“I’m eating so unhealthy,” he said, “I’m not getting like obese or anything but I used to be so thin, in college. I miss that.”
My knee-jerk reaction to the word “thin” is scrambling to figure out how I can de-fuse the conversation and move away from all the potential body-shame.
“Eh,” I said casually, “I literally don’t care what my body looks like, as long as I feel good.” And when I say good I mean actually healthy and happy, not the momentary good feelings that come from eating junk food.
“But you always look good,” he said, and not in a flattering, glib way, just as though he were stating a fact. “You’re so thin…”
And I started to check out of the conversation in compete boredom as he rambled about my metabolism or something. Because to be honest, every time I say anything about my body, my size, my weight, even though it’s mostly about how I legitimately don’t give a shit, the people around me find it necessary to reassure me about it anyway.
First of all, this response is really, really boring. I just told you I like my body the way it is, I feel fine about it, I’ve got ridiculously good self-image. You don’t have to go repeating phrases I already know.
Second of all, I know exactly why people think those phrases are necessary. Why it’s so many people’s automatic reaction to any mention of a female’s body image. I know about eating disorders, and about the unreasonable pressures to look a certain way. I know that even women with bodies like mine, which falls squarely on the “socially accepted standard of beautiful” side of the spectrum, are at risk for all sorts of self-loathing, dieting to change their weight, and harmful behaviors spurred by poor self-image. And that breaks my heart.
Here’s my thing: I like the shape of my body, I like the things it does for me. But I can decorate a bit. I believe that each person should be able to embrace their own physicality, and although we should be encouraged to behave and live in healthful ways, no one should ever be expected to live up to an ideal that is unrelated to their own body, their own lifestyle, their own identity. At the same time, each person should be completely free to express themselves, to present their bodies, in any way they choose. When I see myself in the mirror with my piercings, tattoos, and red hair, I see me. If I were to see myself in the mirror completely “natural”, brown hair, no piercings or tattoos, I wouldn’t feel that the image I was presenting to the world was honestly me. I’d feel that I was presenting as a past version of me, a me that I don’t like and have worked hard to get away from.
That’s a tricky line to walk of course, embracing my body for what it is and at the same time presenting my appearance in a way that communicates who I am. And I think we all need to start extending greater compassion to other people, not just by avoiding body-shaming, but by avoiding appearance-shaming as well. Whether it’s as simple as accepting that my mom’s cardigans, aversion to makeup, and long graying hair is as much her as my red hair, piercings and tattoos are me, or as complicated as accepting every form of gender and gender expression across the human spectrum (which digs deep into layers of socially constructed meaning and several types of prejudice), I’ve got to accept each person for who they are, not just “on the inside” but on the outside as well. I’ve got to expand my definition of beauty. I’ve got to stop myself short every time I start judging someone’s appearance (and I’ll admit I can do that a lot, I’m often pretty shallow that way), and start thinking in positive ways not simply about weight and health but about every aspect of self-presentation.