Loving Your Body: A Range of Views

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’ve been thinking about three different perspectives on loving your body:

1) Operation Beautiful is a grass-roots movement with a mission “to post anonymous notes in public places for other women to find. The point is that WE ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL. You are enough… just the way you are!” People leave notes in books, in magazines, on grocery store shelves. Since people write their own notes, the content varies widely: we’ll get to that.

3) Spilt Milk, posting at Feministe, writes (in the context of fat acceptance) about simple kindness as activism:

My body is relatively healthy (I’m not going to delve into the ‘but fat is so unhealthy!’ quagmire here: that swamp’s been negotiated by others far more intrepid than me). It’s also the body that conceived and carried and birthed and fed my daughter. It’s the body that takes me through my days. It’s the body that is me. I accept it and love it because accepting and loving myself in this world that wants to tell me that I ought to be ashamed is an act of rebellion. Every time I choose to be kind to myself I’m advocating for fat acceptance.

Each moment that we choose to be kind to others by approaching them with unconditional positive regard, whatever their size or shape, we are activists. Doing this kicks back at a culture of fear and shame surrounding our bodies.

2) Last week, in our post about disabled sculptors, we mentioned S.E. Smith’s thoughtful post about the intersection of disability activism and the “love your body” message.

I can’t tell you how many ‘positive affirmations’ I have encountered that say things like ‘love your body, because it is beautiful, healthy, and strong.’ I guess people who don’t have healthy or strong bodies can’t love them, or people who actively reject beauty can’t love their bodies either. And, of course, this reads like a mandate: You must love your body, because the idea of not loving your body is highly alien, as is the idea of feeling neutral about or disassociated from your body.

For people who may dislike their bodies, for any number of reasons, these conversations end up being exclusionary, as they are often treated as ‘unenlightened’ for not loving their bodies and they are lectured in an attempt to get them to submit. For people with disabilities, an added layer of complexity is introduced, as it is assumed we do not or could not love our bodies because of our disabilities. Similar complexity can arise for some members of the trans community, who may experience inner conflict with our bodies but feel uncomfortable expressing it, for a variety of reasons ranging from fear of being perceived as spokespeople for the trans community when we are just talking about ourselves, to fear that discussing dislike/hatred for one’s body is not acceptable.

The intersections of these points of view are fascinating. Talking about them got us to thinking about some of the history of “love your body.” When the early fat activists were starting to speak out in the 1970s, “love your body” was an almost incomprehensible phrase. Body hatred and body shame may not have been as widespread as they are now, because “acceptable” or “conventionally beautiful” sizes and shapes were a wider range. But active love for your own body was never discussed, let alone encouraged.

Once fat activism became more mainstream, with books like Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue, several things happened. First, the diet and beauty industries successfully manipulated the accepted social standards of beauty, so more people would “need” their products. Second, they started working on getting men to hate their bodies as much as women already did, so they could double their consumer base. Third, they started co-opting and commoditizing the “love your body” message, moving it from “you are beautiful as you are” to “you love your body, so you care enough to spend your money on changing it.” (The Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” is one contemporary example of this.) For over thirty years, they have continued all three of these efforts, with lots and lots of money and business savvy. The net result is that the message “hate your body” is now very frequently wrapped in “love your body” clothing. Because most “love your body” messages are commercialized, most of them are thinly disguised pressures, really saying “so now change it.”

Operation Beautiful is a simple grass-roots attempt to counteract the commoditized message. It’s not especially financially driven–there’s a book, which is probably selling acceptably well–but mostly it’s just people, trying to send uplifting and comforting words to strangers. Like everything else so diffuse, it’s a mixed bag. If one of us opened a book and a note saying, “Smile!” fell out, we’d wish we knew who to growl at in response. But that’s not a universal reaction. The thing to remember about Operation Beautiful and other “random acts of kindness” is that they come from open-hearted motives and a genuine desire for social change. Attempt to counteract the relentless drumbeat of body hatred are worth appreciating.

Spilt Milk’s “kindness as activism” is her own individual take, and it’s more nuanced and thoughtful than Operation Beautiful’s widespread pollination approach, though it does not take S.E. Smith’s points into account.

I don’t want to fight my body anymore and I sure as hell don’t want to fight yours, whatever size it is. In fact, I don’t even want all that rhetoric about fighting. Why are softer words (embrace, accept, listen) less utilized? Traits commonly seen as ‘feminine’ and therefore weak — like kindness – are actually some of the most effective mechanisms we have to use against fat-hate. It’s hard to sell diet pills to someone who’d like to be gentle on themselves, accept themselves for who they are, listen to what their body needs and embrace size diversity. And it’s hard to see how creating a world without diet pills wouldn’t be a win for feminism.

Sometimes fat acceptance is just choosing to cut the snark and show some respect to the human body in its diverse awesomeness. A little kindness – just kindness – is one of the most powerful forms of feminist activism available to us. We should use it.

Two things to appreciate here are that she’s talking about herself, and she’s advocating kindness and gentleness.

Then there’s Smith’s reception of the “love your body” message as an exclusionary mandate.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room, in body image conversations, for people who may feel conflicted about their bodies, for people who reject a lot of the ‘affirmations’ promoted, for people who may not fit into the categories some participants in these conversations assume apply to everyone. Are there exceptions to these rules? Conversations where people are thinking about issues like disability and the rejection of beauty? Yes, there absolutely are, but they are exceptions, not the norm, and that is a trend I would like to reverse.

This is what we talk about when we talk about working towards the neutral place; creating a space where bodies and identities are neutral, so there is room for everyone, room for all relationships between people and their bodies, room for people at all levels of exploring their identities and their bodies.

We’ve both been doing body image work for many years, and while we have always believed that loving your body should not be an imperative or a standard of self-worth, Smith’s post has been invaluable in opening up a new way for us to think about what we do. There are many valid reasons that people dislike or hate or are at odds with their bodies, that “the neutral place” is highly desirable. At the same time, the neutral place can only be achieved, and is much easier to imagine or conceptualize, because of the decades of body-positive work that has preceded these conversations.

Loving your body isn’t for everyone. Knowing that loving one’s body is possible, that there are people who love their bodies, and that bodies are not simply avenues for criticism and self-hatred, or money sinks, is for everyone. The neutral place, where we can make choices, can only be attained if diverse voices outside of the mainstream can be heard.

3 thoughts on “Loving Your Body: A Range of Views

  1. This is complicated for me. I try to like my body. Frequently, it is the best I can do to even really see my body. I have the overlap of issues related to being a woman entering my forties in this culture and the issues related to being a trans woman.

    My body is getting older. I sag here and there. I have put on a few pounds. I look in the mirror and see changes and wonder of that slight roll at my waist is starting to make me look more like an old man or more like an old woman. I sometimes think I would be better at denying the body hatred beaten in to me if it was only the cultural body hatred of aging or of a few pounds; if it were not tied up with the trans stuff. Does my belly do more harm or good? Does it make my butt look even smaller than it is? Does it make my waist look smaller? Does it make my shoulders look smaller? Does it make me more imposingly massive?

    Neutral sounds like about where I am most days. It is never a simple neutral. It is positives and negatives balancing each other.

    A few years ago, I found a website of drawings of trans women by Lily Butter. They are beautiful grotesques. They let me see myself in ways I never had. I think my experience was not unlike the experience many fat women had seeing Women En Large for the first time. That definitely helped.

    Here’s a sample that even looks alittle like me:

    I love a wide variety of bodies that are outside what this culture values. I find many bodies sexy that we are told explicitly not to. I am infinitely more free of the bullshit when it comes to bodies other than my own. Knowing that also means I understand that others can find my body attractive despite what I cannot see in the mirror and I can even believe them when they tell me so.

    I firmly believe that people probably should love their bodies, as much as they can. I can also live with the fact that I probably will never love mine enthusiastically. That I do not loathe my body is an achievement for me and I am quite proud of that achievement.

  2. Thinking a little more, I should probably add this:

    Everything I have said above is different with my clothes on. I slap my hand to my belly and smile and claim it as a trophy of many good meals with good friends. It is also not a very big belly. The outside world does not treat me badly for it. I am not subject to fat prejudice.

    I am discussing what the negative voices in my head say when I look in the mirror. I hope it is not taken as the “ohmigawd I’m sooo fat!” negative affirmation so common to women in our culture.

  3. Re body love, I really like David Roche’s approach to positive affirmations as described in his memoir The Church of 80% Sincerity http://www.davidroche.com/book/index.html

    I’m paraphrasing as I gave away my copy of the book–
    He had a lot of resistance to looking in the mirror and saying, “I love you, David.” So he decided to say: “I like you a lot Dave, you’re a good person with a great sense of humor, but I’m just not ready to make a commitment right now, could we just be friends?”

    I’ve found that this approach works well with my body, when I don’t have the energy to summon up unconditional love, but I can cut it some slack as an old friend with many positive qualities, just doing its best in sometimes rough circumstances.

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