During the Summer between my Freshman and Sophomore years of high school I grew a substantial amount in height. It was the summer of 1989. A summer significant due to a move from Tennessee to California for my family. It was the only stretch of my life I was unworried about my clothing size.
In my childhood, I had been short and round. Active in sports and the joy of being a child in the 70s and 80s before milk carton pictures and little boys named Adam scared parents into keeping kids indoors. The only reason I ever considered my body at all was in the constant comparison to my older sister. She was called “Skinny Minnie.” As tends to be the ways of family, she was categorized as the pretty, skinny one and I landed in second place: tomboy, smart. Unfortunately these attributes never seemed as valuable.
The story goes that at a parent teacher conference in my second grade year, my parents were told by my teacher that they had done an outstanding job with my self-esteem. My round body had not been a high credential in my self identity, so it was not until sixth grade year I even recognized my form should be of concern. Amy Diana, a beautiful, dear woman, was a pal in my class that year. We, unfortunately, focused our affections on the same boy, which as everyone knows is the mortal sin of sixth grade. This unforgivable coincidence divided the class of girls as loyal to the other as the Bloods and the Crips. We threw hand signals across the cafeteria, but our gang sign was the universal one finger symbol of aggravation. As clear as the memory of typing that last line, I remember being lined up against the wall in Reeves-Rogers Elementary School where Amy whispered in my ear, “You have a hippopotamus butt.”
I laugh at the benign insult now, but in that moment, with those words and the giggles of her team reinforcing them, something changed within me. It was in that very moment that it dawned on me that the shape of my body was a significant part of the puzzle of how I would perceive that I was to be viewed and judged by the world.
Thirty-four years later, I would love to share that I’ve made great strides from that moment. Like millions of others, I have yo-yo’d between four dress sizes. I have been the picture of health. I have been disgusted at the image I have seen in the mirror. I have sat on the floor in dressing rooms crying and I have looked in the same poorly-lit three way mirror and offered the Creator a long distance high five at what he had made. I have added several significant surgical scars, pregnancy stretch mark remnants, and the soft comfort of cellulite on the rounder parts of me. I don’t care at all, except for when I do and then I do completely.
Changing the game a little is the addition of my three daughters and the magical monster, social media.
In a spontaneous phone check one night, I happened upon an Instagram page my daughter follows with the goal of normalizing real women’s bodies. It was beautiful women of varying body shapes and sizes in bikinis posing in sensual ways. Caption after caption telling the story of body positivity and female empowerment. Fire emojis abounded. “You are so hot!” written to women by women.
My first reaction was a visceral, “You go girl!” But the more I read and the more I looked at the poses, the bikini clad pictures, the words of applauding the success of these women being sexually significant, I just got angry. I moved on to see photo after photo of my daughter and her peers in pouty mouth poses People I love, looking over their shoulder, a come hither look in their eyes, bottom fully exposed save a strip of bikini sneaking out of the top. This a stark contrast to the next picture of the same image holding a sign suggesting that men should not just see women as sexual objects.
I have wrestled with this conflicting message. For far too long, there has been a cultural connection that women who look a certain way are what is sexy. It changes from time to time; there was the waif era, the sporty era, the buxom era and the curvy. But here is the thing, whether it is Victoria Secret telling you that you have to look like this to be sexy or if it is Lizzo reminding all the Thicc Girls of their desirability, the common denominator is that your value lies in your ability to be sexually significant. Do we see that? Do we see that the end game is the same? The irony is that in the real world, women of all ages, shapes and forms have been desirable for all of time. The problem is not what your form is—the problem is that no matter their size, women are telling women in unprecedented fashion that they are worthy because they are hot.
The value of women is so tied to their body that corporations hoping to gain shares in the body politic race, such as Dove’s Real Beauty Marketing Campaign, posted women of all colors, shapes and ages in their bras and panties to celebrate women’s beauty. Imagine that a skin care giant, wanting to spin the idea that all women are beautiful just as they are, didn’t market faces of differing hue, girth and experience—but bodies. And we called them brave. We called them cutting edge. It was just more of the same.
Looking back to my childhood, I am so grateful for the value placed on my creativity and my intellect. It is there that the foundation of my self worth has resided. I find myself leaving messages under the “Hot! 🔥🔥🔥” messages of my daughters and their friends that include, “I see your good heart.” “You look smart.” “Your smile is beautiful.” I don’t necessarily think culturally it makes sense to campaign to normalize cellulite. There is nothing that is more normal. I think it is as big a mistake to celebrate someone’s fat as it is to demean it. Fat is. It should hold no measurement of value. Instead of sensual photos, what if women collectively decided that we will celebrate images of health and well being? What if a group of girls were laughing and we all replied, “you look like you are full of joy!” ? What if Dove’s Real Beauty campaign showed fully clothed women with glowing faces because they were occupied in the passions of their heart—teaching a classroom of children, saving a life at the hospital, tending to the tears of their children, reading a great book? What if beauty was more valuable than sexy? What if wise was more valuable than pretty?
There is a meme that is floating around that says, “How many industries would fold if women loved and accepted their bodies?” That is a profound thought. I’d like to expand the idea, “How beautiful a world would we have if women loved and accepted they were far more than just a body?”