The Never-Ending Story: Body Image and the Female Struggle

If you identify as a woman, you’ve done it: at one time or another — maybe even everyday — you’ve formed the shape and traced and retraced the curves of a “perfect,” flawless you in your mind. Most of us have things we’d love to change about our bodies — remove a birthmark or mole here, pinch off some stomach flab there, move up a cup size (or down a few!), shrink our nose and poof up skinny lips… (How I always imagine it is pretty accurately portrayed in this video by Cassey Ho). But I’d like to hope that most of us wouldn’t go to extremes with our alternate self-image to set her as our personal standard or goal. She’s probably a slightly modified duplicate of what we think of as the “average” or “ideal” woman’s body type, but creating that duplicate only sets us up for unrealistic goals and problematic views of the “female image” and our own bodies.

“Fat” isn’t a bad word, but neither is “skinny.” What we think of as “healthy-looking” should be whatever a real, unfiltered healthy body looks like — and it can be if we let it. There is no “just right” of body types.

 The media (of course, how many times have we heard this?) feeds us photo after photo, commercial after commercial, featuring representatives of a nymph-like standard, and many attempts at inclusivity generate even more restricting and harmful standards for curvy or plus-size women (Google the backlash of clothing campaigns using not-so-plus-sized “plus-size” models). On top of that, what else harms our conception of a healthy body?

 Friends and family. Almost all of my female friends have shared with me their dreams of an ideal body or rattled off complaints on what they have to settle with. I’ve heard everything from “I wish we could trade boobs!” to “Ohmygosh you’re so skinny, I’m jealous,” to “My hips are too wide,” and none of these comments help the speakers or who they’re speaking to. For many women and young girls, these types of discussions can even be bonding experiences — laughing off our insecurities and groaning together as we reluctantly plan workout dates — but ritualizing it all like this should send out a signal in our minds as a big hot pink flashing no-no warning sign. In my freshman year in college I met one young woman who seemed 95% content with her weight and it was inspiring; I remember blushing at her boldness during lunch, scrolling through gorgeous plus-size lingerie on her laptop in the cafeteria. Why can’t we all be happy and comfortable in our skin like that?

 Judgment from family is also inescapable. Well-meaning mothers and sisters are the number-one culprits of ugly standard-setting when they pass off body shaming as beauty tips. I know I’ve experienced it and I’ve probably contributed to the evil cycle in my family, too (teens are greatly affected by these “beauty tips” and comments, being younger and more sensitive to their bodies and the views of their peers). But who hurts us the most when love handles are squeezed by loved ones and cellulite shows like little ripples through our favorite weekend yoga pants? Ourselves. When (admittedly due to my awful and irregular eating habits and distinct lack of prolonged, scheduled physical activity) I first noticed my ab area reaching grabbable status, I joked to my boyfriend that I was now aiming for that classic painting look. Only later did I think back on my remark and realize that I’d been shaped and trained my whole life to joke about weight like that, to think it’s unacceptable, and to judge myself and other women who have those, frankly beautiful, shapely bodies, even if I’d never do that outwardly (this natural phenomenon of gaining weight is also often flatteringly referred to as “letting yourself go” — thanks).

It’s one thing to deprive our bodies of nutrients and good exercise (like yours truly), but it’s another to shame those who follow these guidelines and still don’t fit the “skinny” standard.

While the never-ending struggle of self-love and body image is not only a female one — and while there are harmful male body standards tossed around that shouldn’t go unacknowledged — it is still a battle whose updates are slapped onto our faces like flying newspapers. Instead of peeling them off on a daily basis we should spread the word: talk to your friends and family about their body image issues, and discourage negative talk by encouraging healthy eating and regular work-outs if they insist on seeing some change. Discuss those updates and stay informed about important developments, like the increase in (actual!) plus-size models in ad-campaigns — are they truly being hailed as one type of “real woman” or are they being compared to typical models and (problematically) put on a separate pedestal? The best thing we can do is uplift the women around us and spread body love, because our bodies love us back. ❤


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