By Angela Noel Lawson
Simone de Beauvoir, French author and philosopher, wrote, “To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.” Put another way, to have confidence in one’s body is to have confidence in oneself. Like many women, I have a complicated relationship with my body. For years, I viewed it as a criminal, and sentenced it to a prison-like existence. But then, after almost a 40-year term, I began to set it free.
The early years
As a teen in the 80s I worried about being ‘fat.’ The Sweet Valley High books told me heroines are blond and a ‘perfect size six.’ I believed it, and I’m not alone. In 1985, the Sweet Valley High series was the first young adult paperback title ever to make the New York Times Bestseller list. Then, in 2008, some of the books were re-published. But this time, the twin teen heroines had shrunk from a ‘perfect size six’ to a ‘perfect size four.’ Adrienne Day, writing for Entertainment Weekly magazine had this to say about that, “Kudos, Random House, for not only introducing body-image issues to a whole new generations of young fans, but proudly trumpeting this point in the press release.”
Now imagine for a moment if Frank and Joe Hardy from the The Hardy Boys had been described like this: “Along with solving mysteries, Frank’s perfect 32-inch waist was the envy of all his friends.”
Bodies are different. An international standard for clothing size doesn’t exist. For example, a UK six is equivalent to a US two. Clothing designers employ fit models whose body shapes and sizes conform to that particular brand’s conception of how its clothes should look. Though generally within some parameters of height and weight, these fit models, like all humans, have more inches here and less there. Whereas an ounce of cheese weighs the same as an ounce of gold, a size six from one clothing line will not necessarily fit a size-six-wearer in another.
To illustrate this, in 2016, the Huffington Post published an article about a 27-year-old woman demonstrating the arbitrariness of sizes. She showed how the very same human at a particular point in time could easily own a host of pants, all fitting generally the same, but labeled with widely varying sizes from six to 12 or beyond.
In that same year, after a dust-up involving comedian Amy Schumer and Glamour magazine, USA Today ran a story titled, “You’re fat in America if we say you are.” The author, Alia E. Dastagir, wrote,
“Glamour is trying to celebrate larger women’s bodies, but it’s still part of a cultural apparatus that connects women’s worth to their appearance, rather than to their skills, talents, personalities and intellect.
America is not close to a size-agnostic utopia, and we may never be. History has shown us that while the standard of beauty has evolved, there’s always been a standard.”
The Sweet Valley High effect
Ignorant to the size-crazed world I’d inherited, I spent my childhood making up dance routines and reading fairy tales. I wrote short stories and played for hours alone in my room. Neither sedentary nor active, I valued imagination over exertion. But puberty changed that. When I was 13, I started working out to stay skinny. By 16, I had a gym membership paid for out of my minimum wages as a cashier at the local Souplantation.
As I wrote in my essay, “The Problem with ‘Pretty Girls’ and Princesses,” we affirm what we value. Being pretty and being the ‘perfect’ size were (and arguably are) the thing we most value in girls and women, and what girls and women come to value most in themselves. I call it The Sweet Valley High effect.
The books are not the root cause of this cultural phenomenon. But they are emblematic of a culture capable of imagining these books, publishing them, reading them, lauding them, and then re-publishing them with skinnier versions of their ‘perfect’ protagonists more than 20 years later.
The means to which end?
For most of my teen and young adult years working out was akin to a criminal doing time; I didn’t want to, I had to.
Though I didn’t develop an eating disorder, people I love did. Research connects exposure to the types of body-image modeling evident in books, television, and the internet to the development of eating disorders. The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt Health System, note a study done in 1998 about the effects on young women in Fiji when exposed to Western television. “This new media exposure,” according to the study, “resulted in significant preoccupations related to shape and weight, purging behavior to control weight, and negative body image.”
According to Eating Disorder Hope, an organization founded to support individuals and their families grappling with these issues, eating disorder sufferers have the highest rate of mortality among those with psychiatric disorders. Developing an eating disorder and courting death by suicide depends on many factors, but if even one of them can be mitigated by counteracting negative and ‘suffocating’ societal messages, shouldn’t we try?
Some organizations around the world are trying. The Body Positive, for example, strives to teach “people how to reconnect to their innate body wisdom so they can have more balanced, joyful self-care, and a relationship with their whole selves that is guided by love, forgiveness, and humor.” For myself, I found a type of body-positive point-of-view in an unexpected place.
Finding my own body-positive focus
In my late-thirties, after divorce and single-parenthood, I met the man who’d become my second husband. He, by virtue of simply enjoying physical activity as a good in itself, helped me see beyond the chore of fitness to the joy of it. He introduced me to others, women and men, who weren’t after skinny or the size of a pair of jeans. They wanted to be active, to DO things. Through this lens, I began to break free of the prison of body image. Only in the past six years has working out become less about my physical appearance and more about what fitness buys me in quality of life.
Now, I love how strong I feel after a hard lift, or a billion and one squats. I love the rubbery feel of my legs after a long run. But that doesn’t mean I’m free from inspecting my butt in the mirror with a look of disgust. It happens less, but it still happens. As much as I want to enjoy the strength of my glutes, not lament the dimples in my skin, I still struggle. I still must fight the urge to see my body as criminal for all it isn’t, instead of seeing it as valuable for all it is.
Every body has abilities, not every body has the same ones. This realization brings with it the recognition that I am part of the judgement machine that created ‘The Sweet Valley High effect’ in the first place. It’s up to me to challenge the prisons I put others in, as much as I fight to free myself from my own.
As de Beauvoir said, my body should be a source of confidence, not the reason I lack it. I want the energy I have, the strength I feel, and the mountains I climb (real and metaphorical), to guide me, not the size on a label affixed to a waistband. I want that for girls (and boys) the world over. I don’t want the next generation to fixate on the ‘pretty princess’ narrative. Nor do I want any of us, men or women, to view our bodies as the perpetrators of the crime of never being good enough.
My body can hike fourteen thousand feet. It runs, practices yoga, and dances. It hugs, cuddles, and kisses. My body cooks, sneezes, and types. It smiles and laughs. It fuels my potential and my contribution to the world. It deserves my respect. I honor it when I reject the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect size. Building confidence in my body starts with acknowledging all the good it does for me, and goes from there.
Your turn: Do you remember the Sweet Valley High books? Have you found a body-positive point of view or are you still searching? What have you learned in your journey that you’d want to pass on to others struggling with body image?
Originally published on Medium in The Ascent.