Around the World

got the message?

Correcting body image stereotypes starts with us. Photo from thewinonline.com.

Hey you.

Yes, you. You reading this.

I’ve got a bone to pick with you.

Why? Because you- again, yes, YOU- are systematically destroying the lives and souls of millions of people around the world because YOU can’t stop obsessing about whether your body is thin enough, fat enough, decorated enough, covered enough, athletic enough, or pretty enough.

“WHAT?” I can hear you snap. “That’s bullshit. I’m an amazing person and yadda yadda I’m going to go read another article.”

Fine. Go ahead. But before you click another link, consider this: what if I’m right?

Look at it this way. There are seven billion people on the planet, and approximately40-45% of them identify, in one way or another, with feminine, female, womanly, or otherwise femme-gendered characteristics. Every culture on this planet has some sort of beauty standard for its female-identified members, whether that be rail-thin or roly-poly, whether they are asked to be the pursuers or the pursued in the Great Sex Game of Life, and every single one of us participates in those standards in one way or another. More often than not, our favourite form of participation is to belittle the people whose physical appearance is, in one way or another, considered “subpar.” Think about it: in all of your life, how many times have you insulted — out loud or just in your head — someone for simply looking imperfect? Or even just noticed something that you think is imperfect about them?

Correcting body image stereotypes starts with us. Photo from thewinonline.com.

Even worse: how many times have you done that, out loud, to yourself?

I once knew someone who was frequently mistaken for being pregnant when she was, in fact, not. It was her biggest insecurity and her fastest route to All-Out Rage, and after any “so when are you due?” encounter she would spend hours vacillating back and forth between sobbing about her body and yelling epithets at anyone unfortunate enough to be nearby. Her entire sense of self-worth would be utterly destroyed by that brief moment of conversation.

What really got under my skin about those times — and there were many of them — was not the fact that she was beating herself up for her body’s natural shape, although that’s pretty heartbreaking in and of itself. No, I was much more annoyed that anyone nearby with a stomach bigger than hers, or a body bigger than hers, or anything more jiggly than hers was automatically put down, insulted, and dehumanized by her own sense of self-loathing for having some tummy fat. Even worse: ask anyone (in thin-obsessed cultures, at least) if they’ve ever had one of those conversations before, and they’ll give you a look of horror as they describe this “massive blunder” they had the misfortune to make. Evidently, being perceived as round, fat, pregnant-when-you’re-not, or otherwise not in proportion with some random social ideal is the Worst. Thing. Ever. It means you’re worthless, unattractive, lazy, ugly, or any other number of negative things that no one wants to be.

Let’s take this a step further and pretend that any of these body-shaming conversations — “when are you due,” “she looks like a slut in that shirt,” etc. — happen when we’re out with kids (ours or someone else’s). You and your friends might be having a playdate and one of you might say something minor — something so small that it slips out without anyone really noticing it — and the kiddos overhear.

What do you think they’re learning?

“How DARE someone suggest I look pregnant?” teaches them that it’s hurtful and embarrassing to be perceived as fat.

“Ugh, she’s so skinny. What a bitch. She needs to eat something” teaches them that being skinny means you’re a bad person and must maintain a thin profile as some sort of social vengeance.

“Don’t shave your head. It looks ugly on girls” teaches them that attainment of a beauty standard is more important than their personal desires.

“Wearing that much — or any — makeup looks so trampy. She must want it bad” teaches them that body adornment is done for the pleasure of others, not themselves, and thus is the catalyst for any sexualized encounter they have, whether consensual or not. A double-bonus would substitute “so trampy” with “like a tranny,” which manages to insult a person’s self-adornment AND trans folk. Good job, haters!

“Ugh. People that fat shouldn’t be allowed to wear short-shorts” teaches them that fat bodies are gross and that personal comfort comes second to conforming to social norms.

My recent favourite, though, is “Don’t fat people know it’s unhealthy?”

That last one teaches us that it’s okay to judge, criticize, and berate fat people because we have their best interests at heart. Unlike all the previous messages, which are pretty blatantly negative, this one is sneaky in its maliciousness. The subtext of all of these messages is that femme bodies belong to the public and not their inhabitants, setting the stage for a longer-term pattern of attempts to control the same bodies in other ways (and yes, I am including sexual assault). The last message, however, adds the new layer of concern to the message, indicating that the recipient not only has a whole host of things to feel ashamed about, but is also clearly incapable of self-care- which simply reinforces the idea that their body isn’t really theirs.

Why am I writing this in a travel magazine? The biggest reason is that white, Western beauty ideals are being exported across the world and, while diverse ideas about beauty have always existed, we’re seeing a global narrowing of perspective. This is due to marketing, of course, and increased availability of Western products around the world.

But it’s also due to you and me.

We’re travelers, explorers, leaving our footprints everywhere we go. When we’re talking with women in Los Angeles about nutrition or trying on dresses on Okinawa (none of them fit, by the way), we’re leaving footprints. What we say and do, whether we like it or not, is deeply connected to the other messages being globally broadcast about what humans “should” look like and “should” do about it.

So it’s up to us. Stop whining about your waistline or someone else’s makeup. Stop worrying, out loud and in your head, about what people look like. Stop communicating the message that bodies are anyone’s business but their own.

Because the more you engage in these kinds of messages, the more you’re contributing to a global culture of body ownership.

And that’s not okay.

Erica Laue
Erica first set foot on a plane when she was ten months old. 28 years, 18 countries, and four continents later, the travel bug’s still strong in her veins, and she's become increasingly engaged with issues of power, gender, sex, equality, and access around the world.

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