Why YOU are beautiful, full stop.

Originally posted in Community Blog

Originally posted on jocelynthemaster.blogspot.com.

So here’s the thing. This picture that’s been circulating around Facebook…

…is BULLSHIT. I know that not everyone who has posted this has been all “OMG THIS IS SO EFFING TRUE LOVE YOUR BODY <33333333″ and that many people have used it as a jumping-off point for more critical discussion about fat shaming and such, so if you did post this, please don’t think that I’m personally criticizing you. I just felt the need to jump in on this discussion. Because I get that SOME PARTS of this message need to get out there. I understand that Western society needs to understand that the average woman is a size 16, not between a size 4 and 12, and it is absolutely absurd that the fashion industry continues to dismiss the majority of women by employing “plus-size” models that are, in actuality, smaller than the average woman, and relegating women’s clothing over a size 12 to specialty “plus-size” stores, meaning that most women cannot shop in “regular” stores. And that is absolute bullshit.

However, other parts of the message promoted by this image are EXTREMELY problematic. First of all, it kind of seems to be promoting the idea to women that it’s okay to be a little bit bigger than your “ideal” size because men are okay with it. I’m sorry, did I miss the meeting where we decided that men get a say in how women feel about their bodies? ‘Cause I’m not on board. My confidence in my body will NOT depend on whether on not the majority of dudes think I’m fuckable.

Second, putting aside the  dress sizes of these women for a moment, all three of these women fit conventional Western beauty norms. Long hair (windblown, too!), clear skin, no body hair, no cellulite, no wrinkles…and it appears as if all of their breast-waist-hip ratios fit the so-called ideal. Note that on the size 16 model, her waist is noticeably narrower than her hips, and her breasts stick out much more than her stomach. As one Facebook commenter astutely pointed out: “I actually think they’re all beautiful – and I don’t think that EVERYONE’s beautiful.” My point exactly. What if the “national average” woman had smaller breasts? What if she carried her weight more in her stomach area than in her breasts, hips and butt? What if you could see cellulite on her thighs? What if she hadn’t shaved her legs or pubic area? What if she shaved her head? What if she had a unibrow? What if she had visible scarring? What if she had acne? What if the skin on her arms sagged, what if her breasts sagged, what if she was wrinkled? What if she was over thirty? What if her skin was darker? Would you still fill the comments section under this photo on Facebook with “OMG SHE’S NOT FAT SHE’S SO BEAUTIFUL!” She’s beautiful because her appearance fits our cultural understanding of beautiful–and that does not include being fat, hence the tendency to say, “she’s not fat, she beautiful,” as if the two were antithetical. Hey, guess what–saying, “she’s not fat, she’s beautiful,” is STILL FAT SHAMING because you’re saying that if she were fat, she would NO LONGER BE BEAUTIFUL.

This leads me to my third point: the largest woman in this picture is only the (American, I’m assuming) NATIONAL AVERAGE. Which means that a large percentage of the population is bigger than the woman on the right. What about those women? They’re not “ideal” nor “average” and therefore they are left out of the conversation? There are beautiful size 18, size 20, size 24 and beyond women. But we cannot talk about that because then we’d be forced to admit that women CAN be beautiful AND fat. Because, guess what–some women ARE fat. And that’s fine. And that’s beautiful. But this photo, like most of our conversations about body image and body acceptance, refuses to go there. And that’s a problem.

My fourth and final point is that while this photo does open up the discussion around “average”/”plus-size” women’s beauty, it also opens up a space to critique the bodies of women who fall into the size-8-and-below category. One commenter explicitly said, “I would NOT want to look like the chick on the left.” That’s totally fine–I don’t want to look like someone that’s not me either–but the implication is that she looks sickly, she’s unattractive, she’s anorexic, she’s not a “real” woman because “real women have curves” or whatever. I am not trying to suggest here that the positive body image movement (or whatever you want to call it) is like “reverse fat shaming” or anything ridiculous like that. That would be like claiming that because I’m a Hanson fan I understand what it’s like to be the victim of homophobia because when I “come out” to people as a Hanson fan I am usually openly criticized for my preferences and asked a bunch of silly questions about why I like them and whether or not I’m sure I like them and that it’s not just some side effect of a childhood trauma that has made me incapable of maturing past Hanson fandom. (I have to admit, I went to a Hanson concert in Toronto recently–but creative analogy, right?) Queer-identified people are faced with systemic oppression and homophobia, whereas Hanson fans are ridiculed but it has no lasting impact on their lives nor do it inhibit their access to any aspect of daily life. Similarly, fat women are faced with a lovely combination of fat-shaming and misogyny, whereas thin women have a lot of thin privilege, and when other women criticize them or call them “anorexic” or tell them to “eat a burger,” it may hurt, but it does not limit their access to, well, anything, really. Being too small to shop in “plus-size” stores is not a systemic issue. However, it is still problematic to open up a space where insulting thin women for being thin is acceptable and it is highly problematic to suggest that any woman is not a “real” woman. For more on this topic, go here and read Kate Bartolotta’s take on this (she actually looks at another hugely problematic photo that’s been circulating around Facebook lately and that more explicitly insults skinny women). And I’m serious. Go read it. I just spent like 15 minutes looking through my browser history to find that link.

Anyway, this photo should NOT be used as an excuse to tell any woman that she is not real or that her body is somehow offending those attempting to cultivate positive body image. A woman’s confidence in her own body should not come about comparatively–whether it’s comparing her body to the national average, to what men deem fuckable, or to what other women’s bodies look like. And keep in mind what I said earlier–all of the women in this photo fit OTHER standards of beauty. The woman on the left is conventionally attractive in ways that other skinny/thin women are not. Also, she is quite tall, so she is much thinner than most women who fit into the size 4 to 8 category (I doubt this was an accident–the taller she is, the skinnier and more “sickly” a size 4 to 8 looks). Not that I am suggesting that this is a problem–she is beautiful. The message is not.

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33 Comments

  1. Posted February 13, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this. I think the “real woman” concept is damaging to absolutely everybody it comes in contact with. I’m pretty sure the credentials to be allowed to separate “real women” from “not real women” (fake women?) do not exist. Doesn’t matter your gender or class or age or any other qualifier- NO ONE gets to say who is “real” and who is not, based on their looks.

    Coming from a woman being made invisible by this “real woman” BS

  2. Posted February 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Yes! I responded to a similar meme (the one that compares beauty standards from the past to beauty standards of today) on my facebook page. I said: Body-policing is always bad, folks. We can celebrate curves without criticizing skinny women. Instead of making ourselves feel better by tearing other women down, let’s build each other up by encouraging self-love, confidence, and community among all women, regardless of shape and size.

    Also, the women featured in these memes are often white and able-bodied. Let’s meditate for a minute about what other destructive ideas about beauty are being conveyed by this “some women are better than others” meme.

  3. Posted February 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    First off Jos, I love your rant. Completely agree with everything you said.

    “the largest woman in this picture is only the (American, I’m assuming) NATIONAL AVERAGE”

    I’m not sure about this. I think they might be UK averages. I’m only making assumptions of course, but the thinnest woman looks like a UK 4-8 (this is US 0-4) to me. I’m a UK 4-6 myself and I look bigger than her (though I’m probably shorter), so this is why I think this. The other women also look like UK 12 (US 8) and UK 16 (US 12) to me.

    But, they are probably all tall women, which throws it off, and anyway it’s slightly problematic to assume people’s sizes by sight, as that is not always reliable. If it’s true though, it’s even more of an unrealistic expectation on the original target women.

    • Posted February 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

      This. These women’s photos do not accurately portray most women who wear the sizes they’re supposed to represent because the women are so tall. I’d say the “national average” size 16 woman in that picture probably has about the same BMI as I do (mine’s a shade over 25), and I wear an 8-10. The difference is that I’m only five feet tall–at my height, the smallest woman in that picture would probably wear a 00, the middle one a 2-4, and the largest one an 8-10. For most women, the BMI corresponding to a given clothing size would be lower than for women my height, but significantly higher than for women in the photo.

      So, most women probably don’t want to be as skinny as the smallest woman in that picture, which is good given the health issues associated with being significantly underweight, but the average woman would probably have a higher BMI than any of the women in that photo.

    • Posted February 14, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      OP here! Thanks, you’re right–they might be UK averages, I’m really not sure. Since I’m smaller than a size 4 (in Canada), I definitely found the image on the left to be much smaller than what I imagine a size 4-8 to be. However, the points about body shape versus body size are totally valid–we forget how much height, musculature, etc. plays into our weight and “size.”

  4. Posted February 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I am so glad you posted this because I never felt I fit in with the “real woman” campaign or the skinny impossible ideal. I have been trying to find a good way to explain “bust-to-hip” ratio ideal with models, even bigger models. I feel that because I am medium sized with no bust I don’t fit into the curvy is better, nor am I small. I am just glad to here some say this

  5. Posted February 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    So true. I detest the whole “real woman” concept. Am I less of a woman because I wear a size 2/4 (depending on the store) without having some crazy eating disorder (or, let’s be honest, even working out regularly … ok, at all)? It’s just my body type! Half the time people are telling me to lose more weight, and the other half people are telling me that I should embrace curves I don’t have.

    And while I know this website doesn’t address the issues men face, let’s not forget that many skinny guys face ridicule about how they’re not “real men.”

  6. Posted February 13, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    It’s really important to also pay attention to the race of the women in this photo: They are all white.

    The many women of color in the U.S. are completely left out of the dialogue about what’s beautiful and what’s not. This very obvious omission is following another Western convention of beauty: In order to be beautiful a woman must be white.

    I recall a group discussion on my campus a while back about women and eating disorders and, inevitably, the struggle to look beautiful. The event was attended by mostly white women, as per usual for any event at Colgate University. But women of color were present. Which made things interesting when one white woman dared to remark that it’s apparently okay for women of color, like Beyonce, to not have to be size 0-8 skinny. My sister of color bravely noted that women of color feel the same struggle to be skinny and beautiful ON TOP OF the sickening idea that she will never be beautiful because she is not white.

    And of course, the white woman and her friends seemed threatened of being called a racist. So like most white people she and her friends somehow created this magical vacuum where race doesn’t exist; and my sister’s confession was left unheard except for the few in the room who already knew her struggle.

    • Posted February 14, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Amen.

      Whenever my fellow white middle class women in the Health at Every Size community start on about fat as the last acceptable prejudice, or how much more acceptable it is to be fat and black/Hawaiian/Puerto Rican, I point them to Georgia Me’s performance of “Full Figure Potential” on Def Poetry Jam. It’s on YouTube. It is just one person and one datapoint, but the combination of the power of her words *and* the evolution of the audience’s reactions from laughing at what they think are fat jokes to finally getting her point… seems to help people Get It about their own blindness wrt the struggles of black women as 10 pages of well-argued text never does.

    • Posted February 14, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      OP here! Yes, definitely, thank you both, Angelica and Kristen Dunn, for expanding upon my original analysis–incredibly valid and valuable points. This was definitely something I noticed but it did not feature prominently in my post, so I am very glad that you brought attention to these issues of race in the discussion of beauty and “real” women. I greatly appreciate it!

  7. Posted February 13, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Why do we always forget about the health component? I am all for telling each other we are beautiful, because we are, but beautiful is a powerful word that transcends physical appearance and national averages and weight and size and all that jazz. I don’t think we should ridicule anyway for how they look or what they weigh, but I do think it is incredibly important to emphasize health and being healthy. Skinny, fat, tall, short, round, oval, lumpy, soft, big boobs, flat chested, cellulite or not, all can be healthy and all can be UNhealhty. Women need to take ownership of their bodies and their health, regardless of size.

    This being said, I really like that you chose to call out something that is so easy to “Click” and “Share” with others. I find that we often forget to think about the meaning and what we are really promoting and this photo is a perfect example of painfully mixed messages with mostly good intentions.

  8. Posted February 13, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    While I recognise this is a rant with a general good intention and is correct in several places I’d like to hope it is preaching to the choir here so shall merely limit myself to neutral or negative criticism.

    Singling out men’s opinion as a standard for comparison before dismissing the notion of comparison being the root of beauty (which is really where all the problem lies) smacks as a rather unnessecary addition that doesn’t help the proliferation of the blog amongst men where often that’s where a lot of work needs to be done on women’s rights. Also believing that men holding an ideal of what is beautiful means they ascribe it to ‘fuckability’ is very dismissive, by the same token a man can’t admire the beauty of the subject of a painting without wanting to stick their penis in the canvas.

    If we take the image as part of the ‘real woman’ movement (putting aside the problems with it for the moment) then you wishing for them to include someone who is ‘fat’ is a bit daft as it doesn’t serve their cause. The real women cause is trying to disassociate slim/petite frames with beauty and demonstrating that the majority of people don’t fit those narrow margins and are instead ‘average’. Including someone people would dismiss as not being average, i.e. overweight, wouldn’t help their argument as those people are as much unrealistic body shapes for the average woman.

    I also don’t think the image is the real criminal here as most of the comments in the rant are directed towards facebook; the root of all evil.

    I don’t want this to be completely negative as it was nice to see someone send-up the dreadful ‘real woman’ movement and, though a little ham-fistedly, try and remind us all that beauty is an internal phenomena and it’s best to ignore the opinion of others.

  9. Posted February 13, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Lizzie – I’m so glad you brought up the health factor. It kills me that it is completely left out of the discussion on so many of these rants. Body image and appearance are important cultural collateral, sure, but where is the discussion of healthy living, healthy eating habits, and the fact that being under or over a certain weight is fundamentally unhealthy and can lead to any number of physical problems throughout life? It’s completely lost in this whole “fat shaming” and “real woman” discussion (both the proponent side and the admonishing side). When are we going to bring back the discussion that you need to eat well and exercise and take care of yourself? If you do that, THEN no matter how you look, you should not be concerned with what others think. Every body type/shape/size is beautiful… but not every body type/shape/size is healthy. It’s time we were more concerned about the latter.

    • Posted February 13, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure you even read Lizzie’s comment properly, since she said she believes people of all shapes and sizes can be healthy and unhealthy.

      Besides, a focus on health DOMINATES the discourse around body size. I don’t think we need even more of it.

      • Posted February 13, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

        I speak from experience when I say this. Health tends to correlate with body size. I used to be huge in high school and was always tired no matter how inactive I was. I lost 50 pounds due to joining the military and regained some weight in muscle. Over the years I have been working out 5 days a week and people are shocked when I tell them how fat I was. I feel great now. I have literally multiple times more energy than I did when I was in high school and I rarely get sick. Yeah it’s important to love yourself first before anything but let’s not pretend that having an 50 pounds of fat won’t affect your joints or heart.

        • Posted February 14, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

          I am happy for you that you “feel great now.” And I do mean that.

          But please educate yourself about the effects of diet culture on women, the differing experiences women and men have when losing weight, the 95-98% failure rate of dieting, the effects of weight cycling on human bodies, how diet culture causes eating disorders, moral loading on fat and thin, discrimination in health insurance and employment against people–especially women–who are fat, and what Health at Every Size is doing to address all of that … before you extrapolate from your own experience to judge the bodies of the rest of the world.

          • Posted February 15, 2012 at 4:00 am | Permalink

            Ok so I’m not speaking from a female experience but one thing is not gender-based. Excess body weight affects the human body regardless of gender. Too much weight wears out joints quicker and the heart has to work harder to support the body. This is also true with excess muscle which is why steroid users face a higher chance of heart attack so it’s not a “fat” issue as much as it is weight in general. I envy the naturally thin because I have to work out often to not get huge. That being said I know this is probably a bigger issue for women since they are judged more on looks.

    • Posted February 13, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

      No, it’s time for other people to be so concerned about my fat ass – oops, I mean, “my health”.

      Every. Single. Time. There is something positive said about fat – or even slightly “overweight” – women, the Concern Trolls come in with “She can’t possibly be healthy.” First of all, the concept of health is relative. It is ableist to impose *your* concept of health onto someone else, let alone a perfect stranger from whom you are not getting paid to do so. Secondly, if that person is unhealthy, what business is it of anyone else? Then Concern Troll says, “But healthcare costs! But higher food prices!” Why is more “feminist” to be up in arms about politicians debating healthcare costs for contraception and abortion, but not about people debating healthcare costs for fat people? Why is not okay to say, “I don’t want to pay higher insurance costs for someone else’s birth control” but it’s okay to say “I don’t want to pay higher insurance costs for someone else’s fat”?

  10. Posted February 13, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I think to make a big change we need to stop complaining about ourselves.

    I feel like I never make a big deal over how someone looks, or how big they are, etc, because honestly I don’t give a shit about that. My idea of what is beautiful is not defined. I feel uncomfortable when someone bigger than me complains about how they want to be my size, when I think they look great. Or, when someone smaller thinks they’re too big. How do they think that makes other people feel?

    For example, I have freckles. I like my freckles. But, if I were around someone who disliked their own freckles, and complained about them all the time, this might make me start thinking I was ugly.

    I have a positive self-image now, but in my younger days I didn’t.

  11. Posted February 13, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I think this is so important. I get really worked up about this idea of who is beautiful as defined by the media, or past images, or whatever the stores are telling us. My sister very much falls into the “plus size” category and because of that I grew up in a house hold where we didn’t use the word fat because it was hurtful. Now that I’m older my sister identifies herself as fat and its a good thing because there is nothing wrong with her body or with being fat. She is beautiful.
    On the flip side of this despite the importance of diversifying images I feel like we are still heavily preferencing one body as better then other bodies. I’m a size 4. I’m short and have very small breasts. The amount of times I have been asked “How much larger would you want your breasts to be?” by friends, lovers, and people I generally otherwise respect is ridiculous. Not to mention finding a cute bra in my size that isn’t super padded push up is not the easiest task. There is just this assumption that I am unhappy with my body. So why is it that averages should be what defines beauty? I would LOVE to see an image going around facebook of REAL diverse women labeled as beautiful. I would love to see uni-brow women, large women with small breasts, women who don’t fit able bodied norms. That would be beautiful.

  12. Posted February 13, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the post! I agree with what you wrote and I also have another theory. I think because women’s bodies are used all over the media, even for things like this, it makes it easier for everyone to think they have a say over women’s bodies. We see images of women’s bodies all the time, whether they are real or not is a different issue, but because we see them all the time, everyone thinks they are in on the conversation, when really that isn’t the case. (when I say ‘in on the conversation,’ I mean they can determine for women what needs to happen for our bodies, around healthcare, reproductive freedom, violence…
    As for this particular ad/propaganda or whatever it is, I think you summed it up well-
    “My confidence in my body will NOT depend on whether on not the majority of dudes think I’m fuckable.”
    This ad seems to be telling us that if you are in one of these three categories, you are fuckable, and if you’re not in one of these three categories, you aren’t and your confidence should be rattled. These things keep us talking about women’s bodies, which makes us insecure, keeps us from the real issues, and has us talking about how we should look for men. Ridiculous! And… I would hate to always be windblown. -matrifocalpoint

  13. Posted February 13, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Health, not size, is what matters. I am a size 22, but I eat great and am a massage therapist doing deep tissue massage on very tense people. I am healthy. I don’t care how you look, just if you are healthy and most of all HAPPY!

  14. Posted February 13, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    I made a blog about this same subject a few months ago. I’m skinny, I supposedly fit the standard of beauty, but I still get hated and shamed by heavier women who like to assume that my skinniness comes from throwing up all my food. As if that’s the only possible way for me to be skinny.

    Or I get the “real women have curves” thrown in my face. That somehow I’m not a real woman because I’m skinny. Or worse, “Shut up skinny bitches!” The affirmation of a fat woman being the degredation of a skinny woman.

    Can we ditch the whole “real women are -insert adjective here-” mantra? It’s well-intentioned, but…well…the road to hell is paved with good intentions…

    • Posted February 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      THIS. Absolutely this. I am a natural size 2. I understand that this gives me a degree of privilege when it comes to the beauty standard, but a lot of people fail to realize that we, too, get shamed for our bodies. I also see a lot of concern trolls– mostly feminist-identified women who are heavier than me– express fake concern about my health and insinuate that I must have an eating disorder or be suffering from malnutrition. I weigh 120 pounds at 5’5″– I’m not underweight and I don’t have an eating disorder. I just happen to be thin. I’m personally sick of women fighting over who is and isn’t a real woman, or shaming other women for their bodies in order to feel better about themselves.

  15. Posted February 13, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    I forgot to mention that in the presence of a fat woman, I’m not allowed to show confidence in my own body because that will somehow make the fat woman feel bad. So I have to either pretend to hate myself, or just shut up altogether and keep my body hidden. Just for the sake of someone else’s comfort zone. So if someone else I’m around hates their body, I have to pretend to hate mine too, or just adjust my wardrobe for them.

    My high school boyfriend’s mom was so particular about her body (after having 5 kids) she expected me to dress down in front of her because she thought that my body would distract her husband away. Her husband never said or did ANYTHING inappropriate to me. Ever. But she insisted that my teenage body made her feel bad and that if I didn’t dress conservatively enough, her husband would turn away from her and that I would get raped.

    Umm…what?

  16. Posted February 13, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much! I can’t believe the pic you found–in what universe is that a real range of sizes? So ridiculous…there are so many different ways to be beautiful. Thanks for including my “Real Women” post from elephant journal in your blog.

    • Posted February 14, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the feedback! And for your post that helped me work through some of the issues I was having with these images. And yeah…this picture shows an absurd range of sizes as the “ideals” and “averages.” When did “real” women become so freakin’ tall (I’m 5’3″, so I might be a little sensitive to the height thing…but come on, seriously?) and “perfectly” proportioned? Yikes.

  17. Posted February 14, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I think it should also be pointed out that the girls in the picture, are not the size that is above their head.

    • Posted February 14, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. The middle one is NOT a size 12. She looks more like a 4, and the one on the left is a 0 or 2.

  18. Posted February 15, 2012 at 12:17 am | Permalink
  19. Posted February 15, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this. You’ve made a number of very good and engaging points here, but I’d like to hear more about how an image with this message should have been designed.

    First of all, when you’re talking about cultural ideals, it seems more than appropriate to acknowledge men and women, especially their different beliefs about weight do actually break down in the way the photo suggests. (I do wonder where they got their statistics though.)

    Regarding the fact that all three women are white, I wonder what ethnicity they should be to avoid criticism. Wouldn’t representing two or three different races run the risk of stereotyping? When I saw these three white, airbrushed models, the only thing I noticed was the weight difference. And I believe that was intentional. If you’re trying to make a statement about weight and weight alone, it makes perfect sense that you would try to minimize the variation in all other visual factors.

    While I agree that this kind of image is very disheartening for women above or below the weights represented, the message I get from it is that the super-skinny ideal is just unrealistic—for most women.

    Lastly, if this image does “open up the space to critique the bodies of women who fall into the size-8-and-below category,” it certainly isn’t the first to do so. Modern media does a very good job of showing us just how narrow the window of ideal weight is. If you’re above it or below it, you don’t make the cut. And if the average weight represented in this image is to be believed, then we can assume that the average woman looks a dozens to hundreds of images every day that tell her she needs to be much skinnier to be beautiful. Should we keep our skinny ideal for fear of shaming those women who are very slim or slight of stature? Or, to be more proactive, how should we represent average or realistic weight in the image-based language that permeates our society?

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