How We Are Pretty, Pt. 1
I don’t remember, exactly, when my self-loathing began. I’m guessing it was fifth grade, maybe sixth, although I think I had an awareness of being “chubby” as early as second or third grade. The specifics don’t matter, though; what matters is that my anxiety over my appearance (in particular my weight) seems to have had no beginning and, conceivably, no end.
Why? I don’t have a definitive answer to this, of course, because it’s a problem that is incredibly complex and extends beyond my own experience. I have a few theories, though. Of things that may have contributed to this relentless issue. And I bring them up, not to assign blame, but to figure out how I—and, by extension, we (since I am not a special case)—battle these negative influences and kick out the self-hate.
For one thing, I started reading Seventeen in third grade. It was a gift from a family member. I loved it, and I brought it to school where, on rainy days, a few girls and I would huddle inside over its glossy pages. Seventeen was overflowing with images of skinny (and apparently sexy) girls. It had entire sections devoted to weight loss, particularly around prom and bathing-suit time. And even though it also had sections about how to “love your body!” and “be confident! Guys love a confident girl” (that statement is problematic on its own), these messages became very confusing when paired with such a conflicting ideal of beauty in its fashion editorials and advertisements. Seventeen, of course, isn’t the only magazine out there with this problem. Pretty much every magazine intended for women sent (and still sends) these incompatible messages.
So, there’s one springboard.
Another is that I was surrounded by strong, successful women who nevertheless worried about their weight to an excessive degree. When women I looked up to asked me whether or not they looked fat in this or that, the message was sent that it doesn’t matter how successful you are if you’re not thin—or even if you are thin, you’re never thin enough. Although these questions weren’t directed at me, I internalized them.
Thirdly, as a great lover of movies and books from an early age, the heroines of these stories—no matter how incredibly inspiring they were in other ways—were almost always thin. Of course it’s more difficult to tell with books, but with movies—definitely. Take any Disney movie, for example. In fact, I think the only “non-skinny” girl I idolized as a kid was Lizzie McGuire. And even her avatar was not very representative.
In any case, I’m not trying to assign blame. Writer and theorist Slavoj Žižek put it very eloquently when he wrote “The problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt.” While he was writing about capitalism and Occupy Wall Street, I think it applies to the issue I’m discussing here. The people making the advertisements, the people selling us diet pills, the magazines telling how to lose ten pounds in two weeks—they’re not evil. They’re not evil, and I am not a victim of their evil. They’re doing what they feel they have to do to make money—which they’re told to do by society in general. We are both participants in a culture with certain imprinted values, and these values are coupled with capitalism, and capitalism is paired with the insatiable appetite for media—and so on.
This is why the problem is so complex. The magazines tell you how to lose weight because their customer base wants to know how they can lose weight. Advertisements feature thin women because that is the beauty standard, and if they want to sell things, they have to commit to the beauty standard. However, when we’re represented with these messages in media, the message is reinforced. We’re told that thin is the beauty standard, so we try to be thin, et cetera. Which is then reinforced by family members, friends, i.e. members of my inner circle who, knowingly or not, fall into this trap and teach me that it is okay. Because they underwent, and still undergo, the same process.
This is why my self-loathing has no beginning and seemingly no end. It’s like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg. I say “seemingly no end” because although I don’t believe it is impossible to end these unrealistic and harmful beauty standards, I don’t know how to get there. I participate in this culture. I buy Vogue because I love fashion. And even though I have the ability to stand back and critique, it hasn’t gotten rid of the anxiety I feel, every day, when I look in the mirror and see that my shoulders have a bit of pudge that makes me feel fat and unfeminine.
Not to mention, even when I was at my thinnest, this anxiety still did not go away. I still felt fat, even though I was underweight. There is no winning this game. Which is why it makes a very, very good marketing tool.
How do we fight this? We live in a country where women have more rights than ever before, yet this problem—the problem of looking good, of looking young, and especially of being thin—gets more and more reinforced. I don’t know how to fight it. I know it isn’t as simple as “turning off my t.v.” as people have told me (I think this is a very common and very misinformed perspective). It isn’t as simple as not buying magazines. Even if I don’t come in contact with these images all the time—which, by the way, is pretty much impossible if you live in an urban environment—I am still a participant of a society that places value on women’s appearance.
Angela is currently a senior at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her occupations have up to this point been poet, barista and coffee snob, expensive chocolate hawker, and iTunes organizer. She hopes someday to be an editor and writer at Esquire. She loves food, urban landscapes, and a clean apartment.
Her fear is that she will end up in a career not dedicated in some way to the written word.