My husband, Mr. Man, was recently having dinner with an old friend and the friend’s new wife, someone Mr. Man had never met before. According to Mr. Man, the dinner was a bit trying, as the wife seemed distant and bored, contributing little. Whether she was shy or merely dull, Mr. Man couldn’t say.
At some point during the course of the evening, Mr. Man shared that Queenie and I are vegan, at which point the wife suddenly perked up, her eyes wide, as she said wistfully: “They must be so skinny.” After being momentarily dumbfounded, Mr. Man pointed out that Queenie is only 11 and looks like a healthy 11-year-old. As for me, he said that no, in fact I am not skinny, nor would he want me to be, at which point the wife’s gaze promptly unfocused and she checked back out of the conversation.
When he relayed this experience to me, I was momentarily dumbfounded, too. I think it’s probably safe to assume that the wife has some kind of “issues” around body image or food, etc. However, since I’ve never met her and likely never will, I can’t say for sure that this is the case, so there’s not much use speculating about it.
What I can say for sure is that our culture as a whole has some seriously warped views of what a healthy female body looks like and ought to look like. I’m not breaking new ground to say that the images that women and girls routinely see on screen and in print are extremely limited and come nowhere near to presenting the reality of shapes and sizes that the healthy female body actually comes in. And I’m not having a lightbulb moment when I suggest that this limited, skewed view is potentially unhealthy and damaging to those constantly bombarded by it, who end up holding this image up as an ideal that they strive to attain. Even though these thoughts aren’t particularly original, I do think they’re important. It’s vital that we shift the way our society views the female body. Since we don’t have a magic wand handy and can’t instantly make the whole world change, I’d like to suggest that we need to do this one person at a time, starting right here, right now. How, you ask? Let’s think about some specifics…
Let’s start by choosing wisely what images to ingest. While billboards and bus ads are hard to avoid, I urge you to select your media carefully. A constant diet of unreasonable images can’t help but penetrate your consciousness and do a number in there. Choose substance over flash. Celebrate accomplishment and wit and vivacity over vapid, blank photoshopped stares. Opt for the New Yorker over Marie Claire. Read an article from dailygood.org instead of one from People. Choose media health food over media junk.
Now that you’ve shifted what media you invite into your life, the next step is to be very aware of what’s still crashing the party. The limited images of women that we’re talking about are everywhere. It might be a magazine that you pick up at the doctor’s office, those aforementioned billboards and bus ads, or the latest movie you’ve gone to see with your friends. Since it’s impossible to eliminate the bombardment entirely, it’s important to see these images through a more informed, critical lens. Acknowledge what you’re seeing, whether just to yourself or to your companion. Just saying, “Wow, did you notice that all of the women in this film were the exact same shape and size?” is a good start. And rather than thinking that there’s something deficient in you or your circle of friends if you don’t all happen to look like what’s up on the screen, flip that thought around… the limitation is in the portrayal. Talk about that, too.
Once in a while, something that does look more like real life comes along, and I think it’s important to support the creative people who are brave enough to show us something different than the standard-issue female imagery. Here I can think of no better example than Lena Dunham and her ground-breaking show, Girls. While her fellow cast-mates look about how you’d expect twenty-somethings on an HBO show to look, Ms. Dunham rather famously does not. She isn’t perfectly toned. She sometimes has mussed hair or dark shadows under her eyes. In other words, she looks like someone you might bump into on the street. Hallelujah! And she has the courage to bare her perfectly imperfect body in pretty much every episode, in all its glory. Huge swaths of the public have rejoiced, clinging to these images like the self-esteem life-preservers they are for many young women. To the networks, I say: take note! We want to see real women looking like real women, wearing real clothes that sometimes ride up and need to be pulled back out, as Dunham’s character, Hannah, is wont to do.
Sadly, not everyone celebrates the presence of this refreshing character. There are quite a few vocal commentators, with nothing but negative comments about Ms. Dunham’s body, and to them I say: I am sorry for you, just like I was sorry for the woman with whom Mr. Man dined. I’m sorry that you have so internalized the messages and images you’ve lived with that you are left with no ability to appreciate anything else. I’m sorry that you’ve allowed yourself to be programmed to such an extent that you couldn’t get your mind around the premise of a recent episode of Girls in which someone who looks like the actor Patrick Wilson (an actor with a “perfect” body) would have sex with someone who looks like Ms. Dunham, as if nothing other than physical appearance could create an attraction between two people. I’m sorry for you, and I’m sorry because your acceptance of these messages hurts all of us. I implore you to break out of the prison you’ve allowed yourself to be locked into. Believe it or not, you already hold the key to that lock. Trust me, I know.
At 5’9”, I used to be a “perfect” size, the size of runway models, somewhere between a zero and a 2. I reached and maintained that size at great expense to my physical, psychological and spiritual well-being. Thankfully, that was a long, long time ago. Now, I am far from that size, and I am a whole lot healthier and happier. I have lots of squishy parts in the places they like to form, namely the belly, upper arms and neck. They are Queenie’s absolute favorite patches and she has dubbed them “beep” (neck beep, arm beep, etc.). She loves to squeeze and pat them. They are a joyous marvel to her. Once, about 7 years ago, as she was gently squeezing my neck, she asked, “Mama, how did this beep get so plump and ripe?” To her, it is perfection, like a just-picked peach on a summer day.
I could easily look in the mirror and hone in on these plump patches as areas that need work. I could fret about them and feel bad about them. But I don’t. I see these body parts as wonderful reminders of motherhood and womanhood and reality. I like what I see in the mirror, not because it measures up to any conventional standard of beauty, but because it is me. Right this second, that’s what I look like, and I don’t want to waste this second thinking about what my life would be like if my stomach were more taut or my neck longer or any other such silly distraction.
I wish for you the gift of seeing yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you as deeply and unconditionally as Queenie loves me. And guess what, you don’t need to be the mother of a kid who worships fat cells to get there. The person whose eyes I’m talking about is YOU. I wish you the gift of looking in the mirror and loving what you see. Do you see crinkles next to your eyes when you smile kindly? Do you see hands that lovingly tend a garden? Do you see breasts that nursed your baby? Whatever the particulars, you see YOU, in all of your perfectly imperfect glory. You should be able to rattle off a long list of fabulous things that your body is doing for you in this life. If that list doesn’t pop readily to mind at first, write it down to remind you, and think about this list often. If you really do this, REALLY appreciate yourself, you’ll be able to shed the programmed voices of negativity in your head. You will carry forward into the world a confidence and self-acceptance and peace that will radiate out to others. It will reach our daughters and set a positive example of how to be a woman in this world. It will counterbalance the narrow images the media generally provides. This is big stuff.
For me, I’m going to keep celebrating the brave ones who put themselves out there. I’m going to celebrate the perfectly imperfect. I’m not going to critique women based on their size, even silently to myself. And I’m going to keep on processing all of this stuff with Queenie, so that she keeps thinking and believing and knowing that the ideal for a human, not just a woman, is to be strong, healthy, confident and happy, no matter what size.
And lest you think that normal-sized women only get the Patrick Wilsons of the world in the fantasy-land of television, here’s what Patrick Wilson’s actual wife, Dagmara Dominczyk, tweeted in response to all of the hoopla surrounding the Girls episode:
“Funny, his wife is a size 10, muffin top & all & he does her just fine. Least that’s what I hear rule #1 – never say never.”
Rock the power of self-acceptance and see what comes your way!