Growing up, girls are always made aware of the importance of being beautiful and acting demurely. Boys are given ships and cars as toys, while girls receive Barbie dolls to remind them of the feminine ideal. Even pop culture and the media teach us that beauty is found in the blonde, blue-eyed, thin lead actors who play the love interests in romantic comedies like Clueless or Wild Child. Watching these mainstream teen queens gain love and happiness by virtue of their good looks subconsciously taught me that I could only be worthy of love if I subscribed to these ideals. Because nowhere in these movies or the media did I ever see a short, coloured, frizzy-haired, skew-toothed, chubby girl win the popularity contest, or get the guy.
So I burnt my hair with a straightening iron, refrained from smiling with my teeth, exercised religiously, and weighed myself constantly. If I could just match up to those blonde-haired bombshells, with their tiny waists and long legs, then maybe I could be deserving of love. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never achieve that kind of beauty. And even when the numbers on the scale showed fewer than 50 kilograms, I wasn’t happy. However, neither were my classmates, even though they were in fact teeny blonde bombshells. Many girls dipped in and out of school because they were experiencing the side effects of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Before these excessive efforts would just have been called a diet, embarked on to achieve that illusory goal weight, or to look more like Kendall Jenner. But now we know them to be crippling disorders. Where girls shamed themselves for being fat, grabbing at their bellies in disdain and frowning in the mirror.
So, what now? We were starving ourselves in the hope of gaining validation from our broader society, but it was never good enough. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up the wicked self-denial any longer. The diets and the fat shaming only encouraged me to begin binge eating to make up for all the meals I had missed. I traded my crop tops and booty shorts for sweatpants and hoodies; carrot sticks and chicken breasts for Doritos and Coca-Colas. I even quit dancing lessons – my favourite extra curriculum – because I couldn’t stand to see my thick legs in tights alongside the sculpted bodies of ballerinas. And, ironically, I was happy. I had forfeited the impossible race to perfection, and from the sidelines, I could do what I wanted when I wanted. I was almost 20 kilograms heavier by the age of 17, and I had found compassion for my soft belly, thick legs and round face. And no matter how many times I was called big, fat, ugly, I would hold my head high because at least I had chosen to live my life according to my own standards. As a woman, that radical self-love would be my greatest act of rebellion.
By the time I reached second year at university, my body changed dramatically again. I had dropped weight because I walked a lot to and from campus, and my student budget didn’t permit so many indulgences and desserts. All of a sudden, with a leaner, smaller body, I began to gain more male attention. This only affirmed that there was definitely an unwritten rule that thinner girls got more ‘love’. This got me thinking a lot about the purpose and function of the human body; of my body. Were women encouraged to remain thin simply because it made us more attractive to the male gaze? Is the female body simply to serve as an object to be viewed and rated? Was this the unwritten rule we should really live by? How did society’s approval of my body affect my sense of self-worth and mental health? I couldn’t seem to answer any of these questions until I found an online community of women discussing body positivity and fat shaming.
Through them, I learned that my experience was not unusual. Many of these people had experienced eating disorders, body dysmorphia and depression because they felt an intense pressure to look a certain way. They too had been fat-shamed; criticised for their weight and appearance. By using unkind words and other shaming techniques, fat shamers bully people into believing that they should lose weight, eat less, and isolate themselves before they can participate in society, enjoy life and feel confident. The problem with fat shaming is that it mistakes someone’s weight as a reflection of their worth, their physical health and their well-being. But with so many people following rigorous eating plans at the expense of their mental health, thin doesn’t always equal healthy, and ‘fat’ doesn’t always imply unhealthy. At the end of the day, we have no idea what someone is coping with personally, and how this is affecting their weight. Discrimination in the form of fat-shaming can actually lead people to serious psychological and physical health issues, all in the name of some unattainable, Western understanding of ‘beauty’.
Body positivity is essentially a commitment to loving your body, regardless of your colour, shape or size. It encourages inclusion and acceptance, and it taught me to love my body for what it is, and to avoid listening to anyone else’s opinions. It helped me recognise that everybody has a unique experience with their own bodies, and we all get to set our own standards for beauty and health. Instead of conforming to conventional norms, we can set our own. Body positivity allows us to understand the human form not as an aesthetic or an image, but as a living, adaptive vessel created to help you breathe, move, dance, and love. Our bodies function non-stop to keep us alive and express affection – and that’s why they deserve our love, attention, and care – not our criticism.
Tell us: What do you love about your body?
If you liked this blog, you may also enjoy this article on victim blaming here.