Body image. Body shaming. As a grown woman who still struggles with this topic, you can imagine how hard this has been having a daughter. And not just ANY daughter, but one that has chosen the difficult industry of Professional Ballet – a place where body type is a huge part of the job requirements.
I like to tell people that I have been queen-sized my whole life, but that’s not really true. I’ve been womanly my whole life. I was one of those girls who fully developed at age 13. I could easily pass as 19 or 20-years old and was treated as such by men at that age.
“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.” -Naomi Wolf”
I was raised in a home where appearance was very important. Whether it was the pets that matched the home decor, the dining room we weren’t allowed to go into, or the matching dresses and haircuts – it was all done for the sake of appearance to the outside world. As I got older and attempted to pick my own outfits, I was told things like “You should stick with vertical stripes, it elongates you, never wear horizontal stripes, it will make you look bigger” – to this day, I still can’t bring myself to wear horizontal stripes because of this – and “Solid colors, not a lot of patterns” or “Solid black is always slimming.” To this day, black is 90% of my wardrobe. I look at full-figured women I admire, like Lindy West or Marika Malaea (both amazing writers and beautiful women), who are secure and able to wear bright colors, patterns, short sleeves, and even dresses (I haven’t worn a dress in YEARS) and I am always so envious of them. I have a dress in my closet that I bought years ago, very vintage pin-up style, that I’m convinced would look horrible on me – but in reality, I think I could rock it.
In the 90’s, I went from being a homely, teased girl to graduating and beginning to blossom, which was mostly fueled by the attention I got from men. It was empowering to me, a power that I was completely stripped of at home. I moved out and discovered I had agency over myself – makeup, hairstyle, clothing and outfits. I routinely went to clubs and raves, dressed in what I felt were rebellious statements, but I felt good in them. I had men and women hitting on me left and right during those years; most of the time it was welcomed, as I loved the attention. But sometimes I just wanted to close my eyes and dance (yes, partially due to LSD sometimes, lol). One night, I was approached by a guy who told me how beautiful I looked. I thanked him and said I just wanted to be alone. He responded, “Well you aren’t dressed like you want to be alone….”. A pretty frightening statement when I look back at it, and I didn’t understand that at the time. That is the moment that my small window of positive body image ended abruptly.
I started questioning every choice by repeating a series of questions to myself with each outfit:
- Do I look hot?
- Will I be noticed?
- Can I pull this off?
- Am I trying too hard?
- Do I look like a slut?
- If I randomly saw a family member while wearing this, would they think badly of me?
Notice none of those questions included how I felt about myself or how I felt in the outfit. It was all outward. This was sparked by the man’s comment to me but reinforced by a combination of movies, tv, magazines and, of course, a strict Roman Catholic family.
No one finds that kind of body shame or fragility attractive, so what do most women do? We bury it. We bury it SO deep. Deep under our comedy, or shyness, or even our diva ways. We don’t want to feel any more vulnerable or weak than society already makes us. We think by burying it we can just forget about it and one day wake up feeling gorgeous. Sadly, that’s not how it works.
When I realized I was having a daughter, this is the first topic that came to mind. How on earth would I teach her to love herself in a world like this, being that I couldn’t be a healthy example? I needed to teach her to value not only her body but also to respect herself enough to demand others value her body, as well. My only answer at that time was: Hide from her all of the terrible things you feel about yourself, and any hurtful things you’ve experienced from others, so she doesn’t follow suit.
“Life is short and the world is at least half terrible, and for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you, though I keep this from my children. I am trying to sell them the world.” – Maggie Smith – Good Bones
In the early years, we nurtured her to be confident and also encouraged what we liked to call her “Harriet the Spy” look; big colors, gender neutral and fun combos. This lasted until about 12-years old, when the ballet classes got more frequent and middle school began; all places of social cliques and societal judgements. Small amounts of makeup started and she became much more conscious of what she was wearing. I began hearing things like “No, I can’t wear that, people will laugh” or “No way I can pull off something like that.” The only thing different from me was that she was saying these things out loud. I had no idea where it had come from; I’d done my best to hide my insecurities. This had to have come from the outside. Her dialogue with herself (and us) was a trigger for me to try to convince her of the exact opposite:
“You can pull off whatever you want to pull off!”
“You need to just wear it, and OWN it and WERK it no matter how people look at you or what they may say!”
“Who cares what people think? The outfit isn’t FOR them, it’s FOR yourself!”
I clearly understood the irony of this. All of these things were things I needed to be saying to myself. I needed to be LIVING EXAMPLE for her. But instead, I was breaking a fundamental rule of parenting – “Do as I say and not as I do.” It was also affecting my marriage. I would ask Ryan things like “Do you get embarrassed when your friends think you have a fat wife?” or “Do people ever think you married down?” or just stating “I feel like I’m just the chubby wife with no reason to be on your arm.” Looking back, it was pretty sad and pitiful. One day, Ryan said something to me that made me turn a corner and start the journey to a more positive body image: “If YOU would own who you are, and what you have, I would love it more. How can I give and love 100% to you if you don’t love 100% of yourself?” Little did my husband know back then, but he was summing up my favorite RuPaul quote from the future:
“If you don’t love yourself, how in the HELL you gonna love somebody else?!”
So it was then, when Maddi was about 12, that I began the process of “Fake it til’ you make it,” both for my daughter and for myself. I am a firm believer in willing things into existence, I do it often, in fact. The mind is a powerful thing. Now I’m also a super realistic person – I could use tons of excuses as to why I didn’t work out like a mad person and get “fit” or your idea of “fit.” But then I would be excusing who I am FOR YOU and anyone else reading this. Instead of the treadmill, I needed to own the person I was now, not try to excuse it and cover it with comedy. No more baby weight jokes. No more junk in the trunk analogies. It was time to hold myself the way I wanted to feel. To speak with the kind of conviction I wanted to have, so that maybe one day, I would actually believe it. In the meantime, I would do a damn good job convincing people I was already there.
Back to the wonderful world of dance. Martha Graham said:
“No artist is pleased…There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
And boy was she correct. As the parent of a recently-turned professional ballerina, I can attest that the dance world is one of the most difficult industries for body image. Madison was told, from a young age, that starting dance so young was such a good thing — that her body would become “trained” to be a dance body.
Then puberty happened. I won’t lie, I was TERRIFIED. She is half me, and that really scared me. I watched the teen ballerinas around her eating like 15-year old boys that played video games: hot Cheetos, sodas, candy. I remembered my high school diet and how I would have NEVER been able to be a dancer because of it. I tried to gently guide – by changing my own diet, cutting things from our house as an example – like soda, fast food, junk foods. Made it a choice for us all, and made sure to lead by example. She fought hard to balance her body’s changes. Stayed strong and kept herself within the small box that ballet asked her to fit in. She struggled emotionally with the fact that girls around her didn’t have to work as hard for it. They could eat like shit and stay rail thin. At first I thought her frustrations were from my own frustrations – but soon I realized part of it was the industry.
Through the dance world, I’d connected with a young dancer named Sydney. She was in her 20s and a ballerina in NYC. I felt motherly towards her, and we talked about her dreams of being in a company, her pending nuptials and how it all fit into her big picture. We were chatting about ballet photos and I was telling her the ones she recently posted were gorgeous. Said she had such a presence, such great lines, feet, and looked so strong. Now those of you who know me, know that I don’t blow smoke. I don’t compliment if it’s not deserved, I don’t embellish. So when I give them, I mean them. Her response to me “Well if you ignore my fat arms, my chubby legs and my weird foot there, yeah it’s ok.” I was in shock. What the WHAT? Were we looking at
the same photo? And it’s not just Sydney! I’ve heard this from almost EVERY dancer I know. The ability to pick apart a photo of themselves until they are left with nothing positive. The idea that they must find every “mistake” and fix it. It is SUCH a hard thing to watch a dancer do to themselves. If you watch a class, or listen to a teacher correct someone – it’s what they do. It’s what dancers (men included!) hear every day. It creates this cycle of perfection, and a need for approval, that can be so dangerous if the dancer isn’t well-rounded, grounded, balanced (no pun intended) and doesn’t have a strong support system of family and friends around them. We can’t blame the dance industry 100%. The facts of the industry are laid out in front of you from the jump. Nothing is hidden. It’s HARD. It takes TOUGH skin and a self-esteem that can take a beating. It’s your choice, if you let your child climb into that box and they decide to stay in it for the long haul.
“It’s okay to be skinny, and it’s ok to be fat. If that’s what you wanna be. Whatever you want, it’s ok.” – Little Miss Sunshine
Then there is society and the media’s role in this issue. Body shaming in the media that then spills into our daily lives and is passed off as acceptable behavior. Double standards and oppressiveness being handed out by our governments and local officials all the way down to our educational systems. From what we are fed in commercials, magazine and movies about what a woman should look like, complete with air brushing, photo-shopping bodies, and altering real photos to look more “perfect.” Then, of course, the real life version of this – which is plastic surgery and body modification. Body wraps, body sculpting, anti-wrinkle, anti-aging: ANTI-REALNESS. Also the presence and instant availability of porn and the warped mentality it creates for young people as to what body types, sex and relationships are supposed to be like.
As a mother of a now 20-year old daughter, I have worried, daily, for years about her relationships and the expectations set on her and her self-worth because of the media and porn industry and what they put in the minds of young men in particular. I watched a movie about five years ago that REALLY helped me mother her in this area. The movie is called “Sexy Baby” and it’s a thought-provoking documentary about how porn, social media, and pop culture affect all women and girls. It follows a 12-year old navigating the Facebook world, a 22-year old college student that yearns for “normal” private parts and undergoes reconstructive surgery because of teasing from college men about them, and an ex-adult film star trying to start a family who struggles with conceiving because of her previous sexual activity. It is SO stirring and SO poignant. I think everyone should watch it together with their teenage kids. It’s such an important dialogue and really opens your eyes about the issue at large.
“We are like the first generation, to have what we have…so there’s no one to like guide us…I mean we are, the pioneers.” – Winnifred – 13 years old- discussing her generation and the Digital Age – Sexy Baby
Of the many things I learned from the documentary, one thing stood out in the way I could parent my daughter on a daily basis: COMMUNICATION. Not just the old “birds and the bees talk.” It is now so much more than that. Unlike my upbringing and upspoken topics that seemed to be shadowed with shame, I wanted to lay everything out on the table for my daughter. I prefaced everything with this point: “If you are too embarrassed to say it out loud or talk to me about it, you are too young to be doing it.” That set the timeline for our conversations about intimacy, sex, and how to both respect and protect yourself as a woman in today’s instant gratification and digital age.
I think the young women of today need to be given tools, information, and a voice to counteract all of the crap social media, tv and adult entertainment, puts into the minds of everyone in society. It’s not enough to just know it’s there, we have to give them answers and responses to situations when they are confronted with them so they are confident and prepared for what’s to come. I don’t know about you, but most of my mistakes during my youth were from impulsive decisions that I made when I didn’t know what to do, and didn’t want to seem “uncool”. We have to give our young females the opportunity for an empowered and strong future, and to do that, we are responsible for saying the unsaid, revealing the truths, and getting past the uncomfortable – in order to give them license to be in control of their self-worth and find their fierce female voice.
YES, parents, this means talking about birth control, talking about porn, talking about expectations in a relationship. Talk about their rights as women to show their bodies or NOT want to show their bodies. To take selfies that show whatever they do or don’t want, their rights to be beautiful for themselves and not for someone else. Their rights to be strong, sexy and smart. Their right to say YES and NO whenever they want
– whether it’s to friendship, a date, oral sex, friends with benefits, one night stands, making love, sexual exploration. To own who they are in whatever form they feel beautiful and to act in whatever way makes them not only happy and feel empowered but also feel respected and safe.
I know my views are SUPER liberal and may seem very extreme to some people, but please consider something: I am a victim of sexual assault. I truly believe that if I’d had the education and knowledge that my daughter did, that I may have been able to prevent that from happening. We owe it to our daughters to not only give them tools to be healthy and feel empowered, but we also owe it to them for their safety and as defensive tools to battle the violence that happens as a result to these oppressive behaviors. So you can try to shelter them, hide them from the world, limit all social media, keep the uncomfortable details from them, and HOPE they will wait until they are adults – in turn risk them rebelling, running away from home, reacting severely, and possibly putting themselves in a dangerous or harmful situation because they are naive and uninformed – OR lay it all out there, give them trust and freedom that’s coupled with information and education, and support them in their decisions and mistakes so that as they make them, you are part of the process and can gently guide while still letting them live and learn.
While this post focuses more on the journey of empowering our girls, I am very aware of the urgency to teach these same issue to our boys. I understand that all of the issues in this post are deep rooted in a male dominated society, and the ONLY way to fix that, is through a more progressive approach to parenting, one that explores new concepts of gender fluidity, gender roles and gender norms. I can only speak to what I know, and that is being a woman and being the mother of a woman. Empowerment not Oppression from ALL of us, on every level.