Body image has consistently affected my life throughout my years of growing up, but the ways in which I think about and have been affected by body image have changed drastically. I can remember body image influencing me as early as freshman year of high school. Although my conscious memories of this began in high school, I am sure I had body image thoughts before I was 13 years old. Throughout this class, I have had the opportunity to reflect upon many parts of my life and society in general, especially including body image. Now that I have completed the class, and have read about the media, social influences, intersectionality and various other factors, I have a much greater understanding of body image. With all of this information, I was able to reflect upon my experiences with body image with a greater understanding of why so many girls like me have these experiences growing up. In this autobiography, I will share my personal experiences with body image and how they have changed over time, what I learned as I grew up and how these experiences and lessons relate to theories we have studied in this class.
I was “the new kid” when I started high school, as I moved from a public middle school to a private high school where 95% of the students knew each other from middle school. I remember being pretty comfortable with myself before I started high school. However, both the pressure of trying to make new friends and living up to this “private school girl” appearance had me second-guessing myself more and more. As a new student, I felt like all eyes were on me. In addition, I wasn’t used to dressing up and comparing my appearance to other students until I started private school. This is where I began to question my body and desire to be skinnier, so I could compare to the girls around me.
Much like how Jessica Valenti stated in The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women,” “…Virgin is almost always synonymous with woman…”, I believe that “skinny” or “fit” are equally as synonymous with the term woman (Valenti 2009, 21). In this article, Valenti explained how peers begin to label women sexually in high school, and this can unfortunately lead to young women feeling displeased with themselves. For me, I was more concerned with body image labels than with labels like “virgin” or “slut”. I was afraid of being labeled by both peers and teammates, as I decided to join the swim team my freshman year. While sports should have been a way for me to feel confident and healthy, I started to compare myself to all of the other girls in tight bathing suits. In addition, I started to believe that if I were skinnier, I’d be a faster swimmer, better looking and happier. Unfortunately, I was not the only teenager who felt this way.
This inevitable dissatisfaction with body type was perfectly depicted in Eve Ensler’s The Good Body. I agree with Ensler in that “…Maybe for all of us – there is one particular part of our body where the badness manifests itself…” (Ensler 2004, 5). For me, I found this dislike in my overall body image. My personal dissatisfaction with my body image began in high school, and I know that girls everywhere feel the same. Unfortunately, this common hatred directed toward our bodies can lead to years of unhealthy decisions, much like how Ensler stated, “Another ten years, I’ll be down to nothing. But even then I won’t feel beautiful” (Ensler 2004, 12). Throughout my first two years of high school, my body image obsessions became so powerful that I stopped treating myself right. I over exercised, obsessed and avoided many pleasures in life, just to obtain this “perfect body image”. I saw perfection as a skinny, toned, “Barbie-like” body. I want to note that today fights are being made against this dream to be Barbie, as I learned that there is a push to create a new Barbie with “…meat on her thighs and a protruding tummy and behind…” (Denee 2016, the curvyfashionista.com). Maybe if someone influenced me to see this “new Barbie body” as beautiful, I wouldn’t have hated my own body image so much.
There was something else I needed to learn before learning to love and appreciate my body image, and this was diversity. Honestly, nobody looks like Barbie. That is why she is a doll. What do real women look like? Simply put, we are all different. I love how Akilah (SmoothieFreak) explained this in her YouTube Video “On Intersectionality in Feminism and Pizza”. Here, she drew a witty comparison between pizza and different types of women. First, women are already “pizzas living in a hamburger world” (SmoothieFreak, 2015). On top of that, not all pizzas are plain pizzas. Just because one pizza is pepperoni and one pizza is veggie, certainly does not mean one pizza is delicious and the other is unappealing. I love this analogy because it’s one of those things that makes me say “okay, duh!”, and not even second-guess that differences are perfectly normal and respectable. I wish I understood this in high school. Maybe if I did, I wouldn’t have constantly compared myself to other girls.
Toward the end of high school, I realized something important. Skinny ≠ happy. I realized I could put my body through a lot to appear “perfect”, but it wouldn’t make me any better of a person. In fact, the more I tried to be perfect, the unhappier I felt. Here is where I realized a huge change in myself. By senior year of high school, all I wanted to do was love my body. Leah, a 74-year-old African Masai woman in Eve Ensler’s The Good Body, stated, “I love my body. God made this body. God gave me this body” (Ensler 2004, 72). After a lot of self-work, I am able to say the same.
I am very lucky to say that those feelings of pressure and labels I felt as a new student in high school did not re-occur when I was a freshman in college. Rather, I have learned so much about positive body image during my time at Virginia Tech. I don’t compare myself to every other girl around me. I learn from, respect and appreciate every girl I meet. I don’t use athletics to destroy my confidence. I run and work out to deal with stress positively and build a healthy, strong body. Finally, I don’t strive for a “perfect Barbie body” (which REALLY doesn’t even exist, not even on Barbie anymore). I am happy and healthy, and I am not skinny.
I won’t say that my body image is completely uninfluenced by societal standards, peers, and the media. There are times where I find myself wishing I had the body of a beautiful woman I saw on Instagram. Certainly, there are days that I wake up and wish I looked different. As the writers of the “Body Image” blurb on Our Bodies, Ourselves stated, “Throughout every phase of our lives, our appearance is judged and critiqued” (www.ourbodiesourselves.org, 2016). Even though I am not in high school anymore, and I am about to enter the real world, I know that I am, and will continue to be, judged by other females. However, I will never go back to the days where I thought I wouldn’t be happy until I was unrealistically skinny. Maybe body image standards won’t change drastically in the near future, but that doesn’t mean we have to let them continue to affect us in the same ways they always have.
So, there’s a snapshot into my journey from a young teen striving for “perfection”, to an unhappy, skinny, but still not perfect girl, to a confident and healthy 21-year-old. Sure, body image still affects me, but it is just one part of me. As Kimberlé Crenshaw explained in an interview titled “Kimberlé Crenshaw Discusses ‘Intersectional Feminism”, “…We experience life, sometimes discrimination, sometimes benefits, based on a number of different identities that we have…” (Crenshaw 2015). Here, Crenshaw was speaking on intersectionality, a theory we studied this semester on how there are many parts that make up a human, which is something that makes us all unique and beautiful. My changing experiences with body image showed me both “discriminations and benefits”, as I once felt judged, but now feel I have learned so much about body image. My ideas and experiences with body image have changed, but I believe they have made me who I am today.
“Body Image.” http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org. Our Bodies Ourselves, 2016. Web. 30 June 2016.
Denee, Marie. 2016. “Mattel Debuts a New and Updated Barbie! Check out the Curvy, Petite, and Tall Barbies!” The Curvy Fashionista Blog. (http://thecurvyfashionista.com/2016/01/mattel-barbie-curvy-petite-tall/).
Ensler, Eve. The Good Body. New York: Villard, 2004. Print.
Lafayette College. 2015. “Kimberle Crenshaw Discusses ‘Intersectional Feminism.'” YouTube website (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROwquxC_Gxc).
Smoothiefreak. 2015. “On Intersectionality in Feminism and Pizza.” YouTube website (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgK3NFvGp58)
Valenti, Jessica. 2009. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press. (Selections)