ike an unfortunately large percentage of women in the U.S., I grew up criticizing my body and dieting regularly from a young age. I spent years of my life terrified I would never get “there,” the place where my weight and all perceived rewards of thinness would finally fall into place. Getting thin was the only answer I could think of to most of my problems, and conversely, “being fat” or gaining weight, meant “losing–” it meant never achieving, never being loved, never “having it all.”
I remember seeing body-positive campaigns like Dove’s Real Beauty or Victoria Secret’s Love Your Body — campaigns that encourage women to “love the skin they’re in” — and thinking “that’s nice, but I still wish I was thinner.”
I would see images of “real women” and think to myself, I don’t want to be one. I wanted to get ahead, stand out, be special, and I didn’t see how accepting my body the way it was would get me “there” — the place where my life would begin. I believed my dreams were 20 lbs. away from me, and what seemed like a forced, new ideal of beauty on a billboard didn’t seem to change that.
Eventually my relationship with my body did start to change… when I finally realized I can get the guy, the job, the cute clothes in the window right now, regardless of my weight. Women with “non-traditional body types” are not disabled from creating what they want in the world, we’re just taught that they are.
I learned by working with countless women around body image that helping women “unlearn” the rewards and punishments they experienced around weight as children or were made to fear by the mainstream media (which, by the way, doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon) is more powerful than simply telling someone “your body is beautiful the way it is.” While changing the figures and images in the media is an important and wonderful first step (particularly for building new beliefs in younger generations), it may fall on deaf ears amongst those who have already been brainwashed that “thin” is where life happens.
One could argue that’s why Lena Dunham is so successful — she’s not just saying “beauty at any size;” she’s saying “you can have it all at any size.” After all, our insecurity is not just about our bodies at its core — it’s about creating and feeling deserving of the life we want to live.
If we don’t actively dismantle the myths that have been embedded into women’s psyche around weight historically, those myths will linger, regardless of how many plus-sized models they see on billboards (again, important first step, but not necessarily the “answer” for women suffering from body hatred now).
In reality, women want to experience, they want to feel, they want to be… far more than they want to look. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught that looking a certain way is a prerequisite for “achieving” throughout the rest of our lives. If body-positive messages were effectively combating that myth, women’s beliefs systems about weight would be shaken at its roots, rather than its petals.
In other words, instead of simply shifting the global paradigm of beauty, we need to start exploring why those paradigms are meaningful to begin with, and challenge the validity of those beliefs.
What are YOU making “fat” mean?
Are you making fat mean that you’ll never find a suitable partner?
That you’re unworthy of the respect of your peers?
That you’ll never “make it” professionally?
That no one will take you seriously?
If we don’t address those underlying fears, few women will gain the confidence needed to say “F YOU” to a body paradigm that doesn’t serve them. Women need to believe that their body shape does not dictate their success in relationships, their success in the workplace, their social mobility, etc.
When our belief systems around weight change — that is, when we challenge the “meaning” we give to weight or body shape — our bodies naturally become our allies in achievement, rather than an obstacle to overcome.