How many times have you heard a woman say one of the following things?
“I’ll take the dessert, I’m being naughty tonight.”
“Oh, I can’t eat that- I’m not ready for bikini season!”
“I wish I had your legs/abs/arms!”
Chances are, it’s quite a few. This kind of language about our bodies and the food that we choose to eat is so ubiquitous in our culture that you may not even notice when it happens- and to me, that’s a problem. The fact is, language has power. Words have power. There’s a reason why writing and oration has stood the test of time: it’s not just how we communicate, it’s also how we incite change in ourselves and others.
But when we think about rhetoric powerful enough to create change, we tend to think about very large expressions of it- those written in the Constitution, or those spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech. But what we don’t tend to think about is the language we use in our everyday lives, the things we say about ourselves and others in passing that we barely think about before we speak. I would even argue that because we allow them to become so unconscious and so common that they can be more influential on our lives than what we typically categorize as “influential language.”
I’ve recently heard young, young children making negative comments about their bodies; saying things like their “bellies are too big” or they “don’t look like xyz celebrity or character.” At first I wondered where these comments stemmed from. Was it the media? Was it Disney’s fault for having skinny princesses? Was it magazine covers?
While those undoubtedly play a role in the issue, I think there’s a cause much closer to home: the way adults (and particularly adult women) speak about their bodies in front of impressionable youth.
When children grow up hearing offhand, seemingly harmless comments such as, “Oh, I’m so not ready for bikini season!” Or “I’ll be BAD and get dessert!” why are we surprised that our young girls and boys have skyrocketing rates of eating disorders and body image issues? Simply through our usage of this language, we’re leading children to believe that despising your own body and consistently speaking of it as something be be beaten into submission is normal. We may not be delivering speeches every day, we may not see ourselves as leaders or as role models, but we are. Think back to your childhood, think back to the days when you saw your mother or aunt or teacher as nothing short of an idol- someone to emulate and imitate.
Knowing this leads me to ask, “How could things be different if instead of normalizing a culture of degrading our bodies, we normalized a culture of loving them?”
Because when we say negative things about ourselves, we are inviting others to do the same. We’ve all been in a room with someone who we viewed as more attractive than we are picking apart their appearance and thought, “Well shit, if they have ugly thighs mine must be hideous.” Sure, we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to anyone else’s body in the first place, but no one has ever felt better listening to someone else criticize their appearance. Instead, we’re either left with newfound insecurities (a la Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls discovering it’s possible to have ugly elbows) or worsened pre-existing ones.
Beyond this, we’re left with the impression that it’s normal to vocalize negative opinions about our bodies- perhaps even a social convention. Speaking purely anecdotally, I feel as though half the interactions between women I observe and engage with are based upon negative self-talk. Woefully describing how ugly we think we are, comparing ourselves to celebrities or models or other friends, half fishing for compliments and half hoping others will divulge their insecurities to us as well. There are entire reality shows dedicated to commentating on the appearances and bodies of women, and we hardly bat an eye at it simply because it’s so ubiquitous we can’t see it for what it is anymore: a toxic, driving force behind the ever-rising body image issues both men and women face every single day.
This normalization of negative body-talk has led to self-love being seen as a negative trait to possess. Self-degration has almost become a badge of honor: a way to express that you’re humble, down-to-earth, and not too full of yourself. To hear a woman openly say that she loves her body and loves how she looks (no matter how her appearance may compare to conventional standards of beauty) is off-putting. “Who does she think she is? She’s so full of herself. etc.”
And this is simply because we’re not used to hearing normal women be proud of themselves.
Sure, we all praise Beyonce and Emma Watson for embracing their appearance and owning their confidence, but we need to be honest: they are exceptional. Not only do they adhere to society’s recognized ideals of beauty, they are wealthy, famous, and affluential. It’s very hard for a woman to hear them praise the wonders of body acceptance when we’re all thinking the same thing: “Yeah, it’d be real easy to be confident if I looked like a supermodel on a daily basis.”
I play a hand in this. About a year ago, I wrote about rejecting the idea that obsessing over our appearance is of necessary importance in a woman’s life. After sharing it, a woman wrote to me saying while my message was all well and good, it’s hard to listen to me write it when I’m what many would consider to be a conventionally attractive person. While I don’t want to give the impression that I am nothing more than my appearance or that my appearance somehow negates my ability to engage in critical conversation on the topic, as with all forms of privilege I do agree that it is necessary to acknowledge it. I do have privilege as a result of my appearance. I don’t face the negative preconceptions society possesses against those who are overweight or greatly deviate from the conventional “norm” of appearance. I grew up being told that I was pretty, and I’m more than certain that influenced the way I was treated by at least a few people during my time here on earth.
But I will also say this: my privilege did not prevent me from developing a toxic relationship with my body, and it did not prevent me from developing an eating disorder.
And this is because despite the fact that I’m “pretty” and privileged, I still am not a supermodel. I am not Beyonce or Emma Watson. And because I didn’t see women in my life who looked like me and lived similar lives as me speaking lovingly about their bodies and their appearances, I didn’t think I should, either.
The fact is, as long as we live in a world where talking hatefully about ourselves is more normal and accepted than speaking lovingly about ourselves, young people will grow up viewing themselves through hateful eyes as well. So long as we, as women, say things about wishing our body did or didn’t look like x or that we shouldn’t or shouldn’t eat x because it makes us naughty or bad, the children that look up to us will believe these things and apply them to themselves in their own lives. We need to acknowledge that the way we speak about and to ourselves matters. It affects not only our own wellbeing, but the wellbeing and mindset of others who hear our words.
Instead of shunning yourself for speaking negatively (we’ve all done it, and it’s a product of growing up in a society that leads women to believe we are nothing more than our appearances), see this as permission to love yourself wholly and completely. Say, out loud, that you think you are beautiful. Don’t care who hears it. Acknowledge when you think you look damn cute today. Be the affirming best friend you always wanted, and offer those affirmations to your fellow women every chance that you get.
Because every time you do it for yourself, you’re giving another woman permission to do the same. And the children of this world should grow up in a society that promotes the support, uplifting, and empowerment of fellow women. Not tearing them down. Not shaming them. Not leading them to believe that they are only as good as the false morality of the food they put in their mouths.
Empowered women empower women: be one, create one.