Body image is a volatile and sensitive topic, and in general, I avoid discussing it, and that is precisely why I am writing about it now.
This is the more evolved version of a post I wrote over a month ago when an acquaintance cornered me as I was leaving a dance party and preceded to tell me she was concerned about me. At first I thought she was being nice, a little invasive but still nice, but then I realized she thought I had an eating disorder and had taken it upon herself to chastise me for it and essentially request that I reform. I was shocked, literally speechless at her audacity and the utter lack of diplomacy in the delivery of her message. Later that night I lay in bed awake and angry. The next morning, I wrote a letter I didn’t send and decided to just let it go.
But the truth is, I didn’t let it go. It bothered me. I started eating more ice cream and making myself have snacks between meals. Then, I did some research online about Body Mass Index: According to my driver’s license I am 5’6’’ but my mother is convinced I’m 5’7” (that is a different story) but in either case my current weight puts me in the “normal” range of the BMI. Yes, I am on the low end and yes, it is a wide range and yes, I would like to have my C-cup breasts back, but overall, I am doing OK.
I also reminded myself that I had really bad morning sickness when I was pregnant. By the end of my first trimester I weighed less than I did when I got pregnant, and I have always been thin. The baby, I was told, was growing just fine and when he came out at 9lbs 7oz 23inches long, looking more like a 3-month-old than a newborn, I believed it. After he was born I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight within the first week. By my six-week postpartum check up, I was weighing as much as did at the beginning of my second trimester (i.e. less). Four years later, try as I might, I can’t seem to recover my former coke bottle shape, and I have made peace with the fact that for whatever reason(s) this is my new normal. Or at least I thought I had.
Today, I happened to be at a friend’s house that has a scale, so I weighed myself. I thought I had gained a few pounds from all my efforts of extra eating and wanted to see how many. I was looking forward to being able to tell the woman, who thought I was anorexic, about my new ice cream weight. I looked down at the scale and wondered where exactly all that ice cream had gone because I weighed 3 pounds less than before. The powers of stress are greater than the calories of ice cream so it seems, and I remain inexplicably thin.
As I drove home, I thought a lot about body image and wondered: Why is it okay to go up to a woman and comment about her weight? Most people have enough tact to not do this to a woman who is overweight by societal standards (though I know it still does happen) but commentary directed at slender women seems to be outside this commonsense approach. Often it comes out sounding simultaneously like a complement and an insult, which makes the response even more difficult to navigate. Has it occurred to you that she might be “so skinny!” because she has some horrible disease that keeps her from gaining weight? That she is too poor to afford to feed herself and her children, so instead she goes hungry sometimes? That she might have a story, a reason and her own concerns about her physical appearance? That she just like the robust woman next to her has had to work at loving herself the way she is? And that you saying she’s “only skin and bones” destroys the small seed of self-assurance she had been cultivating? That really all you should ever say to a woman is how beautiful she looks, how smart she is, how kind, how loving, ANYTHING but how she somehow doesn’t fit the idea of Woman you think everyone else should adhere too?
The mass media tells women that there is something wrong with them if they are not (among many other ridiculous requests) supermodel thin, and I admire and am grateful for the efforts that have been made to change that paradigm, to embrace curves and to represent a more diverse and accurate view of women in magazines, TV shows and movies. Indeed, real women have curves, but women who don’t have curves are also real. As human beings, and as women especially, we have a responsibility to create more love and acceptance, not to glorify one image and demonize another, but to make space for the multitude of body configurations and the inherent beauty that every single one of them possesses. So please the next time you see a woman tell her: how beautiful she looks, how smart she is, how kind, how loving, anything but how she somehow doesn’t fit one very narrowly defined image of Woman because there is no one right way to look, and we all have to find our own way to love who we are.