I didn’t want to be seen in junior high school. I’d hide under baggy t-shirts, walk with my shoulders hunched forward, eyes focused on the ground and never raise my hand in class. I thought that I would eventually become invisible, and I found comfort in that. I’d been raised in a family of women obsessed with their weight and appearance, who placed an incredible amount of value on being thin even if it compromised their health. Their neurotic preoccupation with calorie restriction, exercise and weight loss as measures of self-worth and self-esteem were supported and exacerbated by the cultural landscape I grew up in during the 80s.
After being placed on many unsuccessful diets before the age of 12, I considered myself a failure, felt unworthy, unlovable and perpetually uncomfortable in my body. When I couldn’t shrink my body to meet a supposedly ideal image of beauty, invisibility was the next best thing.
That’s a problem, a really big problem that plagues countless girls and women across the United States and in many other parts of the globe. As I said to Dr. Dawn Dalili in a recent interview for her online Body Image Summit, "We limit our full potential, and we hold back from investigating other aspects of our life because we don't feel worthy, and we don't want to be seen." The time and energy that girls and women expend in pursuit of a culturally crafted, ephemeral and illusive beauty ideal is time and energy that could be spent on other things. It’s not just a personal loss; it is a cultural siphoning off of talents, skills, and creativity that we desperately need.
I’ve been teaching sociology and women’s studies for 11 years. All my classes come with a heavy dose of media literacy and an examination of the effects of media culture. Obviously, discussions of body image are part and parcel of the dialogue. This is where my students become most engaged, because most of the girls and women in my classes can relate personally. Many of them have battled eating disorders, and at minimum most of them have disordered eating and a distorted body image that impacts their moods, decisions and aspirations for the future.
I know body image issues matter. Not only is the beauty myth sexist, racist, ageist, size-biased, heterosexist and elitist as well unhealthy physically and emotionally, it becomes an obstacle to a person's ability to become anything else, or focus on anything besides her body.
“Eating disorders and body image issues are not 'feminism lite.' Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I have encountered women who have not-so-subtly rolled their eyes when I describe my beat. Oh, that’s not as important as the 'bigger' feminist agenda. After a certain point, don’t you just have to get over all that silly beauty stuff and move on to the more grown-up feminism? You know what? Fuck that. And here’s why: girls and young women have clearly identified these issues as the source of their hesitance to take on leadership roles. The feminist movement cannot afford to dismiss them. After all, our future kinda depends on our ability to get a clue and engage young activists."
In discussing the mental, emotional and physical health of girls and women, we must have honest and open conversations about body image issues, eating disorders and the cultural climate in which they exist. Because it's only then that we can begin to create solutions.
In the end, it’s not just about girls and women. It’s about all of us. Healthy girls and women with a sense of self-worth that doesn’t solely hinge on their body have the opportunity to become self-actualized and complete human beings. This equals a healthy, functional society in which we all strive and benefit from the fully realized talents and gifts of each member.
This post is part of xx in Health Week, a celebration of female leaders and visionaries in healthcare.
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