You don’t have to compare yourself to the ‘pregnancy abs’ model (or anyone else, for that matter)

Before I begin I want to make it clear that I’m not interested in writing specifically about the model or her body.  I don’t care if she’s healthy or not healthy or if she’s gained enough weight or if she’s working out too hard.  That’s none of my business. I wasn’t in her doctor’s office; I have no idea what’s going on with her pregnancy.

In fact I was reluctant to even write about this because I’ve burned out on the whole “let’s be outraged about something!” cycle that is the modern media’s stock in trade, specifically as it relates to women and our bodies. The endless gaping maw that is the internet’s newshole constantly demands to be filled by something, and there’s a whole army of underemployed writers waiting to throw whatever they can into that informational black hole so they can pay their bills. And as we all know, there are few things that get people riled up like talking about women’s bodies.

Seriously, forget baseball – our national pastime is debating women’s bodies. Too fat, too skinny, too scantily clad, not scantily clad enough, having too many babies, not having enough babies…you get the picture. To say I find it tiresome is a vast understatement. I would rather perform open-heart surgery on myself with a spoon than go through another Maria Kang-style shitstorm ever again.

What I actually wanted to write about was the article I read that first alerted me to Sarah Stage’s photos, a ThinkProgress piece titled Ridiculous Beauty Standards for Women Just Got Worse. I had two thoughts when I read it:

1. “Wow, she’s eight months pregnant and you can see her abs? I didn’t even know that was possible!”

2. “So wait, am I supposed to feel bad about myself now?”

In summary, I felt like I was being informed by the author that I shouldn’t feel bad about this thing I didn’t know existed until the author wrote about it.  Uh, thanks?  I think?

It reminded me of an article that Jennifer Weiner wrote for the New York Times, regarding the unusually smooth mons pubis exhibited by the model on the cover of the increasingly antiquated Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, calling it the “latest body part for women to fix.”  My response was, “Really?  I’m supposed to ‘fix’ my mons pubis?  First I’ve ever heard of this!”

This trend may have hit its peak with the bikini bridge debacle, in which everyone was quick to dash off a million thinkpieces condemning “this new body trend” leading teenage girls down the inexorable path to anorexia…and then it all turned out to be an elaborate prank conducted by the bored dorks at 4chan.

I suppose these kinds of articles are better than the slavishly drooling type of coverage typified by the Daily Mail and all of the content aggregators that are increasingly clogging up my damn internet with their shameless click grabs, because at least they are operating from a perspective that is critical of the prevailing attitudes towards women’s bodies. I will give them props for that.

But I find them only marginally better, because underlying the premises of these essays is the assumption that all of womankind, when confronted by a woman with visible pregnancy abs or a digitally-smoothed mons pubis, will fall to the ground in paroxysms of self-hatred before marching en masse to the gym/the wine aisle/the plastic surgeon to fix this problem we didn’t even know we had.

In essence, it is assumed to be a truth universally acknowledged that when we women see other women with bodies that are skinnier, bustier, curvier or more whatever-ier, we are automatically going to feel like shit about ourselves.

Surely I can’t be the only woman who looks at all of the other women I know and sees that few of them actually seem to think that way?  Surely I’m not the only woman who sees this construction of modern womanhood in the media and feels like I’m looking at a funhouse mirror version of womanhood, one that is all skewed and cartoonish and doesn’t actually look like the women I know?

My feelings about this are complicated by the fact that I do know there are women and girls out there who do compare themselves to other women and almost always feel like shit about themselves as a result. I know that there are a lot of women and girls who struggle ferociously with body image, and who can’t seem to extricate their feelings of self-worth from their perceived inability to measure up against the altered, highly-mediated photographs they see of other women, particularly women who are often paid to look a certain way.  (And I know this is increasingly happening with guys, too. Sorry, guys. This isn’t the kind of equality I want, not at all.)  I get that, and I don’t want to diminish that this is a real thing that happens with devastating consequences for the people who deal with it.

I guess where my issue comes from is that the whole conversation seems to assume that we women cannot help but compare ourselves to other women. So much of the conversation around body image presumes that as sure as we eat and breathe, we compare ourselves to the women around us and find ourselves wanting. Both perspectives – the one that defends women against beauty standards and the one that tries to enforce them – have staked out opposing sides on the debate but they both do so using the same set of assumptions about us women.

I’m so done with that way of thinking about things. I’m ready to move past the endless hand-wringing about “is this damaging to women’s body image?” and to start talking about what it takes to get us to the next level.

What does the next level look like to me?  It looks like a wholehearted understanding that our brilliance is not diminished by the brilliance of others. It looks like moving away from the framing of these things as though they are a zero-sum game. Most importantly of all, it’s the belief that we as human beings do not only become worthwhile when others are deemed worthless. Oh man, can you imagine if everyone in the world could wrap their minds and hearts around that last one? I daresay we’d have something close to heaven on earth if that were to happen.

Am I asking a lot?  Yep, I totally am, but I also think it’s worth the effort to at least try.

Edited to add that I’m still trying to sort my thoughts out on all of this, and so I’m really curious to hear other people’s perspectives, because that’s one of the things I find most valuable in my process of figuring shit out.  Let me know what you think in the comments below, even if you disagree with me.  ESPECIALLY if you disagree with me.

20 responses to “You don’t have to compare yourself to the ‘pregnancy abs’ model (or anyone else, for that matter)

  1. Thing is, even though I know that almost every picture of a woman I see in mainstream media isn’t unmanipulated (is that the word I want?), they still filter through. I try hard to avoid the worst of advertising and similar, but it’s not possible to completely avoid these images. I try to engage with Heath At Every Size and feminist spaces online to combat some of this, but it’s still tough.

    Actually the stuff I find hardest to heal with isn’t so much to do with size and toned muscles – it’s the endless perfect skin and hair, which is present even more widely.

    I think it’s probably harder because my self-esteem is fairly fragile. More general self-confidence (not just regarding body image) would probably mean less vulnerability to these specific kinds of images.

    • Are you familiar with Erin Brown? She recently put out a book that I just finished reading – and will actually write more about later this week – and it’s all about practical ways to make peace with yourself through mindfulness and self-reflection. One of my favorite things that she writes about – and something I’ve written about as well – is the belief that just because you think something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. And this goes for other people’s opinions and thoughts as well.

      I don’t know, I wouldn’t say I’ve become impervious to all of this imagery, but I’m definitely a lot better at rolling my eyes at the shit that makes me feel bad and then dismissing it from my mind instead of dwelling on it. But I think that, like you said, an increase in my general self-confidence had to happen before I felt comfortable basically flipping the bird at most of this garbage.

  2. Well, sorry, but I don’t disagree with you. Not at all. I often think back to my grandmothers. One kept talking about how fat she was. I assumed what she said was true, so I thought she was fat. The other never mentioned it, so I assumed she wasn’t. I realized much later that both were sort of middle-aged heavy, but neither was anything like obese. Never had much in the way of visual skills. And I always assumed I was exactly what my family treated me as: just about right in every way – except a bit stubborn, and too picky an eater.

    So this whole body image business has always baffled me almost as much as it annoys me. Why, oh why, would anyone want to please some fashion photographer (assuming modeling is not her/his source of income)? And why, oh why, do we find this topic so interesting? Like you, I think, I hope it’s about used up. Many – likely even most – of us don’t really obsess about this stuff all that much.

    And yeah, making guys go through this, too, doesn’t help at all. In fact, I think that the guys may have gotten the brunt of this way back. I grew up reading the occasional comic book, and they all had ads aimed at the 90-pound weakling on the beach having sand kicked in his face by the big, cool, muscular guy. I don’t think there was even a female body-image ad anywhere. And no, I was not reading Superman. I was reading Archie and Veronica, Disney stuff.

    So tell me where to join your movement to move towards a world where we’re not always measuring ourselves against each other!

  3. Sometimes I wonder if we just stopped reacting to ridiculous stories like the pregnant abs one, if the media would continue to report them. We gobble up these stories, and comment and tweet and blog and vlog so much that we’ve created an entire genre of writing based on talking shit about each other and then reacting to that shit. In the middle of all that shit talking and reacting are the companies that are profiting from the views and hits and tweets and so on. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of constructed hatred that trickles down into self-hatred. It’s strange and it makes no sense.

    As a woman, when I look at other women I don’t hate myself. I’ve never hated myself because my mother taught me that we all look different. We need to teach girls and women this again. We need to realize that our bodies are not up for a discussion perpetuated by a faceless media monster. We have to teach girls and women to understand what our bodies should look like and more importantly what are bodies can do. We can give life, we can run marathons, we can lift heavy weights, and we can change this world. We need to flood the media with stories about what we can do, not just what they look like in a bikini because in the grand scheme of things, it will never ever matter if you have six pack. What matters is how we treat one another and the life we choose to lead.

    • re: your first paragraph – I wonder that myself. The whole cycle of media coverage with all of its reactionary hot takes and counter-hot takes seems to amplify a lot of this stuff until it’s out of proportion to the original thing that sparked it, because then people are not only outraged about the initial event but also the responses it received. It would be great if everyone – including the consumers of this stuff, who really seem to demand it as a way of killing time at our boring office jobs – could just take a deep breath and step back instead of ramping up the outrage. I mean, ultimately all we’re doing is playing into the hands of media companies, which have a vested interest in getting as many clicks/comments as possible and so continue to provide us with the kind of material that is explicitly designed to get those reactions from us.

      I want to have these conversations about body image and media representation but the way some people are going about it feels really patronizing. I am not here for that, not at all.

  4. I’m really starting to wonder how this whole body critical culture began… I mean really, who was the first have enough time and energy to start caring how tall, thin, fat, short, fertile, clear-skinned all the women are?

  5. While I agree with this from an adult perspective, my feelings shift in terms of my five year old daughter. It’s her still developing sense of self that worries me most when I see these sorts of images. I don’t worry about myself or my own body, but about what she’s learning in terms of her self.

    • I think that’s fair. I just wonder how much a patronizing hot take in Think Progress will help your daughter with that. I guess if the TP post helped you achieve some kind of clarity with regards to your own body, which you in turn passed down to your daughter, then I can see that. My concern, though, is that I dislike the implication that all women are basically body-shame heat-seeking missiles.

  6. Caitlin, I really enjoyed this post, because it touches on a perplexing dilemma in my own feminist thought. When we acknowledge the power of an oppressive societal force, do we too readily frame ourselves as helpless victims instead of revolutionary warriors who refuse to submit?

    As someone who herself “struggles ferociously” with body image, I can’t overestimate the relentless messaging designed to inspire self-hatred in women. And the sick reality is that it’s not even in support of some huge patriarchal plot to keep women oppressed; it’s for cosmetic and “health products” companies to make money! That’s what we (some of us) are suffering for, and injuring our health for, and even sometimes dying for: so the shareholders of Revlon* can have an extra week in Barbados this year.

    I don’t think there’s a one-solution-to-rule-them-all for this very complex problem, but I think we can all make a difference by rejecting those websites, magazines, and products that endorse this behavior. Don’t give them our attention and especially don’t give them our money. Publicly mock them. Pay attention to the way we ourselves talk about other women—don’t participate in critiquing other women’s bodies, clothing, lifestyles, etc. Try to improve the way we talk about ourselves—accept praise when it’s due to us instead of saying that we were “just lucky.” Move the way we want and eat the way we want without apology.

    Of course that’s easier said than done, but small things can have an enormous influence, and the more we do it the easier it will become. We can spread the message that women are not passive casualties of every stupid media bombardment: we have agency, we have power, we have strength.

    There’s an article written by Heather Corinna several years ago that I frequently come back to. It’s long but we worth reading. Here’s the part that has always stayed with me:

    “To say that none of us have the power of critical thinking over the media, and that we simply absorb everything like sponges is not only to say women are not beautiful no matter their size, but that women are also bloody well stupid. And we’re not. I’m not, you’re not.”

    *I don’t know anything in particular about Revlon or its shareholders; that’s the cosmetic brand I most frequently buy so it’s the name that comes immediately to mind.

  7. Actually I agree with you. This whole fixation on body is just so…. Old.

    My suggestion would be to not go along with the reaction, but to start getting stuff out there about the things we want to be seen about women.

  8. Great piece. It is interesting perspective to think that no matter what it is assumed that women will be comparing themselves to other women. When I look back at my own “body image history” I can remember being in elementary school and describing my friends as big or small, and myself the same way, but without those adjectives being attached to good or bad values and without it being about being better or less than. Then somewhere in the early teenage years it changed, and suddenly those comparison became value based, and my self worth came hinged on where I stood in comparison to others. I do think it`s a socialized behaviour for women, and one that`s hard to change.

  9. I totally agree. I’m sick of this fixation and I’m sick of the trope that it’s so normal for women to have terrible body images that need to be fixed. I have a body. I know what it looks like. And I’m fine with what it looks like. I just want it to be healthy and to be able to find clothes – in whatever size necessary – that flatter it. I think that’s my biggest hang-up, not necessarily what my body looks like, but the struggle to find clothes that flatter it.

  10. It sounds a lot like you’re advocating for a kind of fitness/appearance shine theory, which I’m wholly behind 🙂

  11. I agree that we need to stop comparing ourselves to a very narrow ideal of what it means to be a woman or man. I feel that it’s a little premature to try and move onto the next level when so many people deny that these images are damaging.

    Many people aren’t even aware of how much lighting, make up, restrictive dieting and photoshop goes into the average magazine post. These images are so prolific for a reason. They work. They sell products and generate ad revenue for websites. Even if you’re aware of the process that goes into most of these photos is hard to overcome the notion that you don’t measure up. I believe that when you’re in spaces like this blog which are safe from the relentless pressure of how you should look, it’s easy to forget that many people look to images in a Victoria’s secret catalog or Men’s Health and see themselves as a failure. I’m well educated. I know I’m in good health and physically fit, and I still struggle with body shame.

    I think that to progress we as a culture need to acknowledge that these images have been shown to be damaging. Until that’s acknowledged improvement is difficult. I know it’s exhausting and redundant, but I don’t think that makes it less worthwhile.

    • Your comment is making me think that I should have sat on my post a while and revised it until I could figure out specifically what it was I wanted to say. Because here’s the thing – I don’t disagree with you at all. I think my issue is with this specific way the rhetoric is framed, where it’s like a foregone conclusion that every woman who sees the woman with pregnant abs is going to feel bad about herself. I find that specific kind of rhetoric really patronizing and, if I’m being honest, pretty insulting. Again, I’m talking specifically about articles that are basically making up body-image controversies for the sake of clicks, not articles that dissects the actual beauty myths themselves.

      And I also question how well it works, too. It’s like, all of this stuff is pointed out to us and yet I hear a lot of women like yourself – and others who have commented on this post – say that they know these things intellectually but they aren’t REALLY feeling it in their hearts. I feel like it takes more than just “wow, this is fucked up” to help us get past this.

      I actually just shared this on the blog’s facebook page, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I find this kind of perspective way more effective than all the outrage call-outs, because it gets to the core of exactly what it is we are squandering by participating, however unwittingly, in this charade:

      • I think we are in agreement on this one. The manufactured outrage in many articles about women’s bodies is infuriating. Especially when you’re taking about pregnancy which looks so different on different people.

        It’s one thing to encourage critical thought. It’s another to just yell that something is hurting women without context.

  12. After MUCH hard work and struggle regarding my own body image and comparing myself to other women I feel like I’ve come out the other side and rarely feel jealousy or anxiety about that stuff anymore. Therefore feel TOTES qualified (45% sarcasm) to say that hand-wringing and thinkpieces on top of thinkpieces is just another distraction from actual progress for women. Sure, there was a time when I maybe needed them or got some kind of “yay, girl!” kinship but there was still a residual sour taste in mouth.

    That sour taste is from the fact that at some point all this talking about talking limits the space for other women to be featured. Yay for pregnant ladies with abs if I also saw all kinds of bodies and accomplishments from a wide variety of women. What’s 100 times more important for me – and what I wished for when I was younger – is to see all kinds of women DOING things and talking about bodies in a positive way. Or maybe not talking about bodies at all. Because at the end of the day a young girl still sees a giant fuss over a super fit girl and still nobody that looks like her. She ain’t reading thinkpieces.

    I don’t feel intimidated or upset by looking at thin or fit girls but I also limit my exposure to that rhetoric. And am exponentially happier and more supportive of all women because of it! ; )

  13. My motto is never to compare my self to others. I do not care what others think, I only care about what I think. I cannot control what other people do or think, I can only control what I do or think. So I try not to let society influence my daily happiness. Some days it can be tough, but just keep on working at, one day at a time.

  14. Pingback: Lovely Links: 3/20/15 - Already Pretty | Where style meets body image·

  15. okay, so she’s a pregnant woman, near term, with abs. . and that is a news because?
    I think media makes it a kind of freak show. . Anything to sensationalises, sell copies. . man bites dog being news. . and yes, it’s their job, bread and butter. . they are just making a living. self censorship being a pedantic measure at best.
    so while I mostly agree with you, I know what’s happening isn’t regarding woman’s bodies only. . it’s just how news are these days. that still doesn’t mean it’s right. or good for a whole lot of us. but yes every article, every comment we write ( yours truly guilty as charged) aren’t we all contributing to what should have been a non-news anyway?

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