Call the Body Police! We’ve got a Thin One!
It seems as if no one is immune to comments from others about their bodies — what we’re calling “body policing.” One awesome blogger, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano at The Beheld, believes she somehow escaped the “body cops” at one point of her life. Here, she shares how that happened and what it means from the perspective of a woman who has spent more than a decade working in women’s magazines, from Ms. to Glamour to CosmoGirl.
So we’re agreed that we shouldn’t be surveilling and policing other people’s bodies, right? But that because our culture attaches so much to women’s bodies, there’s little way to escape it, right?
Yet for years, I did escape it. For a chunk of my twenties, I inhabited a size zone that, on my medium frame, made me look a little more than medium. Basically, I had about the body of the average American woman. And nobody said a word about my body. Ever. Nobody called me curvy, or average, or normal. Or voluptuous, or fat, or stocky, or plump, or soft, or sturdy, or thick, or anything. I wasn’t hiding my body: I didn’t flaunt my figure, but neither was I dressing in paper bags. When shopping for clothes, I went into a store, found things I liked, tried them on, and bought them or didn’t. In “body talk” with friends, nobody commented on my figure. It was a non-issue, I thought.
Around age 30, I lost a lot of weight for a variety of reasons—I stay away from numbers and sizes here, but as a frame of reference, I lost nearly 20% of my body weight. I didn’t look emaciated or anything near it—the #1 word people used to describe my body at that time was “healthy.” Healthy, then trim, and slender, and lean. And cute, and little, and, yes, skinny.
That is: In dropping three dress sizes, I also lost my protection against body policing—a protection I didn’t realize I’d had.
Sure, some of this came from friends and coworkers, who had a point of comparison and were commenting on my body as “little” compared to what it had been. (And note that I was well within the “healthy” BMI range even at my lowest weight, and looked it.) I didn’t mind that—they were trying to be supportive in what our culture frames as some great, noble battle against fat. In fact, with a handful of exceptions, most people were refreshingly sensitive about how to frame their compliments so as not to put me on the spot or imply that I hadn’t looked fine before.
What surprised me was the reaction from strangers. Shopkeepers suddenly started guessing my dress size, almost making a game out of it at times. Some criticized my body in ways they hadn’t before; my figure was “fantastic…but you’ve really got to have a flat belly for this dress.” People I’d just met made quick assessments of and references to my body in cocktail conversation: “Oh, you wouldn’t understand, you’re thin,” or commenting on my food. People I was meeting for the first time made assumptions about my character: I was “disciplined,” or had “willpower,” or exercised “control.” Most often, I was simply “good.” I was “lucky.” I rarely got the kind of “I hate you” thing you hear about sometimes—I wonder if it’s my friendliness or the fact that I wasn’t super-slim that protected me from that particular form of policing—but on occasion, it did float my way.
At my heavier weight, it was understood that even if I wasn’t fat, I was at a size where people assumed I probably wanted to lose weight. And because weight is a sensitive issue, this unspoken weight-loss dictum was off-limits for discussion. I’m certain that it would have been different had I been unabashedly fat, as many a tale from fat women illustrates. But because my body was nearly the exact proportions of the average American woman, it was like I was in a sort of demilitarized zone of body policing: Too small for CDC-approved admonishments about my food intake, too big to make a game out of guessing my dress size, I skated through most of my twenties unaware of how freely people comment on one another’s bodies.
Now, there may have been other reasons for the spike in body policing I experienced when I lost weight. Maybe it’s because people picked up on the hungry discomfort I felt at my lowest weight and were either trying to reassure me that it was “worth it” or exacerbate it for their own weird-food-issues reasons. Maybe I carried myself differently. Maybe my fleshier body lent me an air of “screw your fascist body standards” confidence that people didn’t want to mess with. Maybe I blocked out negative (or positive) comments I got when heavier. Maybe I clinged to the body policing I received at my lightest, for even when there was an undercutting tone to them, the fact was, I had wanted to lose weight, and such comments were validating. Maybe even now that I’ve settled into a weight that’s between my highest and lowest and that feels natural to me — and now that most of the body policing comments have dwindled — I’m still filtering the comments I received in order to remove whatever body-image issues I have and make them about “culture” and “society” instead of my relationship with my body.
I hesitate to draw grand conclusions from this. First of all, I’m guessing that there are plenty of average-American-woman-bodied women who’ve heard all too much from others about their figures. Second, I’ve argued here plenty that if you’re a woman, your appearance becomes a comments free-for-all. (And I’m certain that I wasn’t actually exempt from body policing at my heavier weight; I was just free from the vocalization of it.)
But what I’m gleaning from my experience is that while women’s faces and figures are forever targets, we attach highly specific meaning to specific shapes and sizes, and we make assumptions about people’s personalities and histories based on this one piece of evidence alone.
It’s not a spectrum of positive assumptions assigned to thin people and negative assumptions assigned to fat people, nor is there a neat flipside-rhetoric working in which we champion fat people while demonizing the thin. Our attitudes toward the bodies of others are only as complex as our attitudes toward our own.”
Our thanks to Autumn for sharing this piece with Beauty Redefined! Our call to action is simple: let’s let the body cops off duty. Recognize when we’re policing other people’s bodies, whether out loud or in our own minds, and train ourselves to STOP. Whether we think our comments sound positive or constructive, they’re still a way we unwittingly keep the focus on BODIES instead of PEOPLE and much more important aspects of women’s lives.
It’s time to value the girls and women in our lives for more than their looks. Dig deep next time you want to give a compliment. If you give a looks-based compliment, pair it with a character-based compliment. Don’t skip out on the looks-oriented compliment, but don’t always stop there, either! Say something nice about who they are, what they do, and how much you care about them outside of how they look. Try to make a resolution to compliment girls and women for more than those easy comments on pretty hair, weight loss, clothing, etc. While those compliments are nice, we can do better. When we minimize other females to just their bodies, we forget to remind them of their beautiful talents, characters, and gifts! Plus, when you get a compliment about your looks, it’s SO EASY to brush it off and not let it sink in (“I’m just in good lighting” or “that picture was taken at a great angle” or “today is just an especially good-looking day”). We are more than bodies, so let’s make sure to remind each other of that powerful truth.
Join us in resigning from the body police force and encouraging others to step down from their posts via Facebook, Twitter (@TakeBackBeauty) and by slapping our sticky notes and greeting cards with our uplifting slogans everywhere!