Tag Archives: body image

Shaving Your Legs Is Not Feminist (But You Can Still Be A Feminist And Shave)

14 May

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I posted this picture (by Natalya Lobanova) on my Facebook page yesterday and received a bunch of varying responses to it. Some people loved it. A bunch of people shared it. But some also found it insulting and judgmental, and took it as a criticism of women who shave their body hair. A few took exception to the word “mutilating,” which, though modified by “slightly,” they thought was going too far. As with anything that sparks a discussion, I was interested in how people were reacting and why. The truth is that I really liked this image, and was surprised that people took offence to it. I think that talking about the fucked up things we do in order to be beautiful is super important, even if it’s sometimes uncomfortable.

Full disclosure, you guys: I shave my legs. I also shave my underarms, my bikini line, and this weird trail of dark had that goes from my belly button all the way down to my pubic hair. I had my ears pierced when I was eight years old because I was dying to wear for-real earrings. I wear makeup pretty much whenever I leave the house. And you know what? I like doing all of these things, because they make me feel pretty and more comfortable in my skin. But I also acknowledge that I grew up in a culture that taught me from day one to associate all of these arbitrary little changes that I make to myself with the concept of prettiness.

I’ve heard a few people say that the point of feminism is choice, and that the whole idea is that women should be able to make choices about their lives. For the record, I totally agree with that sentiment. But I also think it’s important to talk about the fact that choices don’t happen in a vacuum, and also that some choices aren’t feminist. Shaving your legs, for example, is not a particularly feminist choice. And I’m not saying that you can’t shave your legs and still be a feminist, but I do think we need to talk about stuff like this without immediately jumping to, “well, feminism is about choice and I made my choice and that’s that.”

For one thing, I’m not sure that a lot of women do actually feel like they have a choice about removing body hair. I mean, yes, technically, they do get to choose what happens to their body, but it’s pretty hard to feel like you’re actually making a fair, unbiased “choice” when your options are a) removing your body hair and enjoying the approval of our society or b) not removing your body hair and being on the receiving end of stupid jokes, insults and even harassment because of this. It’s pretty hard to frame it as a “choice” when society overwhelmingly approves of one option and punishes the other. So let’s not pretend that we’re not playing with loaded dice here.

The truth is that I play into patriarchal beauty standards every day. I wear cute dresses and I smear goop on my face to highlight my “features” and make my skin tone look more “even.” I wear shoes with heels on them because they make me taller and make my legs look longer. I push thin metal rods through holes that have been punched in my earlobes because I think that decorating my ears looks good. I carefully remove any body hair that might be visible when I’m wearing a bra and panties. And all of that is fine and none of it makes me not a feminist, but also those are all objectively anti-feminist choices. Because those choices don’t happen in a vacuum. They don’t happen because I woke up one day and thought, “hmmm, I’d really like to take a razor and remove the hair from some of the most sensitive skin on my body and endure painful, itchy razor burn for the next few days because that sounds like fun.” They don’t happen because just happened to be experimenting with painting interesting colours on my lips and decided that red and pink were my favourites. They happen because I grew up in a toxic culture that taught me that in order to be beautiful I had to alter my body, and every time I play into those ideas of beauty, I am reinforcing and validating that toxic culture. Every time I wear a cute skirt and heels, I am making it harder for women who want to break out of this fucked up ideal we’re forced into. And as much as I don’t want to, I need to own that fact.

It is fucked up that women are expected to change their natural appearance in order to be considered beautiful, or even just acceptable. We have body hair – growing it is a thing that naturally happens during puberty. Literally everyone has it. So why is it considered to be disgusting? Why are mannequins in underwear or bathing suits just fine, but these American Apparel models are thought to be hilariously obscene?

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Like, that is literally what I look like when I don’t shave. Possibly I am even hairier than that. This is what my body looks like. Why is that so gross to so many people?

We all make choices about our appearance, and none of those choices are going to make the feminist police come take our feminist cards away. But sometimes those choices reinforce the status quo and therefore contribute to the difficulty other women experience when their appearance varies from the strict norms that society dictates. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ever wear dresses or makeup or jewellery, but rather that we need to talk about why we do these things. And we need to stop pretending that such-and-such is a feminist choice because feminism is about choice and if I’m a feminist then everything I do is automatically feminist. No. That’s not how it works.

Wear dresses if you want to. Wear cute shoes and earrings and bright red lipstick. Shave off every hair on your body if that’s what feels right. But please recognize that you don’t do any of those things because you just happen to like doing them. Please acknowledge that you made a choice that was heavily informed by the fucked up misogynistic culture we live in. Accept that sometimes your choices are anti-feminist, not because you’re a bad feminist but because that’s the world we live in right now. And once you’ve done all that, let’s try to figure out a way to change things so that girls no longer have to feel like their bodies aren’t good enough just the way they are.

 

 

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Beauty Standards Are Bullshit

17 Mar

You’ve probably heard that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14.

Or a size 16, or a size 12, or a size 10, depending on who you ask.

Whatever number someone quotes you, the message is always the same: our standards of beauty have changed, and not for the better. The women whose bodies we worship now are thin and sickly, all of them suffering from eating disorders. Things aren’t how they were before, when we appreciated “real,” “normal,” “average” bodies. Our current standards of beauty should serve as evidence of how deeply fucked up our society is; we ought to return to our parents’ and grandparents’ ideals.

This whole concept is so popular that there have been a string of memes made about it:

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You know what makes me say fuck society? The fact that we think it’s totally cool to compare two women and declare one of them the champion of sexy. Because you know what’s super empowering to women? Telling them that there’s only one right way to be.

Beauty standards in the past maybe have been different than today, but that doesn’t mean they were better. They still offered a narrow, rigid idea about what made a woman attractive, and anyone who didn’t fit that ideal was not good enough. Why do we have the idea that the past was some kind of magical time when women had it easier in the looks department? Because let me tell you something: when it comes to their appearance, women can never, ever, ever fucking win. They’re always too old or too fat or too thin or too tall or too short or some combination of the above. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about now, or fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago, the story is always the same: women can never win.

I see people swooning over shit like the picture below, and I want to tear my hair out with frustration.

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This is not some kind of revolutionary fat-positive advertisement; It’s the same old shit we’re being sold day in and day out, just packaged in a different way. Stuff like this isn’t so very different from all the diets pushed on women today – both are ways of making women feel bad for whatever size they are. Both are ways of making money off of women by encouraging them to feel that their bodies are wrong or inadequate. Shaming one body type in order to promote another is never acceptable, no matter how you do it. There should never be a right way or wrong way for a person to look. All bodies are good bodies. I seriously cannot emphasize that enough.

All bodies are good bodies. All bodies are real bodies. All bodies are worthy of love and respect.

And if I hear one more person talk about how much “healthier” women looked in the past, I’m going to start flipping tables. You can’t tell how healthy someone is just by looking at them. There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding that fact, so let me repeat it: you cannot tell how healthy someone is just by looking at them. Unless you are someone’s doctor, unless you have run extensive tests and made note of their blood pressure and their iron levels and their thyroid function, you have no idea how healthy another person is. This applies to all people everywhere – you have no way of knowing if a fat person exercises or eats vegetables just by glancing at them, and you can’t tell if a skinny person has an eating disorder based on the circumference of their waist.

I’m not saying that our society’s obsession with skinny women is anything other than problematic –  the recent spike in eating disorders can almost certainly be attributed to how pressured women feel to be a certain size. We’re obsessed with thinness, and that obsession permeates nearly every aspect of our culture, from how food is branded and marketed to us, to “vanity sizing” in clothing, to every headline ever in women’s magazines promising to tell you how to lose weight, how to keep the weight off, and which celebrities lost their “baby weight” the fastest. Our attitudes towards weight and size are actively harmful to women, and I seriously cannot overstate my concern about girls and young women growing up in this climate. I think we’ve only just started to see the detrimental effects of our infatuation with thinness, and unless a major societal sea-change happens, things are only going to get worse.

But.

But.

None of this means that we should be criticizing thin bodies, because all bodies are good bodies. Some people are naturally quite thin, and making comments about how unhealthy they look is pointless and hurtful. And if someone genuinely is unhealthy? If someone has an eating disorder? How do you think they will end up perceiving their comments, when their disease is warping how they view body size in general and their own body in particular? I can promise you that any remarks you make will do them more harm than good.

I would wager that all women feel fucked up about their bodies, and sometimes tearing down another body shape (especially if that shape is the status quo) in order to build yours up can seem like the fastest and easiest way to make yourself feel better. But seriously, you guys, we have to get out of this cycle of putting each other down, criticizing each others’ looks, and making each other feel bad. The best way to fight the patriarchy is to stand united. The best way to empower ourselves is to celebrate all body types. The best way to fuck with beauty standards is not to change them, but to do away with them all together.

And the best, most feminist thing that we can do is to love ourselves just as we are and refuse to let anyone profit off of our insecurities.

Zits

26 Aug

It started the summer that I turned twelve. It started on my face, just a few red bumps across the bridge of my nose. I poked at them and they sort of hurt. At first I wondered if the bumps were a sort of rash or allergic reaction, but after a week or so I realized what they were. Zits.

I wasn’t too bothered by them in the beginning, really. In fact, I was sort of excited, because they were yet another sign that I was almost a teenager. On my cousin they’d looked strangely tough and grown up, and I hope that they would give me the same air of hardboiled adolescence. Mostly I just thought that they were normal, and that I would eventually grow out of them.

As the summer progressed, though, the bumps spread across my face, down my neck and over my back and chest. Huge patches of skin were angry and red; whiteheads started to appear, and I was mortified by the fact that I had to walk around with what seemed like enormous pus-filled lumps on my face.

I was even more mortified when my father pulled me aside and said that he’d noticed that I had blemishes and offered to send me to the doctor about them. In retrospect, I know that this was because he’d been teased as a teenager about his own pimply skin, but at the time I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole, then maybe regurgitate me in ten years’ time as a gorgeous twenty-something with a flawless complexion.

Our family doctor referred me to a dermatologist, whose treatments were the closest thing to torture that I’ve ever experienced. I would lie on a table under a magnifying glass with an enormous, burning light on it, and he would peer through the glass at my face. He had a funny metal instrument with a tiny sharp hoop at one end, and he would use that to pop my pimples. The light hurt my eyes, but closing them and having every fresh flash of pain come as a surprise was somehow worse. If I looked like I might start crying, he would tell me harshly that if I cried I would fill the open sores with bacteria.  So I would lie there, blood and pus running down my faces and my head aching from the bright light, trying desperately not to cry.

Once the doctor was finished shredding my skin, he would pour iodine over my face. The burning seemed unbearable, except that I had to sit there and bear it. As I waited for the stinging to subside, the doctor, his voice oozing condescension, would say,

“There now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Afterwards they would put goggles on me stick me in a sort of tanning booth, because ultraviolet light was supposed to cure acne.

I only went to a handful of these treatments – five, maybe ten at the outside. Eventually I just refused to go back. I figured that being a social pariah was less painful than having my face cut open and doused with what felt like acid on a bi-weekly basis.

Just to be clear, I really was a social pariah that year. And the year after. And the year after that, right up until the end of high school. Some of the cruelty was fairly subtle – innocent-seeming questions about how often I washed my face, or wonderings aloud about how much chocolate I must eat, with pointed glances at my waist-band. Most of the jokes about my skin were openly mean, and the kids who made them faced few consequences. One girl said that it was no wonder that no one wanted to kiss me, because what if one my zits popped in the mouth of the boy unlucky enough to be making out with me? A boy in my class said that I was lucky because I didn’t have to spend money on whiteout; if I ever made a mistake I could just pop one of my zits and use the pus to correct what I’d written. Both of these remarks were made in front of teachers; in both cases the teachers just laughed along with everyone else.

I tried everything – creams that made my skin even more greasy, gels that burned when applied them, pills that made me feel queasy and light-headed for hours after I took them. I tried caking foundation an inch thick onto my skin, because it was easier to be teased for wearing too much makeup than for being Medusa’s twin sister. I tried lying for hours in the sun, suffering sunburn after sunburn, because I thought that there really might be something to that ultraviolet light idea.

Mostly I just tried pretending that it wasn’t happening.

When little kids would ask me what was wrong with my face and if I was contagious, I would just smile like they’d said something incredibly adorable. When people at school said mean things, I would laugh harder than everyone just to prove that I could take a joke. When adults gave me unasked-for advice, I would pretend that this didn’t translate in my head to, you are the ugliest person in the world.

Because that was what I felt like: the ugliest person in the world. When boys were nice to me or complimented me or wanted to date me, I wondered what the catch was. Did they want me to do their English homework or introduce them to my cute friend? Would they go back to their friends and laugh  about me later? Was someone recording our conversation, like on candid camera?

It never occurred to me that anyone might ever want to touch me; I didn’t even want to touch me.

Sometimes I’m still surprised that people can hug me or kiss me or place their hand on my face without recoiling in horror. Because, as much as my skin has cleared since I was a teenager, it’s still what is politely referred to as acne-prone. I still get those angry red bumps; I still wear more makeup than I probably should. It’s like a bad joke – I used to think that my acne would disappear once I was a grownup, but now I just get zits on my wrinkles.

Fuck. Me.

I guess the point that I want to drive home here is that I really feel like my skin will never be good, and that is fucked up. Why do we have to refer to acne as “problem skin” or “bad skin”? My skin isn’t bad or a problem; it’s just my skin, and I’m fucking tired of being made to feel like I should be ashamed of it. I’m sick of the fact that the only time I ever see someone in the media with acne, they’re there to tell me how not to have acne.

I can turn on my television and see people from all different kinds of ethnic backgrounds. I can find television shows with characters from all the major religions; I can find shows with characters of several different sexual orientations. There are television shows with trans characters. There are television shows with disabled characters.

There are never any people on my television or in magazines or even in cute, independent, deliberately not-Hollwood movies who look like me, with angry red skin and patches of whiteheads and that greasy sheen that you get because the Exxon Valdez has crashed on your face your oil glands are working overtime. I just want to see one person who doesn’t have beautiful, flawless skin because at thirty one I’m so fucking tired of hating my body. I just want to feel normal.

I just want to stop flinching every time someone leans in to hug me. I don’t really feel like that’s a lot to ask.

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How To Talk To Your Son About His Body

14 Aug

I loved this post on how to talk to your daughter about her body, and I wanted to create something similar for parents of boys. My friend Nathan and I put this list together, and would love to hear your input.

How to talk to your son about his body, step one: talk to your son about his body. Give him the vocabulary that he needs to communicate how he feels about himself.

Teach him that it’s normal to think about his appearance.

Teach him that it’s fine to want to be handsome or pretty.

Teach him that being a boy doesn’t take away his right to have feelings about his body.

If your son tells you that he is unhappy because he is too fat or too skinny, don’t dismiss him. Don’t tell him that boys don’t have to worry about stuff like that. Don’t tell him that he’s lucky that he’s not a girl, because then it would really be a problem.

Listen to him – really listen – and keep your opinions about his appearance to yourself. Don’t tell him that you’ll help him lose weight. Don’t tell him that he’ll bulk up when he gets older. Just listen, and encourage him to explain how and why he feels that way.

If your son is older, talk to him about male bodies in the media. Ask him what he thinks of the storefronts for Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch; ask him if he thinks that images represent how he thinks men should look. Talk about the fact that Photoshop is used to alter images of boys as well as those of girls.

Don’t make jokes about your son’s weight. In fact, don’t make any comments about his weight. Don’t talk about how funny it is that he was so skinny as a little kid and now he’s not. Don’t poke him in the side and tell him that his ribs stick out. Don’t sigh enviously over how thin he is.

Don’t assume that you can talk about your son’s body any differently than you talk about your daughter’s.

If you notice that your son is gaining or losing weight, remember that these can be signs of depression. Without asking leading questions or otherwise being obvious about it, try to get some insight into how your son is feeling. Be sensitive to the fact that if you’ve noticed a change in your son’s weight, chances are good that he’s very much aware of it and may feel ashamed or embarrassed.

If you notice that your son is rapidly losing weight, seems to be trying to limit what he eats, or is otherwise occupied with the idea that he is fat, remember that eating disorders are on the rise among teenage boys. If you suspect that your son might have an eating disorder, don’t try to “fix” him by telling him that his body is fine and he has nothing to worry about. Eating disorders are serious, and if you have are concerned that your son might have one, you should contact your pediatrician immediately.

Don’t comment on other men’s bodies – neither positively nor negatively. Don’t communicate an idealized version of masculine beauty, and don’t run other men down. And for the love of God don’t make jokes about hair loss, or say that you don’t find bald men attractive. Don’t make jokes about short men. Don’t make jokes about body hair. Don’t make jokes about penis size. Seriously. Those things aren’t funny.

Don’t make negative comments about your own body. Don’t let him overhear you calling yourself fat, or saying that you should go on a diet. He will learn to love and accept his body by watching how you treat yours. Always remember that he will take his cues on body acceptance from you.

Teach your son to be kind to himself.

Teach him to be kind to other people.

Teach your son that his body is good for all kinds of things – dancing, sports, digging in the dirt, yoga, gymnastics, figure skating, or even just sitting quietly and thinking.

Teach him to move his body in lots of different ways, from lifting big rocks to spinning pirouettes, because those things are fun and they feel good. Teach him to stretch and touch his toes because this will help keep his muscles flexible and elastic. Teach him to do cartwheels because there is no greater expression of joy. Teach him to lie in a patch of sunlight and dive into a good book.

Don’t teach your son about “good” foods and “bad” foods, because food shouldn’t be subject to moral judgment. Instead, teach him about foods that will fill him up and give him energy versus foods that will leave him feeling unsatisfied and cranky an hour later. Teach him that candy and desserts are great, but that they won’t give him the drive he needs to get through the day.

Teach your son to cook. Teach him to cook anything and everything – scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, tooth-achingly rich chocolate cake. Teach him how to sauté vegetables and whisk egg whites.

Prove to your son that he doesn’t need a woman to cook for him.

Prove to him that there is no such thing as a “girly” interest or hobby.

Teach your son that people come in all different shapes and sizes. Teach him that there is no one specific way that he, as a boy, should look or act – his appearance and his interests are perfect because he is perfect. But teach him, too, that there is nothing bad or shameful about feeling uncomfortable with his body. Teach him that there is nothing wrong with wanting to talk about his body, or wanting to find ways to feel happier in his body.

Teach him that you’re there to listen.

Teach him that he’s not alone.

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