I’ll preface this post by saying that if you came here to find a literal answer that corresponds to my title, I got nothing. I have no idea how to overcome the overwhelmingly enormous mountain that is sexism + body image that stands before us women and the valley of true self-love. All I know is that: somehow we must carve a path to self-love or we will keep encountering the pain and confusion that come every time we encounter this barrier; with every calorie we count, every selfie we see, every commercial telling us that the only thing we need for happiness is to “buy this new face cream!” (anti-aging, y’all.)
What I can say in this post is that we must stop treating negative body image in women as a personal issue, or as an issue that is somehow strangely disconnected from all of the other structures in our society that are causing us great harm. It is not just that “sexism in advertising contributes to poor body image.” It is not enough that female celebrities that fit into the canon of desirable female attractiveness are “speaking candidly about sexism.” Sexism is the focus on the body as the center of our worth and value as individuals; it is not as if body image was just a thing and then sexism came in to distort it – we don’t talk about how we should learn to “love our minds” in the same way we talk about learning to love our bodies (or at the same rate), and when we speak about self-love, we are always talking about loving our bodies as well.
As a woman I will say: this is a problem I never asked for, and a burden that do not wish to carry. No matter how “feminist” my views are, no matter how radically I try to unravel the poison in my brain that has eroded aspects of my humanity, this is a hurdle that continues to present itself, reinforced everywhere I fucking look – li.ter.a.lly everywhere. See I am trying to come to terms with the second-class citizenship that I never asked for, and this is an especially insidious distortion of my humanity that I am hard-pressed to find relief from anywhere. As a black person, as a person of color, while the trauma of racism and the invasion of whiteness upon my psyche follows me everywhere I go, I can find respite and healing when I am among others who are hurting from the same things I am hurting from. The strength that I find in community when it comes to that pain is available in abundance. We are aware of what is happening to us, of the war that has been declared upon our souls and we find solidarity in our resistance to it (it is not always this beautiful, but it often can be).
As a woman I feel I am still searching for this community, and it is difficult to admit, but it is because we, collectively, are still invested in the structures that are destroying us; one foot in, one foot out (or both feet, which can seem like an easier resignation). I can say this because I am struggling with this myself. I am really trying to be on some radical-type shit, some “I-don’t-care-about-anything-but-love-that-resists-oppression” type shit, but I still look at my body every day, and I still make those seamlessly “natural” decisions about how I want to eat today or how much physical activity I want to engage in on any given day (and no y’all, I’m a lazy-ass bitch, if it were not for the fucked-up ideals of “womanhood” then my ass would never put on a pair of running shoes EVER). This is not about being a fitness-head. This is about survival, and relevance. Men have body image issues too, yes, but men are relevant by virtue of their gender (if we are only looking at this in a vacuum); women are already devalued, and our one way to salvation is apparently having men want to fuck us?
Because no matter how successful we are in the realm of capitalism, no matter how loving we are in the realm of spirituality, no matter how strong we are in terms of resilience, larger society deems us valuable based on our sexual appeal towards the heteronormative male eye, and this in and of itself is one of the most harmful if not the greatest tool that sexism has to offer. It does not matter that there are endless campaigns to appreciate beauty that does not fit into the heteronormative ideal (yes it matters a lot actually, but not for what I am speaking about) – these campaigns are still centering the body of a woman as the locus of our value and worth. The solution – if there ever was one or ever can be one that isn’t a complete overhaul of everything ever – is not to say that “every woman is beautiful,” because you know what, yes, we as women are beautiful and should believe that about ourselves (as should all of us weak-ass humans), but also – who the fuck cares??? Who the fuck cares if I am beautiful or not? I am a human being; we are all just weak-ass, sorry-ass human beings, and by virtue of that we are all worthy and our lives entirely valuable. Why do I have to be beautiful? It pisses me off, and honestly like, I ain’t even trying to be beautiful no more – then what? If shit hits the fan is you still a fan?
It is hard to even start with any productive or linear “logic” when it comes to this topic because it is already so illogical to begin with that we, as a culture, as a collective, as a society, are all more or less invested in the ideas that women’s value lies within the shape and size and appeal of our bodies. Even when we do not actually believe this in our core, how many of us are brave enough to shed ourselves fully of the bullshit, to take the risk of social irrelevance or social death to be more full within ourselves and more rooted in our humanity? I am not brave enough. Yet. I am saying this even (and even more so) as someone who has massive amounts of unearned “beauty privilege” because of the exotification of my racial ambiguity, and the close proximity of my features to features that are considered “top” (more or less so depending on the factors). It hurts me that I have this privilege that I never asked for. It hurts me that I can incite insecurity in other women depending on our socially-perceived value in any given situation. It hurts me that I feel insecure when assessing my own socially-perceived value in any given situation against that of another woman.
I can sit here and lie and pretend like these things don’t affect me. I can give in whole-heartedly and dive deeper into the self-objectification train that we don’t even realize we are on. I don’t want to do any of those things. Honesty is the only thing that has granted me the space to be better and to slowly push towards my own mental emancipation from the slavery that is oppression; and honestly, I know our worth as human beings (it ain’t nothing sacred or special, it can be, it doesn’t have to be, but it is there). I know our value as individuals, but I still engage in self/other/perception. I know that this is all bullshit straight up, but I am still scared to completely let go, to be sustained purely by my own love-of-self and convictions in what I know as truth.
I want to reach out to my sisters and tell them: we don’t have to be beautiful. Girl, it’s okay. But for now the most I can do is set my relationship status with my body and my mind as: It’s Complicated.