A 25-year-old who as a child rescued insects from the pool and asked for donations to the Humane Society instead of gifts for her 10th birthday is insecure about her yoga-toned body. This beautiful young woman, who gives the sweetest, most sincere handmade Christmas cards, is already considering a facelift. She is open-minded and progressive, goes topless at nude beaches with her friends but critiques the men there as having "micro-penises" and appears not to recognize the hypocrisy.
A talented 30-something artist battling a physically and emotionally debilitating disease wears pants in 30 degree weather because she "doesn't like her legs." She has received considerable unwanted attention from men throughout her life, both strangers and not, as a result of her appearance (dark lipstick, pale skin, black hair, a modern-day Snow White). When she rebuffs their advances, they resort to petty commentary on the shape of her body, and she has internalized their criticisms so that now she is more comfortable hiding it than exposing it.
An 80-year-old woman wears turtlenecks and long sleeves, pants and socks, to a pool party to avoid getting sun spots that no one will ever see. She teaches piano and plays Scrabble and watches CNN and looks things up on the internet and refuses to be one of those old ladies one sees hobbling around with walkers or canes, speaking only of their grandchildren. She got divorced as a young mother of two small children to get out of an abusive relationship and became the outcast of her strict Mennonite family. She used her good looks and charm and talent and made a life for herself. She has had a nose job, face lifts, botox injections. She counts out 7 almonds and weighs herself daily.
It makes me sad when women who are otherwise strong, creative, resilient, generous, and kind are not comfortable in their bodies. It makes me sad, but I understand firsthand the way society, in the form of individuals and the media, informs our sense of worth as women, women who must be beautiful, a beauty that is defined by someone else.
As a teenager, a boy I liked once called me "linebacker thighs" as we walked to the bus stop. Today I recognize that the size and shape of my thighs were none of his business (and later behaviour revealed him to be rather an asshole), but his comment wormed its insidious way into my psyche and lodged there for many years. Like the 30-something above, I avoided shorts, until one day I didn't.
I bought a pair of black knee-length shorts and wore them out of the house. I bought denim cut-offs, which got shorter over the years. I looked at myself naked in the mirror, at the linebacker thighs that were in reality just thighs, not as long and slender and smooth as the thighs of models, certainly, but just thighs, curved, gently dimpled in places. The more often I looked at them, the more I liked them. The more often I looked at them and liked them, the less important they seemed.
It is so hard to accept our bodies when so many sources bombard us with images of what beauty is and how it looks. (Sadly, this observation is nothing new.) But it excites me that the beauty industry (and it is crucial that we remember that it is an industry) is changing. Every ad campaign and runway show that includes women of different ethnicities and body shapes is a step forward. Every celebrity instagram feed showing a "before" and the extent of the image manipulation to get to the "after" is a step forward. (I worry that photo filters on cell phones are a step backward.)
So I urge you to look at yourself in the mirror, naked. Look often. Look until the curves and folds and dimples (or whatever parts you are self-conscious about) look normal. Look longer at your own body than you look at the bodies of other people. Look until your physical form is no longer a stranger. Look until what you look like is not as important as what you have accomplished or overcome or are currently dealing with. Look to make sure you don't have mascara smudged under your eye or a booger hanging out of your nose, and then stop looking and start living and try to forget or ignore what other people say or think. (I know this is hard.) Because the people who make you feel less than beautiful, who judge you and criticize you for the way you look, always have ulterior motives, be they personal or commercial, subconscious or not.
Unless we die young, we will grow old. Our bodies will revolt and begin the inescapable decay that is the precursor to death. We will get wrinkles and jowls, we will lose hair in some places and grow more of it in others, we will gain weight or lose it, succumb to cancer and heart disease and dementia, our bones will become brittle, our skin will sag. When you really think about it, bodies are a goddamn drag.
Your beauty, your real beauty, is in your kindness, your generosity to others, your campaign to raise awareness for a cause, your confidence, your struggle, the art you create, the goals you meet, the relationships you build, your willingness to learn and grow and riot on. xo