To make matters worse for young women, middle school, the most vicious, self-loathing, insecure time of many of our lives, is also quite often the time we go through annoying physical changes like acne, weight gain & loss, and puberty. So not only was I tall and awkward and wearing really ridiculous styles like “tattoo necklaces” but I got kind of overweight & had to start wearing glasses. Needless to say, the popular kids I hung out with ripped me to shreds, every day, for over two years. They never disowned me completely or pushed me out because they needed me. They needed me to validate their own attractiveness. They needed me around to make fun of, to be nasty to. The most popular girl in my middle school was my friend. We had a lot of fun times, breaking rules, writing notes to each other, having sleepovers and talking about boys. I loved her. She was perfect. But at the same time that she did all of these fun things with me and confided in me, she made fun of me at school, not usually to my face but to our other friends. There was a day in eighth grade that I will never forget, when the boy I was in love with said he’d be my boyfriend & I walked around the school so happy and proud, until I fainted in choir class that day and my new boyfriend called me that night to “break up with me.” Oh middle school romance, so intense. I was devastated that he dumped me before our relationship could really even begin, but what broke my heart even more was when I came back to school the next day and another friend told me that our “leader” was making fun of me at lunch the day before, she had said:
You know what I did in retaliation? NOTHING. I cried at home. I hated myself. I thought I was an ugly, fat loser who deserved what she got. I kept hanging out with the popular kids. Every day. Taking the abuse, smiling in response and pretending that I thought it was as funny as they seemed to think it was. I was dying on the inside.
When I got to high school, I had lost some weight. I had also experienced a burst of confidence during the last week of middle school and told Miss Popular to shove it. My freshmen year of high school she was in my gym class and kissed my ass ALL THE TIME. I’m still not sure why. Its like the tables had turned except that I still wasn’t “popular.” Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the Junior Baseball Team star athlete wanted me. He was a creep. But I finally had boys & girls noticing me, I’d gotten contacts & I was thinner (though now almost constantly dieting).
In retrospect, high school was almost as hard on my body image and self esteem as middle school was. Recently, I wanted to show my partner a home video my mom had made of my high school’s Evening of Scenes where I performed a ten-minute scene with my best friend. When we watched it, I was blown away by how tall and thin and BEAUTIFUL I was in high school. I was blown away because, when I think back on my high school years, I ALWAYS thought I was overweight and somewhat unattractive. It broke my heart to watch this video and remember how insecure I was, how terrible I always felt about my body. That was a moment for me. The moment I realized how intense the effects of peer bullying and the media’s portrayal of women had been on my self esteem. I was so sad to think about how many years I spent hating my body and thinking I wasn’t as pretty, as good, as other girls.
After finishing middle & high school, I went to college where I felt lost for the first several months, watching people making new friends and feeling so confused about how I could meet and befriend people who didn’t know me at all. I then realized that this was an amazing opportunity. I stopped wasting my time on the people from my hometown attending my college, who I thought were cool in high school. I realized that by making new friends, spending time with people who didn’t know me in high school, I could challenge myself to find confidence and stop hanging on so tightly to the internalized shame I had held on to for so long. When I met new people, I didn’t feel like the same, self-conscious young woman I was at home, I felt like I had a fresh slate, and started meeting people who liked me for who I was, inside and out. These people started telling me about my beautiful traits, and I started to internalize a more positive self-image.
Finally, feminism came into my life. And it ALL started to make sense. I learned about women’s rights issues and the ways in which society makes us feel bad about ourselves as women. I stopped reading women’s fashion magazines, stopped dieting and obsessing about how I looked and got more focused on how I felt. And it was so LIBERATING! I finally felt unashamed about my body, about loving myself. I accepted that everyone has their imperfections but that we are BY FAR our own worst critics and that the things I didn’t like about myself weren’t actually real. These feelings were simply expressions of the society we live in that teaches women to hate themselves and their bodies, to focus on self-improvement.
While it is clear to me that one of the reasons for this culture of “self-improvement” cultivated among women is pure commercialism, the drive to sell products by telling women that they NEED these things to be beautiful and desirable, I now believe that another reason behind this pressure society puts on women to look pretty is to DISTRACT WOMEN FROM CARING ABOUT WHAT IS REALLY IMPORTANT. By encouraging women to read fashion magazines, get primped and prodded at, buy cute clothes and shoes and accessories, judge other women based on these external traits, be competitive with one another and DIET ALL THE TIME, it makes it so much more difficult for women to engage in political and social issues, focus on succeeding in business and education. It creates a culture in which women will do the work of keeping themselves busy with nonsense while men can keep running the country.
By learning to love my body, I was able to eliminate the distractions that kept me from actively engaging in the fight for women’s rights, and for gender equality. When I disengaged from obsessions surrounding “self-improvement” I finally felt like I was part of the real world.
It’s not easy to disengage in this way. Commercialism bombards women on a constant basis with unattainable images of beauty and representations of women in film, music and television that perpetuate the roles of women as catty, shallow, backstabbing, or just plain stupid. We have to stand up for our rights. Our right to love ourselves, our right to love one another. Our right to love other women. And our right to be a part of the conversations that affect our country and our world.
I still have days where I think I look fat or unattractive, but now when I have those feelings, I try to investigate where they are actually coming from and I ALWAYS take a moment to follow those self-criticisms with something that I love about my body and about myself. I even love my scars now. The stories of the life I have lived thus far. Loving your body is about loving yourself. Loving your body is about loving the variety of bodies that exist in our world and focusing on appreciating people’s different expressions of beauty, both inside and out.
This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival. For more information about loving your body and fighting the culture that perpetuates internalized self-loathing in women watch any of Jean Kilbourne‘s Killing Us Softly documentaries, the new Miss Representation documentary or get involved in feminism!