When I want to boost my female-identifying friends’ self-esteem, I am cautious to compliment them on things like their makeup or outfits. The deliberate choices they made for the sake of self-expression, not the physical features they happened to be born with.
Why should anyone be moved to consider my opinion on their body? It doesn’t seem my place to even have one. Whenever someone lights up and tells me they love my purple hair (something I chose for myself), it brings the kind of joy that comments on my cleavage, legs or anything else that was luck of the draw could never give me without dragging insecurity and discomfort in tow.
I was sure that I could not be alone in my growing aversion to ostensibly positive commentary on my own and others’ bodies. However, when I asked the women in my circles for stories of their complex relationships with body positivity, I was blown away by the number who came forward to tell me of the harm that “body-positive” media and individuals had caused them. It seems many of us have been stewing in uncomfortable silence for fear of stepping on the toes of the well-intentioned.
This apparent clamor to place effusive positive judgment on body types that deviate from conventional beauty standards implies that negative judgment is the default, intentionally or no. Would we even think to be ashamed of our bodies if so many people did not rail against the assumption that we already are?
I recently read an article asserting the beauty of “violin hips”, a descriptor for hips with an indent where they meet the thighs. Before I read this piece celebrating my apparently notable hips, I had no idea that my hips were worth noting. Despite the insistence that this abnormal feature was still beautiful, I found myself examining my hips in the mirror in a way I hadn’t previously thought to in my twenty-five years carrying this body around. I have nothing against my hips, even now. But I never realized I even had the option to hate them until someone implored me not to.
My friend Katie told me a story of a woman she did not know pulling her aside at a party to inform her that she was “proud” of Katie for being so brave as to wear a crop top out in public while having a body that differs from conventional beauty standards. This woman meant to encourage Katie by congratulating her on her lack of “shame.”
“Why did she assume I didn’t know I was beautiful?” Katie said. “Why do people always assume that fat people hate themselves? It bothered me that because I was a plus-size woman, I couldn’t wear a crop top without it being a political statement. She most likely had nothing but kind intentions, but I felt so aware of my body after that.”
This kind of occurrence is so common. It is our instinct, I think, to build each other up when we see each other display body confidence but so often we do this in a way that implies surprise or deviation from the norm. By all means, tell your friends they look great. But the only way to build a society that regards the bodies of all female-identifying humans as normal is to stop regarding any type of female body as inherently radical.
Body-positive empowerment also often seems intrinsically tied up with the sexualization of the female form. As if we believe the only way to feel confident and empowered in our bodies is to feel sexually attractive or worthy of sexual attention.
I have large breasts, and my friends often playfully compliment my cleavage. This is always well-intentioned and intended to make me feel confident and sexy. However, this hyper-sexualized part of my body is my one physical feature that gets commented on the most. I have been taught since puberty that the flesh lumps on my chest are the most valuable thing I have to offer the world. People will sexualize my body regardless of what I wear or how I act because of something I cannot control, and their instinct to go here first when complimenting me reinforces the idea that my body is only worth embracing because of its sexual appeal.
Marena told me about the recent rise in popularity of plus-sized models, “For some, it was cool to see the message of ‘big girls can be sexy, too’, but for me it just felt like I could only be valued as much as a skinny girl if I was sexy while fat.”
Marley said, “I just feel like retail wants plus size ladies to look like these weird pin-up Betty Boop chubby sex cherubs when all I want is to dress like one of those women who design clothes but only wears black, shapeless chic stuff.”
Feeling sexy can be empowering. It certainly isn’t wrong or bad. But our bodies have so much else to offer us, and they are worth loving and feeling comfortable in even when we don’t necessarily feel (or want to feel) sexy. This is so often overlooked in the scramble to remind women that different body types are still attractive. What if instead, we accepted that physical attractiveness is not the most important nor the only way for our bodies to serve us?
An even innocuous celebration of the female body serves primarily to heighten my awareness that people have their eyes on it, always. When I saw that tweets joyously and positively commenting on Rihanna’s recent apparent weight gain were circling the internet, something in me instinctively recoiled. Can Rihanna not just exist in her body in peace? Do people think Rihanna even cares that they still like her body?
To me, this is just another reminder that a woman’s body never belongs only to her. Every person in the world will feel entitled not just to examine it but to speak about it and pass judgment on it, as well. Positive judgment certainly is not degrading to the same extent as negative judgment, but it is still evidence of others’ perceived ownership of bodies that are not their own.
Is it really such an extreme notion that our bodies don’t need to be commented on at all? My “violin hips” are as perfectly normal as every other pair of hips on this planet. As are my large breasts and my hooded eyes and every other qualified body part others taught me to be so conscious of. I’m tired. I don’t need to be told my flaws are beautiful. I need people to stop thinking these perfectly normal body parts are deviations. The most positive thing for my body would be for others to respect that my relationship with it is complicated enough without their unsolicited opinions on it entering the fray.