Saturday, March 8, 2014

On Loving Women, Not Being Thin, And International Women's Day

Happy International Women's Day World! I love this day. In the past I've hosted parties for International Women's Day and I'm thinking of reviving the tradition. I value this day so much because I've been gifted to have the most incredible women placed in my life. They have shown me the heart of resilience, beauty, joy, and spunk. My mother is particularly notable to me whenever I think about women who inspire me, or really anyone who inspires me. She has demonstrated to me every day of my life what it means to love without condition, to meet each day with a sense of purpose, and she has instilled in me a deep well of self worth. My mother's love for me is a truth beacon.

So every International Women's Day, in addition to celebrating all the incredible women that have been, are, and will be,  I think about an issue that women are disproportionately facing in our country and/or world. This March 8th, I found myself thinking about weight and beauty standards. Men certainly also face pressures around body presentation, but ridiculous standards of beauty seem to plague us ladies. Standards of beauty certainly vary significantly around the world and in this post I'm focusing primarily on North American standards of beauty relating to weight.

I was thinking about my own relationship with weight and beauty tonight. I am not a thin woman. I have never been a thin woman. Even at my lowest weight, I am someone with curves. I have broad shoulders and hips and no matter how fit I am I still carry fat. I sometimes wonder if I hail from more Nordic lands than I know about. I am deeply gifted at storing fat. With the exception of snow driving, I weather winter very well.

I feel very fortunate to have had a mother who focused more on the beauty of one's character and spirit than on cultural norms of beauty. I am fortunate to have been a strange child, channeling the great women leaders throughout history while playing dress up. It was a gift to grow up in a community where thinness was not paramount and around people in spiritual practice who saw beauty in all life. Being on swim and waterpolo teams trained my mind to believe my body was good and strong. When you spend the vast majority of your time in a bathing suit around other people in bathing suits the small vanities tend to fade. No one cares about the stretch mark, or the bit of fat, or the awkward tan. Living in a college co-op, which drew people to it that had a propensity for the nude, further solidified for me that bodies of all shapes and colors are really remarkable and that nudity is not always sexual. My body could be many things; it is many things. I have amazing friends who do not spend all their waking hours consumed by the fire breathing media dragon's non-truth:
that to be beautiful you must be thin, and have flawless skin, and be within a certain skin color palette, and have curves in only the right places. I have a partner who loves me and does brave and amazing work around asking himself and other men to really confront what many cultural outlets have taught them about what makes women beautiful.

All this to say, I am one of the non-thin women who is really lucky. I cannot imagine how challenging not being thin as a woman in a mainstream North American context would be without a lot of the fortifying influences that I have had. And even with all of my life giving, truth telling influences, as a women who has always "struggled with weight" (such a strange phrase right...I don't really struggle with weight, in fact I put it on really easily) sometimes the non-truth telling fire breathing dragon perches in my head. I begin the insidious internal dance around my weight. The questions start coming up, "Are you working out for health or weight? Is it okay if it's for weight? If it's for weight does that somehow betray your ideal of beauty in all people? Why does weight matter so much? Why do I really love what I see in the mirror, but worry that others may find me lacking? Why does no one ever ask, 'Have you gained weight because you're looking really good?'? Have painful relational things in my life been related to my image?" Basically I begin the downward spiral into, as Ann with an E would say, the depths of despair. I just really begin losing faith in humanity and then in myself for allowing myself to spend even a minute on a topic so insipid and unhelpful. I'd like to think that I have better things to think about and do in my life and I'm right, I do. However, it does not mean that the very unhealthy and pervasive culture messages around thinness do not take their tole and require attention.

The reality is that being heavy in mainstream North American culture is stigmatized and this stigma, I believe, is the most acutely experienced in women. I have had men I respect deeply admit that they feel they are really open about the appearances of the women they date, with the exception of weight. They do not think they could date someone heavy. These men are brave and I admire them for being so forthright about this, but it's pretty heartbreaking. I cannot count the number of stories women, who have been told they are heavy and or believe themselves to be heavy, have told me about how they have been treated poorly on dating websites, on dates, in the workplace, in their families, and even at doctor's offices. Because of their weight, their bodies somehow become a valid and appropriate topic for conversation and critique.

There are multiple studies, focused in North America, that illustrate that women who are perceived as heavy face barriers in the workplace as well as in their dating lives. Now thinness is not the paramount of beauty worldwide and I think it's important to note that thin women in many cultural contexts are treated as less desirable, much like heavier woman are treated in the United States. This post is discussing heavier women in the United States, but points to the larger global issue of how women's bodies are culturally co-opted and forced to fit into beauty standards that separate us from each other, making some women part of the "in" group and some women part of the "out" group, which of course can leave all of us with a diminished sense of self worth and a compromised sense of sisterhood. It's also critical to note that this standard of thinness also creates a culture of discontent and body cruelty for women who would not, by others, be considered heavy. This beauty standard harms us all.

As I reflect on the issues of weight in the light of International Women's Day, I cannot help but offer a genuine prayer and call for each of us, whether we are the women or men who are on the heavier end of the spectrum, the man or woman who loves someone who is not thin, the person, whether woman or man, who finds themselves in judgement or revulsion over heavier bodies, or the person who is secretly attracted to people with heavier frames, but is too ashamed to admit it, to work daily to bring forth a paradigm shift when it comes to standards of beauty and desirability that separate us from each other and from ourselves. The reality is that heavier bodies are beautiful too and not just for the sake of being politically correct. Heavier bodies are truly beautiful, just like thin bodies. We interface with the world through our bodies, we are integrally intertwined with our bodies. They are desirable. They are valuable. Most importantly they belong to fellow human beings who have bright minds, big hopes, deep hurts, and a desire for connection. Even when I have my depths of despair moments around the culture of weight in this country and my place in it, I know on a pretty profound level that my body, in all its sizes, is a tremendous gift and that it is a thing of beauty, as I am a thing of beauty. Sadly, I do not think that all women (people) know this.

On this International Women's Day let's treat all women's bodies with respect. Let's do the hard internal and societal work to really understand what it is to love ourselves and others and get out from under this oppressive standard of beauty.

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