Total honesty: I really like myself. Like, really! Just as I am. (cue Mr. Darcy moment, only by myself) I have some more weight to lose, but it’s becoming less and less important as I gain a better perspective on weight, health, fitness and my body, and just plain learn to love myself physically. I always had high self-esteem in all other arenas, but like many a young girl, just never liked my external appearance much (it’s hard when you don’t match beauty ideals). This, I believe, is not uncommon, though I do think plenty of women allow doubts about their external appearance and body mess with other aspects of esteem, as well. It’s a shame.
Having reached a place where I’m really happy, almost to the point of being defiant against anyone who would dare indicate I should feel otherwise, I feel it’s apt to reflect on how the heck I got here, and how others might make small shifts in their own thinking. It’s easy to say we should love ourselves. It’s another thing altogether to actually get there.
I’ve been asked several times how I developed the delicate balance between positive body image, high self esteem and realism about the media culture in which we live. It took some time to noodle on it, deconstructing the last fifteen years of my life, trying to figure out when the heck I unstuck my head from the sand and how on earth I did it. It wasn’t a deliberate thing, though I was always a little bit Grr, Argh Angry Feminist about my body, looks and society. But I was just like everyone else, for a long time — I bought into the fashion & beauty mags, make-up, clothes, dieting, the notion of beauty, celebrity, etc. I faced those pressures, and I gave in.
The beautiful irony, being a person who is trained in media and works in media, is that a key to learning to genuinely like myself — and rejig my brain when it comes to body & beauty ideals — was I stopped consuming as much media. And I got the heck out of the United States. That helped enormously. But short of living in a foreign country for a year (preferably Europe!), what real, concrete advice can I give?
Stop reading magazines.
I was like every other teenage girl. I read YM, Sassy, Seventeen, Teen People, Glamour. The usual suspects for pre-teen and later teen girls who want to be Cool and Fashionable. I learned make-up tips that I use to this day, from Glamour. I found my celebrity role models (and dream boats) in Teen People & Seventeen. I saw all the fashions and styles that I couldn’t dream of fitting into because I was a chunky size 14-16.
When I went to college, my magazines didn’t follow. I canceled my last remaining subscription to Glamour, and haven’t gone back. I never particularly liked Cosmo, thank Christ, but I know that’s a “usual suspect” for many women. The amazing thing? It was so much easier to feel good about myself when I wasn’t reading fix-it articles, make-up tips, articles on how to please a man (helloooo misogyny!) and seeing editorials and advertisements featuring unreal women who look nothing like me, nor anything like how I want to actually look.
Experiment with not reading any mainstream fashion/beauty magazines. If you must read Vogue, fine, but do please ditch all the other vapid market offerings. Even the best among them work hard to make women feel less than, often under the guise of empowering us! But mostly — get away from the advertisements. They’re the real killer.
Stop watching television (on TV).
Another unintentional side effect of going to college? I stopped watching TV. On TV, that is. We couldn’t have cable in our dorms, and the terrestrial signal was bunk, so I went three years without a television (then had one senior year, but barely watched it). Now, don’t think I stopped watching my beloved telly. I didn’t. Long before streaming became the norm, I watched TV on my computer… sans commercials.
Commercials are evil. Body image aside, the absolutely worst are food adverts. Do you know what happened to some of my cravings when I stopped watching commercial television? They went away.
Now advertisers will still be able to get to you, even if you don’t read fashion magazines or watch commercial television, via billboards, the Internet, product placement in movies and TV, etc. But being exposed to substantially fewer images of airbrushed women in nailpolish, lipstick, clothing, perfume, car and alcohol adverts and the messages that come with them (you are an object, you are to be looked at, there’s something wrong with you only our product can fix, men will like you if you use our product) is enormously helpful. For me, going cold turkey on many of these campaigns was the vital first step to deprogramming.
And you WILL crave less processed junk food when you’re not being bombarded with commercials. Bonus.
Start reading feminist media theory (reading my blog can count, kind of XD).
Being aware of the messages you’re taking in and why is incredibly important. Learning about the Male Gaze, and especially how it relates to advertising, changed my life. It’s a bit old school, but I highly recommend watching Killing Us Softly on YouTube (the old ones are up for free; the newest one isn’t).
An oldie but goodie is Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose. She no longer updates, but the archive is fantastic. One of my favorite posts is a guest blog called Schroedinger’s Rapist.
Mainstream blogs to follow include Jezebel and the Hairpin, as well as BITCH magazine. One of my favorite, new blog projects is Beauty Redefined, which has some particularly good posts on The Photoshop Effect.
There’s more. So much more. I’ll probably update this section later, especially as people remind me of other good sources/tell me knew ones. Drop suggestions in the comments!
Watch plastic surgery procedures
Plastic surgery has always weirded me out, and has generally been something I’ve always been and have remained against. However, throughout my teen years and into my twenties, like seemingly all women, I had that “one thing” about myself that I “hated” and wished I could change. My nose. I mean, I really hated my nose. I still am not particularly happy with it — I have monster nostrils of DOOM — but let me tell you what really killed any notion of ever “fixing” that body part: watching a rhinoplasty surgery. Seriously — it is one of the most brutal, disgusting things I have ever seen in my life. They take a CHISEL to your NOSE and they TAP-TAP-TAP until it BREAKS. No thank you.
I think we forget what plastic surgery is — taking extreme measures to alter our bodies. Intentionally breaking your nose? That’s INSANE. Suck fat out of your stomach, thighs, butt, calves, back with a metal hose? Ew. Shoving bags full of liquid into our chests? Crazy. Once I realized how disgusting the one procedure I would actually consider was… God dammit, I learned to love my freaking nose. I’m stuck with it, in all it’s evil-nostrils of doom, average glory.
It’s gross, but really: watch plastic surgery procedures.
Play around in Photoshop… or just study before & after images
Starting in college, due to being a massive web geek, I started playing around with Photoshop, and how I could manipulate images. I’m no expert, so you’ll hardly see me gluing one person’s head onto another person’s body, but you get a handle on the tools — and vanish a blemish or two in a person photo (I’ve also digitally whitened my teeth!) — and it becomes clear what digital retouching can do.
Nowadays, ALL COMMERCIAL IMAGES ARE RETOUCHED. You cannot trust images of celebrities and models, not even in movies and TV. Retouching is used to brighten skin tone, get rid of blemishes and wrinkles, shrink body parts and even give a “bigger” (big = NOT BIG) celebrity a tight and trim body (yes, they really do switch heads onto different bodies).
I recommend reading this post by Beauty Redefined, and also check out Photoshop Disasters (partly for LULZ) and Jezebel’s Photoshop of Horrors tag.
These are the things that I, completely incidentally, did or stopped doing that helped develop my positive body image and self-esteem. I wish I’d had these resources available to me as a young woman; heck — as a young girl. As bad as things seem to have gotten for women when it comes to beauty standards, I also think there is more hope than ever when it comes to counter-culture. Young women are able to pick up alternative magazines, see some (not enough!) role models in TV and media who don’t conform, and there are organizations and blogs dedicated to building up young women and educating them on the media.
I love myself, and so should you. It may not be easy, but the least we can do is try. And if anyone tries to tell you that you’re not good enough, thin enough, “womanly” enough, pretty enough? Tell them to SHOVE IT. You define what makes you beautiful, and what makes you OK.
I will close with the image of a billboard that Beauty Redefined put up in their home state of Utah. It sums things up pretty nicely: