When life throws you lemons, thank it for the snack

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Thoughts on Body Shaming

Let me preface this particular post with a few tidbits about myself. I am a feminist in the original sense of the word. I believe ALL individuals are equal. I don't think any gender is better or worse than the other. I also don't think that the current generation is beholden for the sins of the previous generation. Each person is responsible for the consequences of their own actions, not the actions of another. Also, I don't believe that someone who was not directly affected by an action has any claim to the repercussions received by the real victims of said action. As a libertarian, using the text book definition of the term, I believe that we are free to live our lives as we see fit, with one caveat. One person's rights ends where another person's begins. That means that I believe you are free to live your life so long as it doesn't adversely interfere with the life of another person. Once you start crossing personal boundaries, then you have to negotiate and compensate and work with others or back away. Oh, one other thing about me: I have this nasty ability (a habit, even) of seeing the world from multiple perspectives. I look at things from at least two sides of the story, sometimes even more. That doesn't mean that I am wishy-washy in my beliefs or that I am indecisive. It means that I try to analyze as much data as possible before I come to any conclusions. I suppose I also have a tendency to grow impatient with individuals who sound like they want an intelligent discussion but only take a side and stick with it without bothering to listen honestly to the rebuttal. I've been infuriated with all kinds of stubbornly held strong beliefs. Don't get me wrong; I think it is very important for formation of a self-identity to determine where your beliefs lie. My problem is with pure stubbornness and the refusal to acknowledge any beliefs that contradict or do not exactly line up with your own.

Now that my form of thinking has been explained (and I would not be surprised if it was just skimmed over instead of read with any heart-felt interest), I can get to the matter at hand. I know this blog in general is supposed to be my attempt at finding the bright side of things. You will have to bear with me to the bitter end of this one to find it, I'm afraid, on this particular post. I have a lot of pent-up emotions that are too extensive for Twitter or Facebook or Google+ to allow me to convey. I'm even worried that I may find some magical limit on Blogger, too, but I just feel the need to get these thoughts out there. Perhaps I can encourage a few of the 7+ billion people on this planet to stop and think, to listen to other sides of a story. Eh, it's okay if I don't, too. At least I have the freedom to express these thoughts, even though it might pose a minor risk to my ego. So, here goes something.

By the way, I was finally prompted to get around to posting this particular topic because of Meghan Trainor's song "All about That Bass." It's played every time I take my daughter to dance class, so I get to hear it A LOT. And I, too, initially jumped on the "Girl power! You go, sister!" bandwagon that circulated Facebook along with the video. Believe it or not, Trainor is not the first artist, writer, person to scream to the world that a person does not have to reach and maintain a particular body size or shape to be considered beautiful. Then I started to listen to the song more carefully. At the same time, I came across numerous posts, tweets, re-posts, shared links, etc. that were fed up with the "fat shaming" of the media. The messages seemed to be clear: society is tired of "skinny minis" and wants its females to have some meat on their bones. Okay, as a life-long obese woman, I guess I'm supposed to be grateful for people finally standing up for the repressed fat woman. There are countless articles in professional and academic journals, as well as other forms of media, indicating that obesity (we're talking mostly any size in the double digits here) is seen as a personal characteristic, much like race and gender and religion, that is being used to show unfair prejudice in employment, compensation, housing, education, even dating and parenting. There are six other classifications that ARE protected from prejudicial discrimination by federal laws in the United States (look for a long-overdue post on my Misused Psychology Terms blog on the difference between prejudice and discrimination next week). These six categories are: Age, Race, National Origin, Gender, Religion, and Disability (mental and physical). Not only do the legal courts punish people for mistreating someone because of one of these characteristics, but the court of public opinion also inflicts even greater punishments for such actions. In fact, we have gone so far as to hold a prejudice against anyone who has a prejudice. Yep, the libertarian feminist in me screams in response to that, as well.

So, we're swinging the pendulum wildly now. It's not that we have dropped the idea of beauty as having a certain size and shape. It's more that we are hearing others say "Stop telling me that I don't fit YOUR ideal. I'm going to make my own!" As a psychologist, I can't help but hypothesize that a lot of the outcry is not about bringing up a part of the population that has suffered scorn and injustice for generations so much as a growing obese population who doesn't want to feel bad about their life choices. We can come up with as many excuses as we want, but the truth of the matter is that most individuals, greater than 90% in fact, who are obese got there through unhealthy life choices concerning diet and exercise. Less than 10% of the obese or overweight population are of that size because of a direct genetic or biological cause. If you're allergic to milk and you drink milk and get a rash, blaming the dairy farmers or the grocery store is not going to change the fact that you drank the milk despite your allergy. People want to blame stress and a fast-paced society for their poor health choices. These are only modifiers, not direct causes. We make choices. We need to accept the consequences (using the behaviorist definition of the word, which has no positive or negative emotional connotation to it) of those choices.

You know, the anti-fat-shaming movement is still making the same mistake that its opponents make: focusing on beauty. So, now we're empowering "padded" girls to have self-confidence in their looks. They are beautiful without having to have just the right "Barbie" dimensions. By the way, have you actually looked at a Barbie? I've had some of those dolls that couldn't wear the clothes of other dolls because the hips were too wide. I think that indicates some loosening of standardized sizing, just saying. So, yeah, fat girl power pushes the idea that all women, short or tall, skinny or plump, are beautiful. Sorry. I'm not going to buy that. For one thing, every human being has their own flaws and imperfections that would fail the test of a "perfect beauty standard" because that's the point of the perfection standard--some people can come very close, but it wouldn't be perfection if anyone could actually reach it. Look up some ancient Greek philosophical discussions on the nature of things to see where I'm going with this. Plato is particularly infuriating.

My point is two-fold. 1) We're still stuck with this notion that beauty is the most (maybe the only) important qualification for women (in some rare Internet rants men are mentioned). If you'd like to see a contrary opinion, one of the growing number of people trying to get away from words like beauty, just check out an article (post?) by James Michael Sama titled "10 Things More Important Than Beauty." I've read a few others, but his was the first one I could easily find again. Maybe that's another indication of the beauty obsession in itself. 2) The fat girl power movement has taken all the rage of being marginalized and turned it against their opposites, the skinny women. Even in Meghan Trainor's song, she does not speak kindly of thin women. So, fat is beautiful, but that's supposed to mean that skeletal is not? Doesn't that just make you hypocritical? Here's an interesting little factoid: not all women who appear skeletal or smaller than a size 5 (sizes are mostly arbitrary anyway) got that way a) to purposefully gain attention and attract a mate or b) via unhealthy means such as anorexia. I personally know of many women whose metabolism is naturally set to hummingbird and they couldn't gain more than a few pounds no matter how hard they tried. Just stop the judgement, please! Some thin women worked hard to maintain their bodies, not necessarily because they drank the society beauty Kool-Aid, but because they wanted it for themselves. And all of this discussion leaves a lot of confusion for what I would term "healthy women" who are neither skeletal nor obese, but rather somewhere in between, any maybe even have a strong muscular structure that many people confuse for fat.

While I'm on the topic of the beauty of fat, I've also noticed that there are still people who are left out of the club. The severely obese, such as those individuals like myself, are still not considered beautiful. I don't have my "junk in all the right places" as the song states. My proportions are not nicely packaged. My abdomen contains too many jiggly stretch marks to ever be considered beautiful. A lot of people like to bring up Renaissance paintings as evidence that fat was once considered beautiful. Have you looked at a Renaissance nude lately? I see no loose skin, no stretchmarks. Everything is well toned, just increased by layers. Fat on men and women does not neatly grow in smooth layers. It lumps and clumps, especially when you spend years trying to tame it or hide it. In addition, being a fat woman does not guaranteed a large bosom. I hate to burst a beauty bubble here, but there are some large women, myself included, who do not have a DD cup size. The body grows in proportion, meaning that if the woman were her "ideal" size (let's pretend there's an actual medical definition of this, which, unfortunately there is not), she might have the same C (or smaller) cup size breasts. For those of you not in the know, a cup size is the difference between the chest size, found above or below the breasts, and the largest point sticking out on the breasts themselves. The greater the difference, the larger the cup and larger, by proportion, a woman's bosom. By Barbie beauty standards, a C cup is too small. If your boobs extend beyond your belly, regardless of your size, then you have a chance of being considered attractive. We're not going to get into pregnant women, as they get a whole different set of standards. If you can squeeze out a Grand Canyon-like cleavage, then it's okay to have hips to go with it. But if you are blessed (or cursed, depending upon your perspective) with a pear shape, then you're not going to get to play with the big girls in the beauty arena. This also seems to apply to skinnier women, but they can get away with smaller bust sizes because they are smaller overall. This is based on my observations of social reactions to images of feminine beauty, which also include reading honest-to-God real scientific research studies showing the same darned thing.

What might seem to be one of my personal problems is that I live in reality. I never had any ambitions about attracting anyone, so I never put in extra effort to glamorize myself. I just didn't see physical beauty as all that important. I often don't even have an image of what I look like, just a vague concept of this being that contains my consciousness and that I have to maintain in order to continue to live in this reality. See, I tried to develop my intelligence and moral code. I tried to better myself and learn about the world around me. By the way, living in reality has some severe set-backs. I don't seem to have as much fun as people who try to perpetuate their fantasy worlds, at least not according to these particular people. It cost me my apparent sham of a marriage. He wanted a fantasy, I felt it was my responsibility to keep grounded so that the popping bubble didn't cause damage. Guess who got damaged? That's right, the one left on the ground. He's still floating high on his fantasy bubble. It may burst, but maybe not for several years. In that time, I will continue to plod along in the real world, preventing fires so that I don't have to work twice as hard to put them out.

Oh, yeah, I am a fully-grown, fully functioning woman in my 30s and I don't obsess about sex. I'm not a prude who condemns it for others, but it's not all there is to life for me. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I feel this whole obsession about beauty is overrated. I didn't spend every waking moment of awareness of the opposite sex (yes, I am heterosexual) on the prowl trying to hunt down someone so I could use my womanly wiles to manipulate some man-meat to get what I wanted or needed. I find it disturbing that even the fat girl power messages have an undertone of forced sexuality. It seems as if the only reason society obsesses about beauty is because beauty is the only way to obtain sex. And, really, sex is the only reason for adulthood (and adolescence), right? NO! There is MUCH more to life than sex. And sex should NOT be used as a tool to manipulate or control others. This is a form of abuse, by the way. Again, I'm not condemning anyone who enjoys a good romp now and then, especially those individuals for whom sex is a part of a healthy adult relationship and neither seen as mere exercise nor the only reason for existence. However, obsessing about sex is just as bad as having a substance abuse problem or a shopping addiction (a real one, not a wannabe special declaration). Not to mention, all this "adult" obsession with sex and sexuality has very obviously trickled down to children. I don't mean older teenagers (age 15-19), I mean little children whose parents dress them in barely there bikinis and hootchie-mamma outfits because they think a five-year old prostitute looks cute. There are more important things in life than sex. There are better things to do with your body than obtain or give physical pleasure. Maybe once we get over the obsession with sex we can move past the obsession with beauty and the body shaming.

As I stated above, I live in reality. I've been accused of being an ice queen, of having no soul, of having no imagination because I do not find some forms of entertainment, such as romance (which, in all its media formats, pushes the notion that beauty is the most important thing because it is the key to an active sex life, which is supposed to be the only life) to be all that entertaining. I do have an imagination, I just know how to separate it from the real world. As such, I have absolutely no illusions concerning my own personal physical beauty. I have none. I will go so far as to say that I am not "Ah! Kill it!" or "That thing belongs in a side show" ugly, but I find nothing particularly attractive about my physical appearance. I've been overweight, probably obese, for almost my entire life. I'm short, ridiculously short but not short enough to be a midget or a dwarf and not short enough to be considered cute. My face and other features besides my body shape are wholly unremarkable. As I said, my obesity is pretty obvious. People have a hard time getting past the layers of fat to see the intelligence and personality within, and I have a lot of non-beauty potential to offer a world that doesn't value it, but needs it to keep things moving forward. There is absolutely nothing about my physical appearance that screams "attractive" or any other modern colloquialism for that concept. My ex was never attracted to my body. I presented him with a realistic foundation that kept him grounded, but then he got tired of it when he found an "attractive" alternative (I have opinions about that judgement, thus the quotation marks). I was never what he wanted, he just settled. I was the McDonald's burger he took until he could find an open table at the steakhouse. Again, I have no illusions about my personal appearance.

I don't keep pictures of myself, I don't like people taking my picture (when I'm in costume it's embarrassing, but I allow it because I'm proud of my workmanship), and I almost never use my real picture online, instead choosing an avatar that represents my personality and/or interests. And, for the record, I would NEVER use my child's image to represent myself. She is her own person. I don't post her image too often online, period, because I want to protect her from the predators out there. She's all I have. She's the most important anything and anyone in my life. I also don't sexualize her or push the idea that she needs to be beautiful. She is beautiful and I do occasionally compliment her on her appearance, but I also emphasize the wonder of her sweet disposition and loving heart and the excellence of her brilliant intelligence. If I tell her that she needs to lose weight, it's not because she'll never "catch a man" if she doesn't, it's because of a family history of health problems related to being overweight and a blow to self-esteem that occurs any time someone goes to a conventional store for clothing, only to find that nothing fits because the sizes don't go that far. (Really, can clothing manufacturers and retailers not count very high or something? Or do they like the idea of fat people running around naked because they can't find any clothes? It makes me wonder sometimes). She doesn't need to experience the fat-shaming childhood I experienced because I made poor choices in my eating and exercise options and others felt it was their right to insult or mistreat me for the results. Remember, I would rather prevent fires than put them out.

Okay. Okay. Enough! This is pretty whiny, complaining, maybe even dark. I promised a bright side for those who made it to the end. Well, believe it or not, I do see a bright side in being unremarkable from a beauty perspective. I am 10 times less likely to be a victim of the typical crimes perpetuated against women. Although rape is a crime of power and not sex or passion, very few rapists will target a woman of my size. There's no thrill of conquest in forcing yourself on a fat woman or an unattractive woman. The stereotype is that most unattractive or fat women have such low self esteem that they would gladly bed the first person who finds them remotely attractive, they're supposed to be that desperate. In addition, large women tend to carry a mystique about them. You don't know how much of their bulk is actually packing face-pounding muscle. Plus, since I "obviously" didn't spend that much time cultivating my personal beauty, I must have spent my days stuck in a library somewhere, so I would be too smart to fall victim in the first place. (Yes, I do realize that you can take my words and throw them back in my face in a pessimistic light when applied to thin women. See, I look at multiple sides. However, I'm not trying to do that here, so take your smug "between the lines" analysis and save it for your own blog. This is my platform.) Being an unattractive, overweight woman certainly has its disadvantages in a society that primarily values skin-deep unattainable notions of beauty. However, because I'm grounded in reality, and because I've been growing over the years toward a more optimistic view of the world, I CHOOSE to see the positive side. I really don't want to deal with more depression, so I'm not going to take myself down that road.

My true wish is for everyone to get off this whole body image kick, period. Tall, short, fat, skinny, male, female, cross gender, transgender, no gender, rainbow colored skin, why should we care? I believe anyone who adds something positive to society, anyone who helps mankind move forward and/or helps their fellow humans grow and learn has value (using the original dictionary definition of the term). That value is more important than a surface trait, though less profitable from a commercial standpoint. So, yeah, stop trying to shame everyone to make yourself feel better. You can improve your self-esteem without bringing others down.

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