Updated: Mar 11, 2021
When I was a little girl, I had this bright yellow dress with tiny colourful flowers scattered all over it. It had a big full skirt. Flowers would be floating all around me. Red, pink, magenta and blue. I loved that dress. My mother used to have to hide it from me because when she would wash it and hang it up to dry, I would grab it wet off the line, hurriedly put it on and then twirl around in it.
Our bodies are the unique cross-section between the physical, social, and our subjective internal, which is the way we ourselves experience our body, and how it exists in our society. Our bodies are the first point of contact between our inner and outer selves and in many ways, we are built from what we hear and see. So, in a sense, our bodies are not truly our own.
As I grew older and the dress no longer fit, I decided to only wear dark colours and dull prints. Shades that blended me into my own surroundings. Somewhere along the line I began to realise that I didn’t want to be seen as (what I thought it meant to be) a girl. The idea of femininity as irrational, frivolous and shallow had taken root.
TO BE BEAUTIFUL, OR TO BE SMART.
The brainy versus the beautiful, the maiden versus the witch and the blonde versus brunette. In my mind, women only existed as opposing binaries. When I first came across the idea that beauty was performed for the benefit of men, everything within me revolted against this notion. You could be beautiful and therefore passively content, or intelligent and driven. To me, one was clearly the better investment, even if the path was lonelier.
As time went on, I became a staunch feminist. You know, the poster waving, sassy slogan wearing and bra-burning kind (well theoretically - they are damn expensive and also great for back support). Femininity continues to be overly sexualised, mysticised and commodified. It is held to unattainable standards, while at the same time dismissed as trivial. To be feminine is to be beautiful. However, beauty is more than just appearance; it is a behaviour. It is the correct way to be a woman. It’s the rom-com transformation of having your hair straightened, smile widened, posture fixed, voice mellowed, and vocabulary sweetened.
I understood that beauty was a performative chore with an expensive price tag and a quick expiration. This helped to confirm my own bias and began to internalise an age-old dichotomy of looks versus substance as the only options for identity.
WAS IT ALL A LIE?
I never considered that the energy and emotional labour I invested in opposing beauty was in itself performing this false dichotomy. I continued to parrot perceptions that beauty is meaningless and redundant to the modern woman and throughout it all, I used my self-righteous zeal to mask the fear that if I did try, I could never be pretty.
You see, I often don't like my body but I can’t say that. When I do, it is met with a barrage of aggressive and quite disdainful ‘positive’ affirmations. Inherently embedded in that flood of supposed uplifting onslaught is a current of betrayal, pity and the occasional dash of disgust because the modern woman cannot be self-conscious. She certainly cannot avoid her reflections or be uncomfortable in her own body. No, the empowered, 21st century female is a queen. She is effortlessly assured and confident in her appeal.
She is coveted and desired, though she neither cares nor notices. Interestingly, the phenomena of shaming women for their preoccupation with their appearance and weight is not new. Women are socialised to view themselves as the object of the male gaze. It’s not as though there’s a patriarchal omnipresent overseer cackling away in a room, forcing down nefarious body standards. It’s a spiderweb where women are both the fly trapped and the one spinning the web.
A LOSE, LOSE.
At my lowest weight, I was still not skinny. My lack of expression and utter exhaustion meant my usually rounded cheeks were hollowed, allowing my cheekbones to show. My eyes were sunken in and dark from the lack of sleep, providing the illusion of contours. A thigh gap remained elusive but if I sat next to you, you would barely know I was there. My usually healthy curls were limp and dry, as I desperately brushed them out and burnt them flat. Yet by all accounts that was the best I have ever looked. It was also among my most depressive episodes. Most things were hard: school, talking, getting up, sleeping but at least I could wear a size eight.
You try to convince yourself that your value is not derived from your beauty while simultaneously doing everything in your power to ensure that you are perceived as beautiful, and then you hate yourself for trying. After working on my mental health, reaching academic goals and accomplishing personal ones, all these achievements became hollow cut-outs of success. The remarks were always, ‘I see you’ve gained a lot of weight’ or ‘you really need to be careful’ or ‘if you gain anymore it’s really going to get out of control.’ In order words, the art of staying thicc without actually being thick.
REARRANGING THE PICTURE.
I don’t want a manufactured sense of body positivity. I don’t think that with my embodied existence it would ever be authentic to who I am. But what I am moving towards is neutrality. In essence, I want to be ok with not always being ok.
My body is my faith, it is my history.
The way my eyes slant is just like my grandmother’s. The way my hands are shaped is like my father’s. The way my face moves when I concentrate is like my mother’s. My hands have scars and it’s all a part of my story. If your body is the way you communicate with the world and it doesn’t just belong to you, then it needs to make statements about who you are. I want my physical presence to reflect values that are important to me.
I want a clear connectedness of the body and spirit, in line with my faith. To acknowledge that my body is the material, corporeal home for my ruh (soul). That it exists to reflect and express my values. The body is more than just a vessel, the sum of all of its component parts. I want mine to tell the story of my faith, my heritage, my history and my beliefs. A body that shows who I am and what I believe.
It is all still a process but at least it’s progress.
Lead Editor: Irisa R.
Bartky, S.L, Foucault, femininity, and The Modernization of Patriarchal Power (1997), 92-111.
Berger, J, Ways of Seeing, (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1st ed, 1977).
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Orbach, S, Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-diet Guide for Women+ Fat is a Feminist (Random House, 2nd Ed, 1998).
Smolak, L., Murnen S.K, Feminism and Body Image, (Palgrave Macmillan, 1st Ed, 2005).
Wolf, N, The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women (Random House, 1st ed, 1991).