Every girl is beautiful. So say the many ad campaigns of the body-positive movement in an effort to end the epidemics of eating disorders, self-hatred, and low self-esteem among girls and women.
And I agree. Every girl is beautiful. Every human being is beautiful. I believe we were created, and we are thereby works of art — each with unique and irreplacable expressions of beauty, even if those expressions aren’t always readily apparent or appreciated…or physical.
But I’m not sure that’s the message that many of these ads are sending or intending to send. I think they are talking about a specific kind of beauty — not an inherent worth — I think they actually mean to convey that every female body is beautiful, as in, pretty or physically attractive. And I think this is a problem. I think it is a problem because I don’t think it’s true — I don’t think any of us really think it’s true.
If Dove really thought that every single female body was attractive they would showcase the severely disabled or deformed. If these magazines that love to talk about “curves” really thought that any body size was sexy they would feature the extremely obese on their covers. But they don’t do this. Why not? Because pretty bodies sell pretty clothes. Sexy bodies sell sexy lingerie. Of course, “pretty” and “sexy” changes somewhat, with the times and from person to person. But when you start getting to the extremes there’s clear consensus. We don’t actually believe that every human body is physically attractive.
And so what? Dove is doing so much good. The body-positive movement is making girls feel better about themselves. Who cares whether or not we really believe it?
Yes — I think the body-positive movement has done a lot of good. In particular it has opened our eyes to the truth about many of the physical beauty standards most of us have grown up with. It is important for little girls to know that Barbie’s proportions are unrealistic, just as it would be important for a little boy to know if one of his favorite professional athletes relied on steroids for his superhuman feats. It is unhealthy for children to be given unrealistic ideals. Moreover, the body-positive movement has opened our minds to look differently at people who look different from us or from the norm. It has helped us to be more appreciative of the various types of physical beauty. This, inevitably, has made so many women feel better about themselves.
But as long as any body-positive campaign pereptuates the lie that every body is physically beautiful, it will inevitably do damage along with whatever good it has done. It will inevitably fail to get at the deepest root of the problem. Because as long as we insist that physical attractiveness is always attainable we thereby imply that it is necessary – that if you don’t have it, you are worthless. So, naturally, those who know they don’t have it feel worthless. And even those who do have it, knowing that they could lose it, become obsessively attached to it (hence our particularly female paranoia about things like pregnancy bodies and aging.) Many of the same people who say that beauty is about more than physical appearances turn around and say that everybody possesses physical beauty. It’s contradictory. And it’s confusing. And it’s messing us up.
The truth is that physical beauty is one lovely attribute among so many other lovely attributes that human beings can possess. Part of the struggle of being human is recognizing that you won’t possess every single lovely attribute. The problem is, our culture is insanely obsessed with this one attribute, so trying to come to terms with possibly not possessing it now or in the future feels horrific. It feels like a complete disgrace, an injustice.
But life and time are harsh on physical beauty. And if women don’t figure out how to come to terms with that reality, we will all be miserable — if not now, at least within the next seventy years. We have to teach our young girls how to both respect and appreciate their bodies while also understanding that they are so much more than their bodies. We have to accept that physical beauty is a fleeting trait that we may or may not be blessed with. And we have to realize that, regardless of it, we are still very capable of loving and of being loved.
Do I have this level of self-confidence? No– I’m insecure too. I’m in the ratrace too. This time last year I lost over twenty pounds in two weeks due to Crohn’s disease. I won’t say it didn’t bother me. It bothered me greatly. I stood in the mirror so many days just staring at and condemning this ninety-five pound shell wrapped around my soul– this shell I felt was wasting away along with all my youth and vivacity. I thought it was unfair. But I want to become the type of person who doesn’t think that that’s unfair, or at least doesn’t dwell on it so much. I want to become the type of person who doesn’t need people to pretend I’m more physically attractive after a serious illness than when I’m at a healthy weight. I know I’m not. And I know that that’s okay. I want to become the type of person who knows that no matter how much I weigh, no matter what happens to my body, I’m in control of my heart, and I can make it as beautiful as I want it to be. Is that an easy outlook to acheive in this world? Of course not. But I think any efforts towards it are much better than insisting on a lie.
I love your blog! I don’t comment much, but I read you! Great, honest post. I’ve thought about this as well.
Nancy Cotney says
Such a beautiful article, I am so proud of you!