Body Image Warrier Week: Fit and Feminist

I’m honored today to participate in Body Image Warrior Week. This idea was born in Sally McGraw’s (Already Pretty blog) brain, to coincide with National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The participants are bloggers who are passionate about uplifting women’s views of our physical selves.

We are spreading the good word about loving our bodies, by featuring works by other “warriors” (Sally is inviting many more women to participate, just go here and join in, please!). I chose the following glorious essay by Caitlin Constantine, of the blog Fit and Feminist.

Caitlin is a writer, editor, zinester, blogger and athlete based out of Clearwater, Fla.  She writes with the goal of pushing back against a culture that defines femininity as weakness and that seeks to deny women their physical power.  Her writing has appeared in Bitch and Creative Loafing.

The Danger of A Single Ideal Body

Recently, I came across a blog post by a personal trainer in which she explored the one of my least favorite terms as applied to women’s bodies – the word “bulky.”  Any weight-training woman is familiar with this term, as it is often the first thing other women will say as their reason for refusing to lift weights.  The idea is that lifting weights will lead to the development of big muscles, and the development of big muscles means a woman will no longer be beautiful and will instead be manly, unattractive, scary and doomed to a sex-free, love-free life.

The comments on the blog post illustrated this line of thought clearly, as woman after woman expressed dismay that she had taken up heavy lifting and was horrified to see that her body had developed muscles.   Some even clearly articulated their belief that in doing so, they had crossed a very bright line in which women were meant to be weaker and protected by the men they loved.

The women had set out in pursuit of the slender, compact body most often displayed by female celebrities, and instead they found themselves becoming muscular.  It didn’t matter that they were also stronger and that they were most likely healthier, with tougher bones and a stronger heart.  What mattered was that they were bigger.

As I read through those comments, I reflected on a TED talk given by writer Chimamanda Adichie in which she spoke about the “danger of the single story.”  She described growing up in Nigeria and yet writing stories in which her blonde-haired, blue-eyed characters ate apples and played in snow.  Every book she had read was written by British authors about British life, and as a result she hadn’t realized it was possible to write books about her own life.  She thought the only way to be worthy of literature was to be a foreigner.

I thought about her words and I realized that we as a culture had accepted the single story of the “ideal body” so thoroughly that no room remained for alternate definitions of female beauty.  Take the comments on the aforementioned blog post.  The “ideal female body” – a slim figure with breasts that aren’t too big and thighs that don’t touch and a butt that isn’t too flat and nothing that jiggles too much – is desired with such single-mindedness that the non-cosmetic benefits of weight training are dismissed without a second thought.

I use the example of women and muscles because that is what I, as an athletic woman who lifts weights, am most familiar with.  However, the story of the single ideal body manifests itself in breast augmentation and pumping parties, in gimmicky diets and weight-loss gadgets bought on installment plans, in firming creams and treatments meant to zap cellulite into non-existence.  Fortunes are spent and made in pursuit of the “ideal body,” and yet the only thing that has happened is that the ideal has become even more unattainable than ever before.

It’s not hard to see how this happened, either.  Look at our culture, at the bodies represented on television and in magazines and in movies and in advertising.  Just as Adichie only thought she could write stories about white children in snowy climates, we as a culture have trouble envisioning a standard of beauty that is not tall, thin, able-bodied and European.  Even when we do embrace someone who does not fit that standard, we tend to be very self-congratulatory about it, thus undoing whatever progress was gained by reducing that person into little more than a symbol of our open-mindedness.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of a world in which the only people who are considered beautiful have a specific body type, a specific kind of hair, a specific tone of skin, a specific shape of face.  I find such a world inhumane and cruel, bordering on insane.  Plus, as an aesthete who revels in beauty and sensation, I also find it dreadfully boring.

Consider the natural world, with all of its abundance of living things.  Think about flowers. In my neighborhood in Florida, I can count the following: birds of paradise, hydrangea, plumeria, magnolia, jacaranda, orchids, Confederate jasmine, black-eyed Susans, coreopsis, spider lilies and dozens more whose names I don’t know.

Few of us would look at all of these flowers and say that, for instance, orchids are the only beautiful ones.  Sure, we might have a preference, but most of us would not take our preferences to mean that all other flowers are ugly, and that we ought to rip rosebushes and tulip bulbs out of the ground so they can be replaced with even more orchids.

Yet this is what we do with our bodies – we say that all bodies that do not fit that single ideal are ugly, and that all bodies must fit that single ideal to be worthy of respect and care and affection.   We say that if you cannot force yourself to fit that ideal, then you must hide yourself behind shapeless clothing and maybe even consider never leaving your house because you are too revolting to be seen.

How is it that we can so easily recognize beauty in all of its millions of manifestations in plants and animals, yet our definitions narrow radically when it comes to human beings?   Why do we value diversity in all things but scorn it in ourselves?

It’s clear to me that the expectation that our bodies must be a certain way to be feminine and beautiful is an artificial one, one that is informed almost entirely by the culture in which we are raised.  The bad news is that it is a powerful expectation, filled with privileges for those who conform and punishment for those who do not.

The good news is that we can resist it.  We can resist by refusing to hate our bodies for the way they look.  We can resist by catching ourselves when we think harshly about other people’s appearances.  We can resist by refusing to judge other people based on their bodies.  We can resist by calling out those who make those kinds of moral judgments about other people.  We can resist by refusing to support media outlets who uphold such narrow beauty standards.

We need a radical redefinition of what it means to be beautiful in this society.  We need to pry open the definition so it includes all bodies, whether they are tall or short or average or slender or fat or muscular or disabled.  Enough with this idea that beauty must somehow be exclusionary, like it is this finite quality that loses its potency as more people gain access to it. Such a view of beauty is blind to the core, irreducible truth about us, which is that our existence is nothing short of a miracle.

We do not blight the world with our cellulite, nor do we somehow diminish it through our sagging flesh.  The natural order is not upended by our muscles, nor does the universe gasp in horror when it sees our bellies.  We are just as much a part of the brilliant multiplicity of the universe as the flowers and the birds and the stars in the sky.  We are beautiful because we exist.  We are beautiful because we are.

-Caitlin Constantine

Please check out these other blogs, to read more terrific essays about positive body-talk.  Participants in Body Image Warrior Week are:
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  1. "Why do we have such a narrow idea of beauty? "

    We have such a narrow idea of beauty in (fairly substantial) part because men are very heirarchical and competitive with one another, and use (yes, I said it) women as status-gathering objects, and the more beautiful the woman the more status they are granted … but that scale of "more" and "less" won't work for the purpose they've ascribed it unless they have a single idea of "what is beautiful" — because otherwise they are less able to quantify the women as "more" and "less" beautiful — and since they  refuse to abandon the scale as they feel they must compete for status amongst themselves …


  2. I've been thinking about this post since you put it up. For me, image is about the glow I get from a person. Usually it's a quality of being rather than clothes or body shape or age. Some people I stop for a street photo are shocked because they feel they don't fit a particular definition of beauty or style, but sometimes it's also their unawareness of their attractiveness or glow that makes them so attractive, if that makes sense. What I do find disturbing these days is seeing young women flash themselves because they're "comfortable with their bodies." I heard this from a very well-educated late-20s graduate student this summer. This is a level of "comfort" that makes me wonder where our definitions have gotten so twisted. Or am I being too old-fashioned? Great post, great writing.

  3.   "Standards" of beauty will always exist. Dog shows & flower shows strive for such standards. Nothing wrong with that. Sadly, there are those among us who are incapable of seeing or defining for themselves all of the beauty that exists outside of these standards. Sadder still is the fact that so many of us concern ourselves with the opinions of those poor, blind people. I, for one, love to see a "perfect" rose, or a "perfect" Collie – but I love my mutt and my wildflowers more!

  4. There was an interesting article in the Washingtonpost this week about Black women.  The single ideal body is a white-person ideal.   They pictured a woman who was hardly that ideal leading a class of women at a gym.  The comments were predictably cruel.  How could this woman with a plus 30 BMI be a role model?  She wasn't fit, blah, blah, blah.

    The story pointed out that she was happy.  To misquote Kate Moss – Does anything look better than how happy feels?

  5. Thank you!  We are all guilty of this.  I commend you on terrific writing!!  The part that really stood out for me was about judging others harshly, standing up when others do, and refusing to support media outlets that do.  Well said, my friend.  Dawn Suitcase Vignettes xo

  6. Brilliant post – it's kind of depressing to think these issues are still hotly debated now as they were 20 years ago – it is like we never learn – we need continuous reminders like this that it is a continuing battle to make the normal acceptable as beautiful.

  7. Hi Patty: You picked a great article.  We are all overly concerned with how we look, but it's because everyone else is "judging" us.  We should really be concerned with living a happy healthy life, but due to job, work, social life have to keep up with someone else's image of what looks good.

  8. Terrific article! I agree whole-heartedly and like your examples of the "ideal." The flower analogy is so true" they are all beautiful. Why do we have such a narrow idea of beauty? Thanks for helping to change this perception.

  9. Really well written post! I totatlly agree with what you wrote. I enjoy your blog and just joined it. I hope you will check my blog out too – Keep up the great posts!

  10. Becoming a mama definitely helped with my body image! My body definitely isn't what it was pre-baby, but it helped bring my lil' dude into the world…How could I criticize it? : )

  11. A friend of mine has been on a crash-diet thing. She's gorgeous but worried about her dress size, and her waist. I told her 'If you exercise regularly and eat well your body will be exactly as skinny as it needs to be.' Which I think is my new mantra. It's so hard to not constantly judge and evaluate your body in our society that sometimes I need to remind myself that as long as I am healthy it doesn't mater what the tag or the scale says.

  12. Bravo, Patti. So beautifully stated, all of it, but I found this quote especially true (and courageous to confront):  
    " Even when we do embrace someone who does not fit that standard, we tend to be very self-congratulatory about it, thus undoing whatever progress was gained by reducing that person into little more than a symbol of our open-mindedness."

    Thanks once again for making us think! 

  13. Amen Patti, Amen!!!
    I can still remember my daughter's high school days and her in tears over her looks. She was'nt the tall willowy, blond haired, blue eyed cheerleader girl ideal. 
    She is a tiny, muscular,  korean girl with gorgeous dark brown hair and tan skin. Yet she begged to dye her hair blonde and perm it so she could fit the "ideal". It took getting out of the insular world of high school and going away to college to realize she's perfect just the way she is!1 (me–I would KILL for her skin coloring and hair)

  14. This is an excellent post, and I agree with everything you've said. It boggles the mind that women would consider muscle-building – a sign of increased health and longevity – a bad thing.
    While I am sorry for today's women of all ages who may be chronically unhappy with their weight, shape, or particular body parts, I actually think it's more important to focus on the next generation. We all need to concentrate our efforts on NOT obsessing about a beauty ideal, the perfect figure, the ideal weight, etc, around our children. We can use our influence to counteract the constant barrage of distorted images coming from the media, by providing living examples of the beauty of real women.

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