After writing this post, everyone in my life seems to be talking about body issues! A recent thread in a burlesque list hashed out some controversy about whether the burlesque scene is body-positive and what that means. Friends and family have come to me expressing unhappiness with their bodies. I have personally been dealing with the fact that I have gained 20-30 pounds in the last year and a half (mostly I’m fine with it, it’s just frustrating when my favorite clothes no longer fit over my ass). An email conversation with Violet Blue, the witty and lovely sex educator, author and sex columnist for the SF Chronicle, resulted in quotes in her column and a mention on her blog.
All of this discussion has inspired me to go a bit deeper on this issue that affects all of us to one degree or another. To start off, this is the full rant that I sent to Violet Blue, which she quoted from in her column:
What I have always noticed in my own life and when I am watching other people is that “when you feel sexy, you are sexy.” Period. The end. There are people out there who are attracted to every body type, age group, coloring combination, clothing style, you name it. What makes one person stand out more than another are confidence and vivacity, both of which come out when someone is really feeling sexy.
I have shared dressing rooms with thousands of ravishingly beautiful women over the last 12 years, and the one thing they all have in common is… none of them think they are beautiful enough! Our society teaches women to pick themselves to pieces, analyzing each and every feature individually and keeping a list in our minds of each and every perceived fault. No one comes out of this scenario feeling good, and when women are in this mind set, nothing you can say will change the way they feel about themselves. Believe me, I’ve tried. (Have you noticed that most women will argue with you when you give them a compliment rather than just saying “thank you”?)
On the other hand, men tend to be seen in more of a gestalt fashion: people look at the whole package – including personality! – and evaluate the sexiness and attractiveness of the person as a whole rather than analyzing the perfection or imperfection of each feature. This is a much easier standard, and I find that the women who are most confident tend to see themselves in this way as well.
I don’t think people learn through words, they learn through experience. With this in mind, what I strive to create in my classes (and what many burlesque shows create) is a totally new environment where women of all shapes and sizes and ages and complexions get encouragement and support from each other rather than competitiveness and criticism. Often for the first time in their lives, they are allowed to explore their sexuality and enjoy their bodies in a safe and non-threatening way.
As new people come into the group and experience how the group encourages others who do not represent our society’s unattainable ideal of what is beautiful, they see how sexy these other “imperfect” women are when they are letting go and feeling sexy, and it allows them to stop judging themselves so harshly. Soon enough, they start stretching themselves, coming out of their shells more and more, and the encouragement and support they get from the group allows them to let go of even more of this unneccessary shame and self-judgement. This is really powerful and transformational, and I have seen it start huge snowball effects of positive change in people’s lives.
I think the best thing people can do to start feeling good about themselves is to get rid of the critics! Turn off the TV when it’s talking about some celebrity’s weight issues! Stop listening to your mother or your friend or your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse when they make comments about your weight. Hang out with people who think you’re hot! Find them. They’re out there!
As I mentioned in my previous post on this subject and in the quote above, these body image issues are pervasive. It is not only heavier women who feel insecure or downright ashamed of their bodies. Women of all ages, sizes and shapes feel this way, and many men have body insecurities, too; they just don’t usually talk about them as much, I think. I have asked some of my students (women of every body type and various ages) to give me their thoughts and experiences on how learning and performing burlesque has affected their body image, and with their permission I will be posting some of them here soon. The responses to my questions made me want to cry in a really, really good way. Such beautiful women!
I was surprised a few days ago when someone posted this comment on my post about Lindsay Lohan’s ode to Marilyn’s last photos:
I do agree that it’s exciting to see the pin-up aesthetic coming into the mainstream media … However, these photos of Lindsay Lohan are ATROCIOUS! Why on God’s Green Earth would these ever be published! Lindsay’s figure is emaciated and she looks like she’s about to kick the bucket! She took a gorgeous icon’s last photo shoot and turned it into squirrel droppings. I hope that the mainstream media can use the pin-up aesthetic … but, I certainly hope that they don’t keep bastardizing it like they did with this photo shoot!
I find this whole attitude offensive! If we are going to escape the limitations and shame placed on us by our society’s pressure to fit into one ideal body type, we’re going to have to stop hating people of any body type, not just ones that look like ourselves. Hating people because they resemble our current cultural ideal is only going to keep spreading body hate and unreasonable pressure. You can’t create freedom for “fatties” by hating the “skinnies.” Thin people are under just as much scrutiny and criticism as everyone else. Personally, I don’t see the difference between automatically hating someone because they are “too thin” or “too fat” and hating someone because they are of a different race or gender or sexual orientation. It is all judging someone because of what they are physically rather than who they are as a human being.
I came across Kate Harding’s “Shapely Prose” blog a couple of days ago, and I love it! Here are the “ten principles that underlie pretty much everything” she writes in the blog (taken from here):
1. Weight itself is not a health problem, except in the most extreme cases (i.e., being underweight or so fat you’re immobilized). In fact, fat people live longer than thin people and are more likely to survive cardiac events, and some studies have shown that fat can protect against “infections, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, osteoporosis, anemia, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes.” Yeah, you read that right: even the goddamned diabetes. Now, I’m not saying we should all go out and get fat for our health (which we wouldn’t be able to do anyway, because no one knows how to make a naturally thin person fat any more than they know how to make a naturally fat person thin; see point 4), but I’m definitely saying obesity research is turning up surprising information all the time — much of which goes ignored by the media — and people who give a damn about critical thinking would be foolish to accept the party line on fat. Just because you’ve heard over and over and over that fat! kills! doesn’t mean it’s true. It just means that people in this culture really love saying it.
2. Poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle do cause health problems, in people of all sizes. This is why it’s so fucking crucial to separate the concept of “obesity” from “eating crap and not exercising.” The two are simply not synonymous — not even close — and it’s not only incredibly offensive but dangerous for thin people to keep pretending that they are. There are thin people who eat crap and don’t exercise — and are thus putting their health at risk — and there are fat people who treat their bodies very well but remain fat. Really truly.
3. What’s more, those groups do not represent anomalies; no one has proven that fat people generally eat more or exercise less than thin people. Period. And believe me, they’ve tried. (Gina Kolata’s new book, Rethinking Thin, is an outstanding source for more on that point.)
4. Diets don’t work. No, really, not even if you don’t call them diets. If you want to tell me about how YOUR diet totally worked, do me a favor and wait until you’ve kept all the weight off for five years. Not one year, not four years, five years. And if you’ve kept it off for that long, congratulations. You’re literally a freak of nature.
5. Given that diets don’t work in the long-term for the vast, vast majority of people, even if obesity in and of itself were a health crisis, how the fuck would you propose we solve it?
6. Most fat people have already dieted repeatedly. And sadly, it’s likely that the dieting will cause them more health problems than the fat.
7. Human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Fat people are human beings.
8. Even fat people who are unhealthy still deserve dignity and respect. Still human beings. See how that works?
9. In any case, shaming teh fatties for being “unhealthy” doesn’t fucking help. If shame made people thin, there wouldn’t be a fat person in this country, trust me. I wish I could remember who said this, ’cause it’s one of my favorite quotes of all time: “You cannot hate people for their own good.”
10. If you scratch an article on the obesity! crisis! you will almost always find a press release from a company that’s developing a weight loss drug — or from a “research group” that’s funded by such companies.
I really love that bit that she says, “You can’t hate people for their own good.” I wish I knew who said that originally, too. She has links to resources supporting her statements on her website, so check it out.