Remember when you were a kid and the only thoughts you had about your body (if you thought about your body as an entity separate from the "you" at all) were how high you could jump, or how nice your pajamas felt against your skin? Unashamed. Unembarrassed. Uninhibited. Free. Happy. Or maybe you can't remember a time like this because you were so young when you were taught to hate your body. This is particularly likely if you are a woman or a girl. There is a cacophony of vicious criticism and encouraged self-loathing unleashed on women's perceptions of their own bodies out there. Fighting against it will require a lot of repetition and a metaphorical bullhorn.
There are so many ignominious firsts when it comes to moments that influenced the way I felt about my own body. The first time I noticed all heroines in my favorite cartoons were blonde: age three. The first time someone called me ugly (5). The first time someone called me fat as an insult: age seven. The first time someone questioned whether or not I should "really be eating ice cream": age 10. The first time I was catcalled: age 11. The first time I was groped in public: age 18. The first time I was chased for a city block as I was called a "stuck up bitch" after I didn't give a guy I'd passed in the cross-walk my phone number: age 24.
These are just the firsts I remember. I don't remember the first time I went on a diet, or the first beauty product that was advertised to me. I don't remember the million little firsts, accompanied by the ones I can, that culminated into the first time I looked in a mirror and didn't like what I saw. I can't recall every instant that solidified that feeling... and I can't remember the exact moment where things started to turn around, where I thought, "This isn't actually real and there's no reason I should feel beholden to these stupid, arbitrary rules." When I realized that the only way to win this game is not to play.
I have a daughter now, and I'm not entirely convinced I will be able to keep her from hating her body because, truth be told, I don't think I have ever met a woman who has always loved her body, but I am determined to fight like hell. Society will teach our girls, early and frequently, all the ways they should judge and find herself wanting. And if we don't do something to counteract these lessons they will be learned.
She Will Learn A Very Narrow Standard Of Beauty
Thin. Fair-skinned (usually white). Often blonde. Proportionally large breasts. Full lips. She will see this a lot. She will see this so much, in fact, that she will very quickly realize that this is the societal ideal.
People Will Attempt To Remedy The Narrow Beauty Standard By Disparaging The Women Who Fit It
Potentially well-meaning people will notice this narrow definition of beauty and respond to it by insulting and demeaning the women fortunate enough to fit into that definition. Things like "real women have curves" and "blondes are dumb" and "no one wants to cuddle a stick!" will be proclaimed on Facebook memes and t-shirts, but it leaves us with the problem that we are still vilifying women's bodies, just different women.
She Will Be Catcalled
As per usual, Jessica Williams doesn't need me to add to the perfection of her sentiment.
She Will Have Diets Pushed On Her By Grade School
80% of American girls will have been on a diet by age 10. 75% of American women endorse unhealthy thoughts or behaviors regarding food and their bodies. She will be told there are virtuous foods — "Oh, I'll be good and get the low-fat dressing!" — and foods that reflect poorly on her: "Scratch that, I'll get the ranch. I'm so bad!"
Naked Female Bodies Will Be Censored In Important Ways
Female nudity will be relegated to sexualized images usually intended for male audiences. Female nudity, even toplessness, will likely remain in the category of "indecent." So she will receive the message that her naked body is for the sexual gratification and consumption of others, and that if it doesn't look a particular way it has less worth.
She Will Be Told She Is A Distraction
School and work dress codes will unfairly target her, claiming she is distracting boys from their school work. She will be sent home to change, taking her away from her school work completely.
She Will Be Told Beauty Products Are Essential
She may find that make-up is a form of self expression that she enjoys and has fun with and that's great. But she will also be told that make-up and a slew of other "beautifying" products aren't for fun, but rather, are essential "must-haves" in every woman's toolkit. She will be encouraged or even pressured not to leave the house without make-up on (to the point of apologizing for it; "Excuse the lack of make-up; I was in a rush."), pitched thousands of products through the media she consumes.
She Will Be Told To "Dress For Her Body"
"Flatter your figure" she'll hear. Rather than dress in a way that brings her joy, she will be told to dress in a way that helps her body most conform to the aforementioned narrow standard of beauty.
She Will Be Told, Overtly Or Subliminally, That She's Asking For It
She will be warned not to dress a particular way, or that she should avoid certain neighborhoods, or not be out late at night. She will be told that she needs to think about "the message" she is sending when she chooses an outfit. She will be told that boys will be boys, the implication obviously being that men will inevitably attempt to have sex with her at all times, no matter what, and that "instinct" can't be helped nor changed, so it then falls to her, as a woman, to choose how she acts, dresses, and where she goes and when and with whom, in a never-ending attempt to protect herself from that which we're told men "can't help" (and thus, are not expected to change). Dear. god.
She Will Be Told That Her Value Lies In Her Virginity
She will be told that nice girls wait. That she doesn't want people to think she's slutty. The sex education she receives at school may be abstinence only, and her body will be likened to a chewed up piece of gum once she has sex. Fun!
She Will Be Encouraged To Base Her Self-Esteem On Male Opinions
Since her beauty standards are usually dictated by what men find attractive (or perhaps by what other women think men find attractive), she will be told that she must look to male approval of her body to ensure that it is acceptable.
She Will Be Discouraged From Sports
Because boys don't like it when girls are competitive. Because when you're athletic, you get too muscular. Because why bother, it's not like girls can really go professional. Nevermind that she's passionate about soccer or that running is good for her physical and mental well-being.
She Will Hear The Word "Girl" Used As An Insult
...which basically encapsulates all the other things she will hear that teach her self loathing and body hate. When it comes to encouraging our daughters to love themselves, we clearly more than have our work cut out for us.