Written by: Camille Michelle Gray
As I type, my heart is still aflutter from a disagreement I just had with a male friend. It was about Nicole Richie. I know that seems bizarre, but hear me out.
I am in the midst of a month-long weight loss challenge at my place of work. The prize at the end is a couple hundred bucks, a new body, hopefully some healthy habits to bring with you into the future, and bragging rights for a few days. Perfect, I thought, this is just what I need to motivate myself. And it’s true. For the last several months I have been working out off and on, eating healthy off and on, and basically just treating a healthy lifestyle as something to jump in and out of. Can you blame me really? I’m only twenty-two and for the last four years, my health habits have been shaped by college culture. If there is any time in life to fuck up and eat ten slices of pizza, now is that time. While I am proud to say I no longer sit down to a dinner of Easy Mac and Oreos, I still have a long way to go. This weight loss challenge is by no means negative, or a way for the women and men at work to shame themselves into working out 24/7 and surviving on zucchini paste. It’s an avenue for office camaraderie and a positive way of living.
That being said, I’m taking this shit super seriously. I finally have a finite area of time in which to work on fitness goals instead of having abstract long-term ideas of what I want my body to look like. If I can keep at cutting carbs and doing cardio every day for thirty days, that’s all it will take to form a healthy habit. I know that this all sounds fantastic, right? But there is a dark shadow that lurks under me every time I embark on body-centric adventures like this: I become hyper-vigilant of my body and other women’s bodies. I compare myself, pinch myself, and feel happy for myself and bad for myself all in the course of twenty-four hours. I look at other women’s legs to determine whether mine are abnormal. I expect that after an hour’s workout, I should have lost ten pounds. I monitor the way my pants fit, feeling uneasy if they’re still snug. I keep mental track of everything I eat…so on and so forth ad nauseam.
It’s exhausting and I thought I was past all of it.
My history is that in high school (when I was, ironically, much smaller than I am now) I had body dysmorphic issues. The back of my bedroom door was a collage of super skinny models and celebrities. I would stare at them from my bed and think why not me? This led me to several months of just drinking Lipton green teas and sucking on peppermints for sustenance. I affectionately called it “fasting” because that sounded better than “purposefully starving myself to fit into a size 0 American Eagle skinny jean.” I was also on the varsity tennis team and ran around my neighborhood a lot. Between starvation and over-activity, I shrank down to a record low of one hundred and twelve pounds. (I DO NOT ENDORSE THIS BEHAVIOR!) But, since I did not have an underlying mental illness fueling this distorted vanity, I was able to pull myself out of it, accept my body, and move on with my life.
So now that I am almost a week into this weight-loss challenge, I am trying to reconcile my old body demons with my new sense of self-respect. I will never do my body the disservice of not feeding it. I will also never be a size two, and getting knee-high boots over my dense, muscular calves is impossible. I have accepted this. But that mean voice that tells me to eat a bit less and exert a bit more for sake of cellulite is what gets me up off the couch to run. The voice that says, I’m lovely and perfect as I am coaxes me into eating one more cookie and settling into a marathon of Law and Order: SVU. I still haven’t found the balance between them, but am trying.
Now back to Nicole Richie. Back in the day, her startling body transformation motivated me for all the wrong reasons. I revisited this idolatry today when I Googled her images. I sent the most disturbing ‘Before & After’ picture to a male friend of mine who proceeded to say the following: Eww, she’s so gross. If u think that’s sexy then LOL
Now, I didn’t send the picture with a caption saying I want to be just like her. I merely just sent the picture to open up a dialogue, as I always randomly do. She was on my mind, and I happened to be talking to this friend at the same time…so I sent it innocuously.
Reader, you are now privy to my history of body image issues and my extreme tactics to get thin. You’ll maybe understand why when he insulted her current body by calling it disgusting, I took offense. Not because I want to be like her, or agree with her methods of attaining such a body—but because I don’t like the idea that men get to have any type of say in the bodies women want and the bodies women have. A sad truth is that men shape beauty ideals for women. They implicitly and explicitly dictate what is desirable in a woman and it changes based on the particular man. I know that some of this is biologically hardwired (round hips, clear skin, big eyes, etc.), but more often than not men think their opinion on their perfect woman has currency and impressionable women internalize it. Some may want a stick thin woman, some may want a woman with Marilyn Monroe curves, and some may want the sensuous flesh of women like Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer. Some only want fair-skinned women. There are many women who distort themselves to fit the beauty standards of the men they want: some get butt implants, some stop eating, some bleach their skin, some forego make up, some wear short dresses, and some get hair extensions. One of the many things behind all of these methods is some unwritten rule that starts Men like… or Men want…or Men think it’s sexy when you have… While a fraction of women do these things for themselves (for better or worse), another entirely too large fraction do it to win affections.
I went off on this male friend, bashing him for making fun of a segment of women who are naturally thin, and women who’s mental disorders have shaped their waif-like bodies. I told him that if body standards weren’t so onerous, women would feel less stressed to fit into a mold. I told him that this way of categorizing the bodies of some women as better or worse than others is derived from a poisonous patriarchy, and it has seeped down into the woman sisterhood causing us to fight, belittle, and pick each other apart. For certain if we had less pressure from the male community to conform into a standard, whatever standard that may be, we would put less pressure on others and ourselves. The dictating of beauty standards also comes from other places: the media, vicious women, cultural norms, etc. But men do us no favors by playing along with this narrative.
When men say things that are seemingly innocent like pancake butt women need not apply or women with small boobs are like teenage boys, us women internalize that and more often than not feel like we are coming up short. (Or the flip side: a woman’s body DOES fit into a standard, and she derives all her worth from outward validation. Just as bad). We are social beings. We want lovers. We want to pass on our genes. This process is impeded by our impeccably low self-esteem, low self-esteem that is co-created by the desires of men.
Men: it is okay to have a preference, but you don’t have to state your preferences by indirectly putting other women down. If you like women with big butts, that is fine. There is no need to proclaim it to the world. There is especially no need to call all flat-butted women gross. Accept that beauty exists outside of your standards and acquaint yourself with the war many women wage against their own bodies. Have some f****** compassion and watch your words. If you knew how hard women worked to just feel okay about themselves, you’d think differently about what you say. Women: do the same when it comes to the type of man you want. It goes both ways even though power is still tipped in favor of men. And especially stop fraternizing with other women who think it’s okay to make fun of Miley Cyrus’ thin body or to make fun of weave lines and tans. We are all trying our best to live beautifully in a world that chops us down and calls us ugly at every turn. Stop unconsciously playing into it.
When my friend called Nicole Richie gross, my heart lit up with the same sadness I felt every time I felt like I was gross by some man’s standards. (re: I don’t like short women. Women with fat legs are gross. EAT A SALAD! Women with short hair look like men. I want hair to be nice and long so I can grab onto it, etc.). I felt the need to defend her even though I don’t have or want her body.
Nicole and I sculpt our bodies based on what we want, despite our methods. When I hit the elliptical, I’m not thinking, Boy, all this work is gonna pay off when I get a date. I’m thinking, Boy, I’m so proud of myself for going this extra ten minutes. It’s all going to pay off when I look in the mirror and reap the benefits of healthy choices and dedication. I would urge all women to start thinking this way. When I decided to go all 2008 Rihanna and cut off my hair, I sat in hesitation for a week thinking I would be a leper to all men if my hair was too short. Then I thought, “Fuck that. I’m doing this because I want to.” And that confidence will carry you far.
Tall, short, skinny, average, athletic, obese, short hair, long hair, blonde hair, black hair, acne, clear skin, healthy eater, junk food eater, gaining weight, losing weight, big boobs, small boobs, bubble butt, no butt—whatever the case may be for the women in your life, know that OUR BODIES DON’T EXIST FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT. There is so much more to our bodies than being ogled over or being the subject of your disgust. Us women have a hard enough time loving ourselves all on our own. We don’t need your judgmental voices adding fuel to the self-hate fire. Love the big butt of your girlfriend or your celebrity crush and at the same time have compassion for the skinny girl down the hall who feels ugly and out-of-place for not having that butt. Self-esteem is an inside job—that much is true. But helping to create an environment where women of all shapes and sizes feel welcomed, sexy, and unapologetic for the body their unique science has created for them or a body they have created for themselves is main nutrient self-love seeds need to grow.
My bout with the peppermint diet in high school was entirely about wanting to be beautiful—beautiful enough to have some guy find me beautiful too. The difference between then and now is I don’t feel powerless or at the whim of discretionary criterion. Even though I do stand too long at the mirror trying to will my stretch marks away by staring at them or pulling at my leg flesh so I can have a thigh-gap, I know that at the end of the day, these things don’t define me or my beauty. It would be nice if men could catch onto this way of thinking too and accept women for where they are in their body journeys.
Now for me, I’m about to shut this laptop and head out to the gym. Not so I can morph myself into some man’s dream woman, but because I really, really, really, want that prize money! Cha-ching! (Oh, and I guess a healthier disposition too…)
P.S. Before I get the hate mail, no I am not painting all men with the same broad brush. The descriptor of “men” was used for rhetorical reasons and not as a way to say all men are the same. Also, I realize this think piece is hetero-normative. I fully realize these issues are prevalent in the gay community as well. But I can only write from my experience.
Camille Michelle Gray is a 22-year-old singer/songwriter from Washington D.C. She likes dogs, cheese, and Lady Gaga.