Female Bodies: The ‘Positive’ Rhetoric

This is a great article. Not just because it celebrates Christina Hendricks as one of the few contemporary celebrities who has healthy amounts of flesh on their bones as standard (not just ‘for a role’ or because they’re in some sort of emotional meltdown – can’t blame the latter!!) but, in contrast, also because it succinctly exemplifies the quagmire of public discourse around female bodies.

The article is cited from NY Daily News, but it popped up in my newsfeed from Healthy is the New Skinny, a “multi-platform movement to bring a message of health, joy and responsibility to the beauty and the fashion industries”. For their efforts and outlook, they should be applauded. Mostly.

Doesn’t it initially feel fantastic every time a site or organisation such as this catches your eye? Before the secondary weariness kicks in, of course, when you realise that promoting health, diversity and acceptance over self-denial, self-deprecation, and cruel uniformity is still a turn up for the books.

You may not agree; there has been such an increase in contemporary public discussion about mainstream representations of women and girls. But read that article about Christina Hendricks again, and ask yourself exactly how radical its expressions are, particularly in its second half.

So often an article, organisation, or similar, concerned with female body image comes to my attention which veers in some way from the usual ‘Cheryl Cole: Rich + Hot = Feminism’/’Diet Inadequacy Away in Two Weeks’ varieties, assuming a progressive and radical furthering of The Feminist Agenda and the self-esteem of women internationally.

Progressive, they may (loosely) be. And isn’t that depressing?

Radical?! Nah.

Almost unequivocally, the progression is from a cornering of Woman as compulsorily ‘sexy’, as imperatively striving for the ordained concept of ‘beauty’, as (small, toned) body; to Woman as compulsorily striving to love her body no matter what her body looks like, as permissibly-diversified-body. Often the messages “Love Your Body” and “Love Yourself” are interchangeable; the implication being, females: you are your exterior. It’s merely the parameters of permissible sizes that have changed; the game’s the same, but the goalposts have widened (for the chunky ones. You know who you are. You look like this.)

Here lies an interesting, and often completely overlooked, debate. It is undeniably important to promote self-acceptance, bodily or otherwise, especially in young children (I initially learned my gender ‘norms’ from Disney. Problematic.) The hegemonic, homogenous (I must use these words together more often) representations of gender in culture combined with its teachings of self-denial and inadequacy (see: most advertising), subconsciously shackle us in many respects, certainly in the belief that we must make up for our gender-specific failings. So, if culture produces a neurotic tendency to self-deny that we must work against in order to self-accept, then those that tell us to love ourselves and love our bodies do so quite rightly. And to an extent, I champion them. I’m sure the vast majority of people, especially in this grouping, very much believe that they are doing the right thing. It’s the ‘no matter what it looks like’ part that is troubling. The focus of discussion, (very sporadically for men, always for women) is still on appearance and ‘beauty’, whether the tone of discussion is positive or not. Yes, being overweight to the extent that it makes you feel ill or shortens your life span is ‘bad’, assuming you’d like to have an enjoyable, long life. (I’m not very overweight so I can’t vouch for how that might feel, but I know when I eat processed food and smoke often, it variously pains me.) But the message here is that beauty is indeed a quantifiable ‘thing’, that ideally we (women) should ‘be’ or strive to ‘be it’, and that even if we don’t attain such glorious heights of achievement by nature or effort, we should try, really try, to find an ounce of happiness or self-respect under one of our hideous rolls of fat somewhere in spite of it.

The reason we should love ourselves and our bodies is simply because we are; we exist, alongside family and friends who love us, rely on us, and need us to be well. I think as humans we have innate worth. I don’t know why, and I don’t necessarily think it’s a divine right, or that our worth is superior to animals’ worth and that humans are the epitome of breathing achievement. But we should Love Our Bodies (oh and maybe our MINDS) because if we don’t love them, if we abuse them by restricting food, over-exercising, self-deprecation, or neglect their needs then they will deteriorate. Fast. And that means missing out on life. And life is all we actually have.

I am reticent to take away from efforts like HNS, as, for a young woman who feels the full force of pressures to punish myself down to the uniform standard, I cling to organisations like them for support and affirmation when I’m struggling. (Especially considering they didn’t write the article, but secondarily promoted it; perhaps even for the purposes of critical consideration…though evidence remains unseen.) But criticism is healthy, as long as it’s constructive, and I feel we’re all on the same page re: health. (S’good!)

(I encourage everyone to read Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, in full. But particularly page 5 of the introduction, Woman as Body, which helped me order my thoughts from frustrated intuition to demonstrable position.)


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