There is no right way to hate your body

This weekend, I had the great honour of speaking on a panel with the incredible Hanne Blank and the estimable Therese Shechter.

We were there – at Momentum – to talk about sex and body image online, and our panel was what Hanne called a confetti conversation: we threw a bunch of bright and diverse but related ideas up in the air and watched them float around the room.

Therese spoke about how online spaces are often the only place where you can  find fat bodies being publicly sexual in a way that is depicted as good and desirable and sexy. I spoke about the privilege that I enjoy when I write about body image, and how I have sometimes failed to properly acknowledge and understand that privilege. I’m a white, cis and able-bodied woman who is relatively slender, and the body I was born into affords me a lot of privilege. And I talked about how the feminist blogosphere, an online space, is one of the only places where I’ve been able to have thoughtful, measured and productive conversations about those failures and about that privilege more generally. (And, as I said on Saturday, talking and writing about your own privilege is hard, and I’m fairly sure I will screw up at some point in the following few hundred words. If I do, please tell me so – constructively, if you can manage it).

When Hanne got up to speak, she gifted the room with what I honestly think is a world-changing piece of wisdom, a quote from the performer and writer Glenn Marla: “There is no wrong way to have a body.”

Hanne wrote about this last year, in a fit of frustration over the refrain that “real women have curves,” and the post was incredibly popular, for obvious reasons:

Real women are fat.  And thin.  And both, and neither, and otherwise.  Doesn’t make them any less real.

There is a phrase I wish I could engrave upon the hearts of every single person, everywhere in the world, and it is this sentence which comes from the genius lips of the grand and eloquent Mr. Glenn Marla: There is no wrong way to have a body.

I’m going to say it again because it’s important: There is no wrong way to have a body.

And if your moral compass points in any way, shape, or form to equality, you need to get this through your thick skull and stop with the “real women are like such-and-so” crap.

You are not the authority on what “real” human beings are, and who qualifies as “real” and on what basis.  All human beings are real.

Like I said, it’s a world-changing – and at the very least, a life-changing – idea.

Hanne talked on Saturday about the ubiquity of hating our bodies. Of how everyone does it. How, as Courtney wrote, it’s “the new normalcy.” I’m paraphrasing, but Hanne said, “I have yet to meet a cisgender woman who does not have some idea of what it feels like to look in the mirror and hate her body, end of story, thank you and goodnight.”

And of course, it’s not just cisgender women, it’s everyone. Obviously, our hatred of our bodies will be heavily influenced by the constraints societies puts on our bodies. There is a difference between hating your body as a white cisgender woman who wishes she had less cellulite and hating your body as a transgender woman of colour who lives in fear that someone else could use their “panic” about your body as an excuse to hurt or even kill you.

We all experience this self-loathing on a spectrum, and where we sit on the spectrum has as much to do with what we think about ourselves as it does to do with what the dominant culture tells us – and other people – about us. Even among cisgender, white, able-bodied women, there is a spectrum. Some of those women will look in the mirror once in a while, see cellulite on their thighs, and hate it for an hour. Others will starve themselves for years on end. Some, like a woman Hanne told us about on Saturday, will grant themselves permission to commit suicide if they haven’t achieved the body they want by the time they turn thirty.

What I want to propose is a spin on Mr. Marla’s invaluable piece of wisdom: There is no right way to hate your body.

There is no right way to hate your body. There is no way for hating your body to be productive. There is no way for hating your body to be healthy. No one should ever have to do it. There is no kind of hating a body that is more acceptable or inevitable than any other kind.

There is no right way to hate your body. It doesn’t matter where you sit on that spectrum. It’s a shitty spectrum to sit on, and no one should have to sit on it. Yes, I enjoy an enormous amount of privilege in this white, cisgender, able-bodied, athletic body of mine, but there are still days when I hate it, and that should not be so. I can only imagine what it feels like for people who don’t enjoy this kind of privilege. This is a shitty spectrum to sit on, no matter where you sit.

There is no right way to hate your body, and everyone’s suffering counts. Even if you enjoy an enormous amount of privilege, your suffering counts. Obviously, we should focus our attention on those whose needs are the most dire, those who are the most severely and violently affected by that hatred. That aforementioned white cisgender woman worrying about her cellulite has a less urgent need than the aforementioned transgender woman of colour.

But just as all human beings are real whether they have curves or not, all the pain people feel when they hate their own bodies is real, whether those bodies are privileged or not. There is no right way to hate your body. None of it is acceptable. And if our moral compasses points in any way, shape, or form to equality, we have to remember that in a world where hating your body is ubiquitous, we all experience that hatred. We all experience it differently and to different degrees, but we all sit on this shitty spectrum.

We all sit on this spectrum. We are all capable, then, of empathizing with other people who sit on it with us. And I’m of the belief that empathy is the most powerful force in the world. Which means I believe that every single one of us has the means to possess the most powerful force in the world. We all – thanks to the royally fucked up culture in which we live – know what it feels like to hate the bodies we live in.

Where there is universal suffering, there can also be universal empathy. We are all capable of empathy. And we are all capable of mobilizing that empathy to break down the prejudices and structures that put in danger the most marginalized people on this shitty, shitty spectrum.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I was raised in a home where constant shame of my mothers unhealthy body was transferred on and engraved into my thought process. In my young adult life, both my mother and sister underwent life threatening extreme surgeries to “fix” their bodies. The positive affects of these surgeries which I witnessed only seemed to drive my own self image lower. While I can identify with the author that I am a person of privilege in many ways including my looks, I somehow still often feel deformed. While my feminist mind tells me that unhealthy dieting and breast implants IS “the wrong way to have a body,” my societal brain damaged self can never shake this dissatisfaction in self. How does one even begin to erase a whole life time of body-hate culture? Should I just admit that my own psychosis is unfixable but I can make a conscious effort to not pass it on?

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Don’t give up! I am in recovery from an eating disorder and I think that coming to love our bodies IS possible if we work for it. I think it is a TON of work and I think that it takes an extremely long time, but I think that the end result will be worth it. I am in the process of retraining my brain to think positive things every time I think a negative thing. I’ve been educating the people around me about “fat talk” and negative body image talk. Modeling what I want to see in everyone else has helped me extremely. Part of it is really just “faking it until you make it.”

  2. Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    This post made me think. To understand my point, you have to know something upfront:

    I’m a white, able-bodied, pre-operative, pro-hormone-treatment trans-women. As you might guess, I sometimes hate my body. Or to put it more correctly, I hate the way my body is right now. It’s not the fault of my whole body, just the fault of some body parts that just won’t stop producing testosterone and make some nice estrogen instead.

    Apart from completely unfitting genitals, missing breasts, too big feet, the amount of hair on my legs and in my face, the proportions of my facial bones, the way that fat and mussels are distributed and some other small things, I pretty much love my body. That might sound sarcastic given the number of things that I hate about it. But still, it could have been worse. Compared to many other trans women, I am privileged. Maybe, even compared to some cis women. Maybe it’s the strong hope that things will get better soon. Maybe, right now, I’m loving my body for how it might look in 5 years.

    To come to the point:

    Should I hate my body? Is there a right amount of hating my body or a right way to do it? In the article it says multiple times: There is no right way to hate your body.

    Yet, to be allowed to be treated with hormones – and in the future even genital surgery – I have to prove that I hate my body very much. That’s the way things are here in Germany. If my hate is below a certain threshold, I just won’t get the permission. And no matter how big or small my hate is, I will have to wait at least another year before I might possibly get the permission.

    I do believe that any human can, to a certain degree, control how much he or she hates the own body. Society manipulates us in way that makes us hate it some more. This blog post on feministing manipulates us not to hate it at all. And people might manipulate themselves by the power of their own will.

    I’m unsure in what direction I should manipulate my own feelings, or which external manipulations I should allow. To be happy right now, I have to love my body, or at least don’t let the hate pull me down. But to be allowed the treatment that would finally allow me to really, really love my body, I have to hate it right now. Maybe for trans people in Germany, there is a right way to hate their bodies. Even though, it’s not easy to follow that way.

  3. Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    I was supposed to be at Momentum this past weekend (I spent $100 for a ticket—as an unemployed graduate student, that’s a lot of money!). Reading this made me wish I could have been there all the more. But I went to the Emergency Room with a kidney infection on Friday instead, and spent Saturday and Sunday alternately sleeping and trying not to throw up my gatorade. Talk about hating your body—I hated mine this weekend for keeping me from doing the things I wanted to be doing, and from being the places I wanted and needed to be. I am so grateful for this post reminding me that the hate is not productive nor healthy. I have tears in my eyes right now. Thank you, Chloe.

  4. Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    Thank you for including able-bodied as a position of privilege. I am also white, cis and slender, and I am frequently told that I am not allowed to hate my body. I hate that my body doesn’t work like it should. I hate that it leaves me in pain for months at a time, and that all I hear from doctors is “you’ll grow out of it” and “I’ll put you on a waiting list” (empty promises, always). I can identify with those who give themselves permission to die. At present I’m still functioning, still walking to class and even playing sports, but it is inevitable that I will lose these things and I honestly can’t see myself living long when I am no longer able to walk. And yet I am not allowed to hate my body because I am white, cis and slender.

  5. Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    A great, necessary post, Chloe!

    Hating your body is SO ubiquitous and it’s been my theory that the openess with which women talk about hating their bodies is what fuels it. Example:

    Someone says, “Oh, god I hate my huge belly.” Friends will often dispute this supportively, saying, “No, you’re not fat at all! Your belly is beautiful!” But despite the good intention, 1) this supports this idea that having a huge belly is bad, and 2) anyone in the room whose stomach is bigger than that of the person complaining silently feels terrible. Anyone who has a big or bigger belly and is proud of it has right away been told this pride is an uphill climb.

    I’ve never had an eating disorder, but being born with dwarfism and having limb-lengthening has made me hyper aware of lookism and the way self-image and perceptions of our own attractiveness is so heavily linked to beauty standards. My modus operandi has been to never talk negatively about bodies – not mine, not anyone else’s – ever. (Okay, in weak moments I will call someone who’s hurt me hideous, but I try to keep it to myself.) To me, the only polite, decent, productive, helpful, healthy way to discuss bodies is either positively (“You’re/She’s/I’m so beautiful!”) or neutrally (“He’s got a prominent nose, I’ve got a tiny nose, etc.”).

    What do others think of that (especially those who have dealt with eating disorders)? Is there some productive way to talk about hating physical qualities, or is it, as I suspect, always a downward spiral? I really want to hear from you.

  6. Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post…the idea that our suffering is important, even if we have ‘privileged’ bodies resonates with me. It’s an idea that can help temper the inclination to bash yourself for body-bashing yourself, just because you know or can think of others who have an even more volatile relation with their body, or are subject to abuse and violence because of their body. We certainly do an injustice to ourselves when we compare our bodies and compare our suffering with those of others.

    @Heather- A pertinent question indeed: how do we reverse a seemingly ubiquitous body-hate culture? I don’t have the all the answers but I think it is important that we start saying that a ‘non-disordered’ relationship with food and body is a real possibility for women. We need to conceive of a relation with our bodies that is not based on criticism and continual dissatisfaction, even if we ourselves cannot think of one woman of our acquaintance for whom this rings true. Perhaps if we can start at least thinking of this possibility, instead of proliferating narratives of how we are doomed to hate our bodies, then we can give way to the opportunity to embody this and to see it culturally represented.

    I have found it helpful also to think of my struggle with body image as not just my own–so every time I voice disapproval of body bashing, I am not just doing it for myself, but for others as well, in a movement to change the discourses that are produced and proliferated about our bodies.

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