth" we're being fed about who we "should" be.

An epidemic we overlook because it's not small pox.
But it's an epidemic we can't overlook because it's changing our world.

And it's not for the better.


Joe said...

But some of us do listen (and read). And we hope you know that =).

Sierra said...

Thank you, my friend, for once again teaching me something new. For expressing a challenging truth with a fresh perspective. You are such a blessing.
This idea of making our bodies the metaphors experience anxiety rings true to many of my experiences. The most deeply felt body-loathing has been provoked by ugly experiences of sexual harassment and assault. As if it was my body that betrayed me, rather than another person.