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.