For the women in my family, the body was a sFor the women in my family, the body was a source of anxiety, shame, a measure of discipline and worth – something to fret over, scrutinize, and punish for bad behavior. Food invoked anxiety and fear. Calories were meticulously tracked and exercised away as quickly as possible.The women openly complained about their “flaws” and lamented the numbers on the scale, while many of them ravenously ate a couple extra hundred calories in secret. I learned that life began five pounds (or, in my case, 10 pounds), from now.
I didn’t grow up feeling comfortable in, or good about my body. The body as a source of joy and vitality was an alien concept most of my life. I enjoyed food and wanted it, but I knew that made me weak, undisciplined and “bad.”
It didn’t help that I inherited my height from my father’s side of the family. I learned that beauty was a beast, one I had to conquer in order to measure up and feel good about myself. And that I had to conquer it no matter the costs because, hey, baby, you’re worth it.
My mother and the women in her family were all diminutive women with tiny feet, tiny hands, bird-like shoulders, and bitty waists. They were delicate flowers that liked to remind people that they were “petite.” From the time I’d entered fourth-grade, I was referred to as “big-boned,” “solid,” “big like her dad’s side of the family” and in need of “losing a few pounds.” I had surpassed my great-grandmother in height by the time I was 11. By seventh-grade, I was taller than my mother and grandmother. Measuring 5’3” and weighing 130 pounds, I was an “Amazon,” that poor freak of nature that had inherited the wrong set of genes.
I knew none of these comments were compliments. In fact, most little girls want to secretly flip someone the bird when an annoying aunt or family friend hovers and croons, “My, she’s gotten to be such a big girl!” “Big” and “girl” don’t go together well in our culture. But I didn’t have the confidence or wherewithal to say, “Whoah, whoah – back the hell up. Don’t you all know you’re talking about my body right in front of me? Don’t you know your tones are either derisive or filled with worry about my size? Don’t you know this kind of body talk objectifies me and makes me feel like shit?”
Nope, I was too deeply mired in my own shame and guilt about my body. Oh, why oh why wasn’t I born short with a delicate bone structure? Plus, these were my family members and adults in my life that I respected, admired, and trusted. I believed they had my best interests at heart. And they did. They really did. I don’t doubt that for an instant.
My mother and my grandmother, the two women I idolized more than anyone else and who loved me deeply, were projecting their own anxieties and insecurities on me because they didn’t know any better. We’re all prone to absorbing the socially constructed images and messages in our cultural environment.
And they’re no exception.
Like me, their own families, peers, and the society they grew up in influenced their sense of self and their measure of worth as girls and women. Like me and legions of other girls and women, they internalized the notion that what matters most, aside from any other skills or talents, is how pretty they are (and in our culture, pretty is synonymous with skinny). Not how they feel, not what they can do, not how healthy they are.
And, let’s be honest, there are lots of skinny people who aren’t healthy. In fact, health never entered the conversation in my household. Losing five or ten pounds was never a matter of health, but a matter of aesthetics.
I mean, ceaselessly dieting, from the Atkins diet to the pineapple diet (where you consumed vast quantities of pineapple because pineapple would “eat” away the extra fat you were carrying), over exercising, diet pills, caffeine, and excessive calorie restriction isn’t exactly the yellow brick road to optimal health.
After years of compulsive and punishing exercise (my mother got me a gym membership when I turned 12), severe calorie restriction, bouts of binging and purging, and Slim Fast shakes for breakfast, I stumbled into a yoga class led by Bryan Kest.
It was the mid-nineties, I was 24-years-old and my life was about to radically change. Everything I knew about my body, everything I felt toward my body, and my negative self-talk was about to undergo a seismic shift. For the first time since early childhood, I was about to learn how to be comfortable and radiant in my own skin. For the first time in my life, I was about to learn how to love my body.
I settled in on my mat in a space that would become the rare and sacred space devoid of competition. A space uncluttered by external chatter, removed from the world of advertising and one that would quiet and soothe my own self-critic. Kest began that first class by inviting me back into my body. “Welcome to your bodies. Welcome to yoga.”
By Melanie Klein–My students and I talked back to mainstream media by creating our own messages. We let them know that we’re fed up with what we’re being given and told them what we want.
Sometimes anger can spark real change, especially when it gets us to move away from thinking “What’s wrong with me?” and start questioning what’s wrong with a culture that makes us feel so bad about ourselves so much of the time. Margaret Cho knows a little something about that. She went off in a much-publicized and justified Twitter tirade last week. After being on the receiving end of some snarky comments about her body, Cho lost it. As she eloquently put it, “I blew a f****ing gasket. I screamed out loud and tracked the perps down and blocked them, but not before really ramming it to them in the strongest language I could use.” For years she’s been told she needed to lose more weight, she wasn’t pretty enough, and worse. Cho reacted to this latest criticism in a massive, over-the-top rant, during which she basically told the haters to shove it.
When you’re repeatedly told you don’t meet the ridiculously narrow and unrealistic expectations of beauty, that negativity can mess with your head for a long time until you eventually just get sick of it…and then get totally pissed off. And the way I see it, getting pissed off is a whole lot healthier than retreating into self-hatred.
While not all of us have our anger at this body-hating injustice shared across the internet, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that it isn’t valid. As I quoted in an earlier post:
It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice.” –bell hooks
“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked with grave concern as chicken grease ran down his fingers and his chin. We’d just finished a rigorous hike and I was starving—famished, ravenous and slightly light-headed. I mean, really, we’d been cavorting, frolicking and climbing the local mountains in the summer heat for over 6 hours and I hadn’t eaten anything except for an apple. Maybe.
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” I replied. He paused mid-bite and questioned me with raised eyebrows. “I’m good–really,” I said sounding far too relaxed and nonchalant about something as serious as a meal after physically exerting myself as excessively as I had. But, nope, I wouldn’t change my mind. I was not going to let him see me eat, especially a greasy, messy meal like that. Mind you, this is the same guy I wouldn’t take a pee around. I’d turn the faucet on when I had to go really bad to make sure he didn’t hear me, otherwise I’d hold it until I got home. I know I wasn’t the only 17-year-old girl to pull a stunt like that.
If there was anything I’d learned up to that point, it was that girls and women don’t have bodily functions or odors (unless they’re created in chemical factories and mask your natural female body smells), and they aren’t supposed to be seen eating (unless it’s yogurt, salad or other “girl” food) or sweating (unless they’re sweating like women should—hello, female antiperspirant industry).
Fast forward to 15 years later:
“Are you going to eat that?” the student I had been mentoring asked with nervous excitement. “Yes,” I said awaiting the sweet taste of carrot cake as my fork hovered close to my lips. “In public?” she continued.
“Um, where else should I eat it? In the bathroom or the broom closet?” I laughed as I sank my teeth into the cream cheese frosting knowing perfectly well that those were considered viable options, ones preferred over this scenario—that of a woman eating cake out in public in broad daylight. I’m talking a slice of cake, not a bite of cake and not an entire cake. A slice of cake. On a Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon. There was no special occasion. I simply wanted some cake and I felt no shame or remorse about it. Shame and guilt had led me to stuff myself in private after starving myself publicly one too many times in the past.
“Wow. I admire you. I wish I could do that,” she said slowly. I asked her what was stopping her and she went on to tell me about her mother, a woman who kept a scale in the dining room so she could look at it while she ate dinner and remind herself not to eat too much. And when it came to cake? Well, her mother always cut much smaller slices for the girls and reserved the big frosted pieces for the boys at the family party.
We continued to have lunch on campus between classes with a few other students for several weeks and each time I’d enjoy something sweet without embarrassment or great fanfare on my end. One day she sat down and said, “I have to tell you something.” She giggled like someone about to dish a shameful secret. “I went to my cousin’s birthday party over the weekend and when my mom handed me a thin slice of cake on a paper plate, I told her that I wanted a big one. She looked at me with surprise as I put the plate she handed me back on the table and grabbed one of the large slices. I felt great.”
My body is a battleground. I have spent most of my life waging a war on it. I have vivid girlhood memories of my worth being measured by my waist size and numbers on a scale. I was taught that I must “suffer to be beautiful.”
This troubled relationship with body and self continued into middle school, as I hid my budding curves; into high school, when I combined starvation, purging, and over exercising; and well into adulthood, including during my pregnancy and postpartum experience.
But I am not alone—and sadly, this body hatred is nothing new. I am part of a lineage of women who declared war on themselves, from my great-great grandmother who donned the organ-crushing corset, to my great-grandmother who internalized the Victorian feminine ideal of daintiness and measured each bite meticulously; to my grandmother who cinched her waist with girdles and ate diet pills for lunch; and down to my mother who embodied the emaciated silhouette of the 1970s and aerobicized her way into the 1980s and early 1990s with her food-and-exercise diary tucked in her purse.
This is not just my legacy. This is an experience shared by countless girls and women, beginning at earlier and earlier ages and affecting them well into their later years. This legacy of low self-esteem and self-objectification–punctuated by disordered eating, continuous exercise and abusive fat talk–keeps us stuck in an unhealthy cycle that holds us back and prevents us from being truly empowered. As bell hooks states, these practices are “self-hatred in action. Female self-love begins with self-acceptance.”
Okay, so how do we get to that self-acceptance? As the number of girls and women engaged in these destructive habits increases exponentially, the good news is that campaigns such as Operation Beautiful, Fat Talk Free Week and the NOW Foundation’s LoveYour Body Day are rising up to combat the onslaught of voices undermining our personal and collective self-esteem.
Campaigns like these give us great opportunities to take action for change. I have also found that self-affirming rituals such as banishing self-criticism and honoring my body through reverence and celebration to be rewarding and transformative. In fact, I have felt the most beautiful and whole when I have silenced the critic in my own head, limited my level of media exposure and engaged in loving practices such as yoga that allow me to cultivate respect for my body as opposed to deepening my disdain and disappointment.
Your mother gave birth to you–her body was the vehicle for creating, carrying and birthing a miraculous new life, your life. While we may not always see ourselves as miraculous, stop and ask yourself this question: why not? When did your body, a source of wonder and magic in childhood, stop being the source of the miracle that is you? Ask yourself why self-loathing is heaped on generation after generation of women, whose bodies should garner respect and gratitude. Can you switch the conversation in your head? Can you identify two things that you appreciate and respect about your body? Maybe even five? Can you identify one new thing every day?
Respect is the connective strand that binds Carmen Siering’s 20 ways to love your body post. If we can learn to respect our bodies, perhaps we can learn to love our bodies over time, and eventually turn that self-love into personal liberation.
How many times have you looked at a model in a magazine or an actress on TV and thought, “Hey, that doesn’t look like me or anyone I know”? This group of students decided to talk back about the difference between media fantasy and their reality.
It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice.
Let’s face it, we’re plugged into an awful lot of media. Sometimes we’re aware of what we’re consuming, like when we turn on the television, go to a movie or download a new song off iTunes. But much of the time it isn’t an active choice. Think about all the billboards and ads we’re subjected to without our consent. Add up the images from the voluntary and involuntary sources and you’ve got a tidal wave of images —and most don’t look anything like us or the girls we know. Several of the students in my Women and Pop Culture class decided they’d had enough-they were going to talk back to the media and tell them what “real” women look like.
“Look! I married you a certain way! I like women who look a certain way! It’s my right to like women who look a certain way and I shouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life not being happy,” Brad exclaimed.
The retort from my friend Jasmine’s husband was a reaction to her staunch refusal to get ‘another set’ less than two months after removing the implants that nearly cost her her life. For nearly a decade Jasmine endured numerous health complications that Western doctors claimed had nothing to do with her silicone breast implants.
Brad seemed different from her last fiance, which is why Jasmine married him. He seemed open-minded, kind, forgiving, gentle, nurturing, and accepting. When she sprouted a few stray gray hairs in her late twenties he urged her not to pluck them saying he loved her “wisdom hairs.”
Tim, her boyfriend a decade earlier, told her she was perfect and the “girl of his dreams.” Well, almost. She was the girl of his dreams except her breasts were too small and she’d be perfect if they were bigger. In fact he’d marry her if she’d consider breast enlargement surgery. Within a week Jasmine, then 18 years old in 1990, found herself under the knife. When she woke up the static and lifeless silicone orbs on her chest were much larger than what she had agreed to during the initial consultation. The consultation that came within days of her halfheartedly agreeing to consider them.
Jasmine was genetically tiny and naturally beautiful by today’s standard. Now she embodied the girl on the back of a trucker’s mudflap. Tim’s version of the perfect wife. As promised, they were quickly engaged and twenty-five-year-old Tim, the ‘hot guy’ in town, paraded her around like a trophy–until she had the courage to leave him for being emotionally abusive and controlling.
“Kid, you’ll move mountains!
So…be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Shea,
You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!” – Dr. Seuss
Graduation gifts used to include things like jewelry, a hi-tech gadget, a trip abroad, or maybe even a new car if that’s in the budget. These days, the question is, new breasts or a nose job, and which one is more appropriate as a graduation gift. When I was growing up, I was relentlessly teased, called every anti-Semitic name imaginable and even dreamed of having my nose reshaped into something less Jewish and more American. At the time, “Ethnic Rhinoplasty” wasn’t in vogue, and my delusional dream quickly lost its luster. A lot has changed over the years—these days it’s common to surgically refine or remove one’s ethnicity with plastic surgery. In some cultures, it’s even considered a rite of passage. The desire for teens to alter their looks isn’t new, though: In 2005, the NY Times wrote about the surge in Botox treatments among young adults. At that time, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS),
People from ages 19 to 34 had 427,368 botox procedures; 100,793 laser resurfacing treatments; 128,779 injections of hyaluronic acid (Restylane or Hylaform); 29,160 eyelid surgeries; and 1,094 face-lifts.
Though recent studies show a drop in procedures, there is a still a desire to be wrinkle-free in an effort to defy the inevitability of aging. In fact, a new survey by ASAPS shows “more than half of all Americans regardless of income approve of plastic surgery.” As disturbing as it is, this trend of parents giving their grads the gift of surgical “enhancement,” is really part and parcel to this growing shift toward homogenization.
Certainly, for some teens, plastic surgery can be positively life-changing. For example: a child who’s subject to excessive teasing because of an severely misshapen ears may positively benefit from otoplasty; a burn victim can return to relative normalcy with appropriate plastic surgery; a breast reduction can allow a young girl to exercise without neck and back pain. On the other hand, what lies beyond what’s necessary for some is the skewed perceptions of beauty and perceived normalcy inadvertently thrust upon teens through social and mainstream media. The innate dissatisfaction with how we look contributes to how we meet the world. To really illustrate this, we can look at the recent uproar that came about when a mother defended her decision to give her 8-year-old daughter Botox injections. Makes you wonder: What 8-year-old has wrinkles? Better yet, what 8-year-old is even aware of wrinkles?
Now, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS):
Statistics gathered over the last several years indicate a decrease in the overall number of cosmetic (aesthetic) surgeries of teenagers (those 18 and younger) having cosmetic surgery, with nonsurgical procedures including laser hair removal and chemical peels being the most popular in 2010.
These statistics are both good and bad. I mean, the fact that less invasive surgeries are on the decline is certainly positive, but I am concerned about the remaining high numbers of girls seeking these procedures. We know teens are up against extraordinary pressure to look and be a certain way–some of it is normal adolescence–but when parents start giving their kids gift certificates for a new nose or new breasts, the lesson becomes less about self-esteem and more about trying to attain the pop-culture paradigm of perfection.
If we start by parenting our children with this idea that they aren’t enough, we end up sowing the seeds of self-hatred and dissatisfaction. Instead of laying a foundation of confidence and positive self-esteem, we end up paving a rocky road to negative behaviors, which inevitably contribute to disordered eating and eating disorders alike. This is a wonderful opportunity to look at what messages we are trying to give our kids. Growing up is tough; let’s not contribute to the social tyranny by fanning the fires of social awkwardness.
Bottom line? There are far more appropriate gifts for your teen than going under anesthesia and accumulating scars, no matter how small they are.
Originally posted at Visions Teen and revised for Feminist Fatale.
Guest speaker Melanie Klein, spoke about eating disorders and how pop culture has influenced men and women. Photo Credit: Mariela Molina / Staff Photographer
CSUN adjunct sociology professor Melanie Klein advocated the understanding of media images and their effect on the self-esteem during a lecture held by CSUN’s Joint Advocates on Disordered Eating (JADE) Wednesday for national eating disorders awareness week.
“By being constantly plugged in and mediated to, our culture has lost the connection between mind and body,” said Klein, who also teaches women’s studies and sociology at Santa Monica College (SMC).
JADE’s theme for this year’s eating disorder awareness week focused on internal and external beauty, said Grace Wiesmann, JADE graduate coordinator.
“We wanted to promote a positive body image that wasn’t only based on what the media shows us,” Wiesmann said. “We want to enjoy who we are and recognize what we enjoy about ourselves.”
Klein said students need to become aware of how much media they consume, whether it be through television, advertisements, internet or via smart phones, and learn how to deconstruct those images to cultivate and maintain a positive self-image.
Klein, who has personally experienced disordered eating and poor self-image, said reducing media consumption could help individuals feel better about themselves because they remove the temptation to compare themselves to others.
“Body images have fundamentally changed in the past 20 years,” Klein said.
Klein emphasized that the images with which people are inundated daily do not reflect reality although the ideals they represent are expected to be emulated.
Beauty icons from the 1950s and 60s were just that, icons, not images to replicate, she said. Today, women are told they can and should look like modern beauty icons and are shamed when they cannot fit that mold.
For the past ten years, Klein assigned her students an exercise: they are to stand still, clothed, in front of a mirror for fifteen minutes followed by another fifteen minutes without clothes. Klein said she receives similar feedback every semester.
“Students tell me that they noticed they started picking apart their entire bodies and identifying flaws,” she said. “So I ask, how did you come up with the idea that these things were wrong?”
Klein said there is a correlation between the increasingly provocative images distributed through media and the rise in body loathing. She cited Facebook as a portal through which people are seeing and scrutinizing themselves, in addition to films that emphasize beauty as the fundamental reflection of a person’s worth.
Relationships with the opposite sex have also been affected by this media influence. Klein said studies show that young men have difficulty achieving and maintaining erections because they are more aroused by altered images of women.
“When (men) get women’s clothes off, they’re not as turned on,” she said. “Real women have stretch marks, moles and dimples.”
Klein said men and women must shift these perceptions to maintain perspective.
“Instead of complaining that my legs are jiggly, why am I not grateful that I have two legs? Some people don’t have two legs,” she said. “But that’s not enough, we’re pissed that the legs that allow us to walk do not look like those on the magazine.”
This creation of an unattainable reality has permeated modern society. Klein said no demographic has been spared from this criticism, including pregnant women, men and children.
Junior Dinia Sepulveda, 21, said she attended the lecture to educate herself in order to help family members who have eating disorders, one of whom started dieting at 4-years-old.
“It opened my eyes to the (importance) of not staying quiet,” the sociology major said. “(My cousin) is a teenager now and I want to take the responsibility to say something.”
When a friend or loved one asks the dreaded question, ‘Does this make me look fat?’ rather than assume they are seeking validation, Klein said to consider they may be unaware of what they look like.
An impulse to compare bodies and engage in self-deprecating behavior may alter the way people physically see themselves.
“You do not go from pretty to ugly or from thin to fat in five minutes,” she said. “There has been no change in your actual body but a shift in your body image.”
Although the mental reflex to compare oneself to others is natural due to the way modern media socializes its audience, Klein said a daily exercise could change that habit.
“Rather than pick out what is wrong with you, find what you like about yourself or what you are grateful for,” she said. “The way we are treating ourselves now is a waste of time.”
Klein said that taking two minutes to have a positive conversation with oneself could effectively shift negative body images and bridge the gap between mind and body.
“It’s a waste of energy to put ourselves down,” she said. “We’ve lost the magic and miracle of our bodies.”
PROGRAM DESCRIPTION: Mirror, Mirror: Body Image and Pop Culture With sharp wit, humor and keen insight, Melanie Klein explores the ways in which pop culture has affected and distorted our body image, our perception of others as well as our expectations and dreams. Combining research statistics, cultural observations and personal experiences, Melanie encourages us to recognize the beauty that we all possess
PARKING: Park in Student Lot, G4 or the parking structure, G3 Parking permits may be obatined at the information booth off Parthenia and Lindley.
Please arrive on time. Seating is limited. All events during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week on campus are *free* and *open to students and the community*.
Daena Title‘s “Drown the Dolls” exhibit at the Koplin del Rio Gallery in Culver City, CA has been drawing attention (and mixed reviews) since it was first announced on the Ms. blog by Stephanie Hallett 3 weeks ago. I’ll be part of a panel this Saturday that will critically examine and discuss Title’s body of work. View the show and join us for a conversation on beauty norms, body image, girlhood play, childhood socialization, violence against women and all things Barbie.