As a society, people for the most part have little knowledge or understanding of art. You drag them to a museum—perhaps kicking and screaming—and sit them down in front of a Monet or a Picasso or a da Vinci and their responses will tend to be fairly neutral. They like it. They dislike it. Meh, whatever.
And yet these same people will often have strident, impassioned opinions about what is beautiful—particularly when it comes to the female body. Attributes might include flawless skin, taunt thighs, a flat stomach, a narrow waist and so on. I very much doubt that there’s a woman alive in the Western world today who couldn’t recite off an entire litany of qualities of what is supposed to make up beauty in the female form.
So why would something like this fall so far outside many people’s definition of beauty?
I know, there will be some of you who are thinking right now, “what are you talking about? Of course those women are beautiful!” There will be others though who are thinking, “Whoa, way too heavy. Too many freckles. Too weird.” It is in that discrepancy that lies the real truth of what we consider beautiful and how we handle it.
Beauty as Commercial
Not long ago I was waiting for the elevator at the office when one of my co-workers commented that it looked like I hadn’t had a chance to get out in the sun yet. I said that I’d actually just returned from vacation, but she proceeded to compare her tanned forearms to my pale shoulders and note that she wanted to get to a tanning salon at some point as well to really get the look she wanted.
So to recap, my pasty white shoulders were not an acceptable colour—despite the fact that I had managed to escape the office recently to hang out in the sun—and I should really go out and do something to correct that as she was doing.
I find the whole tanned vs. not tanned argument kind of amusing. In the West, the assumption is that bronzed skin looks healthier and more attractive. It also tends to indicate that you are well-off enough to not have to sit in a sunless cubicle all day. In Thailand, (my mother’s country), the opposite is true. People with tanned skin are the poor who must toil in the fields all day, so paler skin is highly sought after. When my grandmother would return to Thailand from her visits to Canada, people would always comment on how great she looked since her skin had lightened while staying in our non-tropical climate.
Thus the notion of spending money to correct the fact that I am not the optimum colour in this corner of the world is kind of silly to me. Sure if I get tanned during the course of walking the dog or painting out on the patio that’s one thing, but to spray chemicals on my body or sit in some kind of roasting box… no, that to me is inventing a need purely to sell you something.
And it wouldn’t be the first time marketers have done this. Check out the latest in marketer-invented problem for women—a Dove underarm deodorant that claims using it will give women more attractive armpits in five days. I encourage you to watch Stephen Colbert’s suitably witty response to the ongoing unattractive armpit crisis that has apparently been going on for years and we didn’t even know it.
I think the key is whether or not a person is buying some beauty-enhancing product because they want to or because they feel they have to. It’s a big difference—particularly on your wallet—because down that road of “have to” lies artificially created insecurity, doubt and misery. It is the difference between dying your hair because you want to see it a different colour versus dying it because you feel like you have to cover those wisps of gray.
Which brings me to…
Beauty as Absolute
Because of my disability I am in the rather peculiar position of being both 95lbs and overweight. Technically because of my diminutive stature, no medical professional I’ve ever come across has been able tell me what my weight should be, but the general consensus is that I’m not at it. I’ve been told I should probably drop about 20lbs or what would be the equivalent of 60lbs on a normal-sized person.
And I’ve tried. I went to dietitians. I did Jenny Craig and South Beach. I counted calories. I measured my offensive waist and thighs and ensured that all my unsightly bulges were hidden from view. For longest time I would wear a t-shirt over my swimsuit when I was in the pool because I had it in my head that I didn’t want to make others uncomfortable by forcing them to look at my grotesque, oddly shaped body.
Like so many women in our culture, I was not satisfied with how I looked. I could not see beauty in my body and, particularly given my “weight issues”, I had a hard time believing anyone else would.
Somehow though, perhaps because I have always been fascinated by the power and influence of media, I managed to slowly worm my way out of the standard and established conceptions of weight and beauty. I began reading books like Martha Beck’s The Four Day Win, which teaches that the first thing you need to do to create a healthier body is to simply stop hating the one you have. I also began following websites like Golda Poretsky’s Body Love Wellness who believes in educating women to be healthy at whatever size they happen to be. She did a great TEDtalk earlier this year entitled Why It’s Okay to Be Fat where she details the science—yes, science—that shows how heavy you are isn’t always an indicator as to how healthy you are.
It was through this expanded understanding of the issues around weight that I first heard the term “body shaming” and realized that it was happening around me all the time. It didn’t usually happen directly to my face—people can be cruel, but for the most part they are polite. The most powerful shame had its roots in those moments when the people around me would comment on others outside their hearing. They’d say things like:
- How can she wear those leggings? Doesn’t she realize she’s bulging out all over the place?
- Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to wear a two-piece bathing suit. Gross!
- And then she had to take up two seats on the bus. Seriously, lay off the donuts, woman!
- Man, I really hope she’s just pregnant.
You hear those things and you can’t help but look at yourself and start thinking… is that what they say about me when I’m not in the room? If I continue to carry this weight, will people judge me to be some kind of lower form of life that doesn’t need to be respected or loved?
And, when you start thinking that way, suddenly every eye around you becomes hostile and critical. You don’t match what is right, so you must be wrong. Physically, fundamentally wrong… because in shame the assumption becomes that there is only room for one kind of beauty and if you don’t fit that mold, then you must be ugly and offensive to the eyes.
There is simply no middle ground. No alternative.
But really, body shaming is just another form of bullying. It is a way of creating an “other” that people can feel superior to and who doesn’t love being on the winning side of a power dynamic.
What’s more unbelievable to me is that I’ve done it. I’ve said and believed those awful things about people. I’ve perpetuated the same cycle of shame that made me feel bad about myself. It happened simply because body shaming in our society is so accepted and so prevalent that good, kind, well-meaning people do it every day without even realizing it. It is only through conscious effort now that I catch and stop myself… that I am able to change the lens through which I view the people around me.
Beauty as Taste
It’s amazing what context can do to our perceptions. Imagine for a moment looking at the painting done by a four year old in daycare. It’s a riot of colour. There are vibrant purples and greens mixing on the page and off in one corner there’s a bright neon orange splotch that has dribbled slightly at the edges. In the context of the daycare it is clearly a child’s creative work and something that only a parent would ever think of as remarkable.
If however I were take that painting, put it in a heavy frame behind security glass and mount it in a museum then it’s possible for it to become something else entirely. Without the knowledge that it was created by a child, the patrons who stream through the museum gaze upon it completely differently—as a significant piece of art. Even though the subject matter hasn’t changed a bit, the context of the museum makes it possible.
Mass media is the contextual framework of our society. All it has to do is hold up one person as acceptable and beautiful and another as hideous and ugly and it starts to become doctrine. We deem it to be true when really it’s just opinion.
I remember the first time a guy told me he thought I was attractive and I immediately jumped to the notion that there had to be something wrong with him. I knew I was so far outside what I had been taught was beautiful that this guy had to be some kind of deviant to think of me in those terms. He wasn’t, but it is a pretty good example of how much these strict concepts of beauty can warp a person—and how insanely unhealthy that is.
Getting back to that original question… which is more beautiful—a Monet, a Picasso or a da Vinci? Which has more true beauty?
There is, of course, no right answer because it is a matter of taste. It is matter of what constitutes beauty in art to you.
So why have we made it so different with people? Why is there only one allowable kind of taste? When did that become truth?
The thing that really helped change my perceptions was when I began following the Facebook page Voluptuous Vixens—many of the photos in this blog post are pulled from their page. For the first time images began coming down my Facebook news feed of heavier women who weren’t some diet plan’s “before” picture. They weren’t standing as the butt end of fat jokes or the targets of public ridicule. They were standing as women—strong, confident and beautiful women—and, like the art museum, it created a whole new context for these images.
I’ll be honest, it took some getting used to. After decades of conditioning, the first thoughts that flitted through my mind were how I couldn’t believe that these women were standing there and letting it all hanging out. I mean dear God, did they have no shame?
Well no… and that was kind of the point. They had no shame and they sure looked a lot happier with themselves than I felt.
Faced with this new idea of what beauty could be, I began to unconsciously expand my own tastes. I began looking at the people around me, people who I might have judged harshly in the past, and I began seeing other things. I saw strong, vibrant professionals and compassionate mothers with armfuls of boisterous children. I saw people whose lives radiated joy, pain, struggle and triumph. I saw people who came in a range of shapes and sizes but who were ultimately just like me.
So this is me in all my voluptuous curves. I took this picture the other day because I really liked this tank top and thought it was a great find. I also took it because there was a time when I never would’ve considered showing off my rounded arms. Society had told me that they needed to be slimmer or else I should cover them up under layers of clothing that would’ve left me sweaty and uncomfortable on a hot summer day.
There’s nothing wrong with them though. They aren’t so grotesque that I risk striking anyone blind with them. They are simply arms and they are mine and I’m done feeling like I need to be ashamed of them or any other part of my body.
And if you don’t happen to agree with that opinion… well honestly, I really just don’t care.
This article was originally published in Athena’s blog, A Creative Life, on July 20, 2013. We feel its message is as relevant and important today as it was then.