Conversations About Body Image: A Place at the Table for Me?

Conversations about body image come up often in feminist communities, and unfortunately, many of those conversations are predicated on the dual ideas that all people should love their bodies and that lovable bodies are healthy ones. This can be seen in the language used by campaigns designed to get people thinking about body image; 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. Especially when encountering campaigns mandating that people love their ‘natural’  or ‘inner’ beauty, I am left with more questions than answers.

I was reminded of this by ‘Black Torso,’ the piece I featured in my post on sculpture last week. What, for example, is a breast cancer survivor who chooses to get reconstructive surgery supposed to do? The rebuilt breast is not ‘natural,’ so does that mean the patient does not love ou body? What about the breast cancer survivor who cannot afford reconstructive surgery or is not a candidate for it? Maybe ou hates the scar and is uncomfortable looking in the mirror, but feels unwelcome in body image discussions rooted in the idea that ‘love’ is mandatory for all people when engaging with their bodies.

I’d like to start deconstructing conversations about body image to make a seat at the table for people who might feel relegated to the fringes of those conversations right now, and there are a couple of angles that need to be considered with more care in conversations about body image and in campaigns designed to spark conversations about body image.

The first is the idea that everyone must love their bodies. Not all people love their bodies and they should not be required or pressured to; indeed, we should be actively creating a space for people who aren’t comfortable with the bodies they are in that doesn’t consist of ‘we will educate you into loving your body.’ We should talk, too, about the reasons why people may experience conflict with their bodies, and how social attitudes, life experiences, and other things may play a role in the relationship people have with their bodies, without singling out people or shaming them for not loving their bodies, or not loving them all the time.

The second is the idea of ‘healthy, strong, natural’ bodies being celebrated in these campaigns and focused on in language about body image. The fact is that not all bodies are healthy, strong, or natural. Health is something that changes over time from person to person, and while some people may always have healthy bodies, others do not. ‘Natural’ is also not necessarily something everyone possesses, and I dislike the idea that a body needs to be ‘natural’ (who is defining this, incidentally?) in order to be celebrated.

Finally, we have these really complicated intersections between body image and disability, compounded by a lot of social attitudes about disability. Disability is scary, so disabled bodies are scary, and I notice that many body image conversations leave out people with disabilities, because no one knows what to do with us. Looking through many of the responses to the American Able art project, I was struck by the fact that many people were uncomfortable with viewing a disabled body, especially in the context of desirability. If our bodies are so frightening that people can’t see them on television and in ad campaigns, it shouldn’t surprise me that people have trouble fitting us in to discussions about body image.

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.

9 Comments

  1. I am uncomfortable with most of the conversations about body image, from the shaving conversations on to other things, because of the exclusionary, and often seemingly careless way they happen.

    I don’t have a disability-specific example, but I remember seeing cis women use fat acceptance to “prove” that transitioning is busted and transitioning trans people should learn to accept ourselves as we are. But to me, accepting myself as trans is doing just that – accepting transition as a positive step. And I mean, I am into fat acceptance, and I have seen FA activists say the exact opposite – that being trans and transitioning is not problematic in the context of FA at all, and they even came to that understanding based on fat acceptance and the body shaming common to both.

  2. This is an interesting and important post. The “love your body” stuff seems to come up because feminists who promote positive body image are largely responding to industries and media that tell us we should hate our bodies… and that our hatred of our ugly selves should drive us to purchase skin creams, weight loss products, bleach for teeth, makeup, and so on. So the feminist idea of body image is defined in opposition to those messages. “No, I will not hate my body, I will LOVE IT JUST THE WAY IT IS. SO THERE.”

    I imagine body image discussions would be different in a world where we didn’t feel bombarded by an unattainable ideal, where we could think about our bodies without feeling humiliated or worshiped based on how we look. Then maybe the opposite of hating our bodies would be feeling neutral about them, instead of striving to see our bodies as perfect according to a different ideal — an ideal that is still an ideal, even if we’ve changed it from “thin and smooth and white” to “natural and strong.”

  3. Brilliant!

  4. I get why body image is seen as so important, but I don’t see why ‘good body image’ is now a synonym for ‘healthy self-esteem.’ If I like my body, it doesn’t mean I like myself. If I l dislike or feel neutral towards my body, it doesn’t mean I dislike myself. I am more than a body.

    Of course, I do, to a certain extent question what ‘healthy self-esteem’ looks like and why we think to important. Generally, self-esteem is used against women “You need to have better self esteem! Believe in yourself! Don’t talk down to yourself!” But the discourse on self-esteem relies on the idea that each person controls the way they feel about themselves and ignores the social reality that our self esteem is impacted, if not dictated, by the way society treats an individual over time.

    Also, it is curious to me that ‘healthy self esteem’ for girls is pretty much getting girls to believe in themselves as much as boys believe in themselves. Which is just another example of the way we pathologize women and girls.

    Oh, a lot my ideas about self-esteem were shaped by an article about it in the book Bias in Psychiatric Diagnosis. The article was called “Reclaiming the Meaning of “Self-Esteem”” and is worth a read.

  5. It makes me really uncomfortable when people tell me to believe in myself and not apologize and stuff. I have anxiety problems, for one thing. But also I genuinely don’t have some of the senses that other people have where they have a clearer idea of what they’re expected to say or do. I also lose track of what’s going on easily. So because of that, I tend to apologize constantly, and sort of overfocus on how to do things correctly. And when people call attention to that and tell me to be more confident or not to worry about it or that I’m making them upset by apologizing so much, it just makes me feel really uncomfortable and self-conscious and like the person doesn’t accept me the way I am. I mean, they don’t know why I’m so nervous, so can’t they just assume that I have a good reason?

  6. I really like this post. I don’t feel like I quite understand it yet, because you’re talking about things that are very new to me, but it feels like you’ve really hit on something important and kinda revolutionary.

  7. “But the discourse on self-esteem relies on the idea that each person controls the way they feel about themselves and ignores the social reality that our self esteem is impacted, if not dictated, by the way society treats an individual over time. ”

    Well-put! That has always bothered me!

  8. I often want to snarl at these people because the mantra I’ve encountered so often is “Your body is healthy, therefore it’s a good body, and you should be grateful.” Well excuse me, my body *isn’t* healthy. And frankly, it’s my damn body, who the hell are you (them) to tell me how I should feel about it?

    So I understand where they’re coming from, what they’re pushing back against, but I often want to point out that while I’m sure that works for *people exactly like them*… it’s about as much use as a cheese hat to someone like me.

  9. This is a really interesting perspective that I never really considered…you’ve definitely made me think about what it really means to love your body.