Is any woman *not* a little fucked up about her body?
It's OK to be. But where are the women who aren't?
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In Gabrielle Zevin’s book, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow,” there’s a passage about a character named Zoe, a musician who likes playing her instruments naked:
“Before she’d become a composer, she’d been a child cello prodigy, and she’d loved nothing so much as going outside, stripping, and playing by herself. Her mother had once discovered her this way behind their house and had made Zoe see a therapist. (The therapist determined that Zoe had the healthiest body image of any teenage girl he’d ever met.)”
This is a fictional character we’re talking about, but damn, imagine having superlative body image as a teenage girl! In constructing this backstory for Zoe, Zevin seems to be winking at the reader, challenging them to believe that such a girl could ever exist.
Sometimes I wonder if such a woman could, either.
It’s difficult for me to imagine that I’ll ever feel entirely peaceful about my body, so I suspect that others like me (millennial-ish American women, who grew up privy to the same self esteem-obliterating cultural factors) couldn’t possibly, either. This pessimism pains me, and I hope it’s largely projection. I hope it’s not true.
Most of the women in my life don’t challenge that suspicion, though. I’ve shared many conversations with close friends and relatives about our shaky or shattered relationships to our bodies. I’ve also observed how women who are practically strangers speak an assumed and normalized language of bodily fretting, like when:
Someone at work said on a Zoom meeting in early 2020 that she hoped we were all trying on our jeans to keep our weight gain under control. Someone else at work said in a crowded room of mixed-body type colleagues that when she used to weigh 140 pounds she was, “So huge, ugh!” At another job, we had to share our goals for the next year and one woman said, “Lose 10 pounds” and several women chuckled and nodded. Women can’t seem to take a slice of cake or a cookie at work without berating themselves for having an appetite. Two different women for whom I babysat would tell me I was making them “feel bad” if I brought something “healthy” to eat for lunch. A not-fat woman at a recent party was talking about trying on outfits but since she was on her period she was “so fat” and nothing fit; then she kept saying how fat she felt, over and over.
It’s normal to fret about your body sometimes. It’s OK to have difficult feelings about your weight or want to lose some. It’s OK to not be a Zoe. Women are not required to be completely comfortable and content with their bodies to live full, happy lives. As I’ve written:
The pressure to unreservedly accept/love our bodies leaves us feeling guilty if we can’t always get there. […] when it comes to my body, I don’t feel good pretending I accept/love everything. That would require me to be inauthentic about my body image, and my whole thing here at Body Type Enterprises is to be authentic about it, warts and all.
But when I listen to other women fret like this, when time and again it’s obvious just how fucked up so many of us are about our bodies, I have to think: It’s OK to not be a Zoe, but are there any Zoes? Where are they?
I used to think they were in certain corners of the internet. But many online body acceptance spaces and conversations have been tainted — just as most online spaces and conversations inevitably are — by people who seem more preoccupied with diagnosing strangers with eating disorders, speculating on Ozempic use, and condemning the concept of intentional weight loss than they are with discussing how to cultivate a more harmonious relationship with one’s body.
People who are infuriated with, disappointed in, and otherwise upset by the choices others make about their bodies are not people who feel entirely peaceful about their own. Agitation about a stranger’s body or body changes — whether they’re thin or fat, whether they gain weight or lose it — is not springing from true concern for their well-being, it’s springing from projection and damaged self-esteem. It’s OK to have damaged self-esteem. Welcome to the club. But we have to know what we’re doing.
If you are agitated about someone else’s body, your agitation arises from disliking what that person looks like, from wanting to look like them but feeling insecure that you don’t, or from feeling conflicted that you want to look like them. You’re agitated because you are insecure about what you look like, and you seek to create distance between what you are choosing to see as a problem with that person and the problems you have with yourself. I know this because the culture practically demands that we feel this way. I know this because I’ve felt this way many times.
I don’t want to spend much time in spaces like that. They won’t help me get better. The body acceptance concept, obviously, is not bad. But some of the loudest voices in the room can be pretty bad.
The Zoes are probably not talking about bodies on the internet, anyway. They’re probably not thinking much about their bodies at all. They’re just out there, living.
My own body image has improved tremendously as I’ve worked to confront and manage binge eating disorder and as I’ve gotten into strength training. I’d describe my body image as sort of fine most of the time, with random moments of yay!, but more easily destabilized than I’d like.
Given what I experienced growing up, this feels phenomenal. If you spoke the millennial vernacular of fatphobia, or had an “almond mom,” or came of age at pretty much any point before now — when many young people appear to have less tolerance for body shaming, fatphobia, etc., and have more examples of body acceptance in popular culture than I did — maybe you relate.
It’s taken a lot for me to get to “sort of fine” because I came of age as a fat teenager and 20-something during the thinness-obsessed aughts. Classmates, strangers, and family members talked about my body as unruly, unacceptable, ugly, or unlovable. Men yelled at me that I was fat as I walked by. I lived in a society and a home where my appetite was treated as an aberration. I was told by magazines and movies and diet books and other women that the food I liked was “bad,” so I was bad for having it. I don’t love it when the word “trauma” is casually thrown around, but this didn’t just ding my body image, it traumatized me.
But please, step into the light with me: This realization is a good thing. Now I can heal. Writing about it, talking about it, and going to therapy about it have made me better. I still have negative thoughts about my body and bodily habits but they used to dictate everything I did and felt — now, I interact with them, question them, challenge them. I am often able to push them away, or just move on.
I spent more than two decades of my life being told, taught, and shown things that fucked me up about my body. Then, I started to take my relationship to it into my own hands. But I’ve only been doing that for a handful of years. I’m still Bambi learning to walk. Of course I don’t yet have A-plus body image.
And so I return to the question: Does any woman?
If you are totally honest with yourself, do you feel mostly at ease most of the time about your body? Why do you think that is? When did you get to that point? What did it take?
If you aren’t fucked up about your body, why aren’t you?
Please share with the class.
So I’m 17, just about to graduate, and have been raised by two parents both wholly entrenched in diet culture who modelled many very very unhealthy behaviours with food throughout my childhood. I did keto with my mom when I was 13, suggested by her, and developed a restrictive eating disorder at 15 that very quickly consumed my life. Later, I began a sort of self-led recovery with my family still unaware i’d been struggling at all, but by this time the ed was making me too unhappy to continue living with. Body neutrality and “food is fuel” type of affirmations really kept me grounded in the beginning and as many with eds do, I wanted to talk about and hear about them, and went looking for podcasts on the subject. I found Maintenance Phase by Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes which introduced me to the concept of fatphobia and fat activism in a way that made so much sense to me. I listened to their entire podcast over the summer and I cannot understate the profound impact that it had on my recovery and my relationship with my body afterward. I felt so seen and valued, and it helped me to realize that the answers I’d been looking for, the reason I felt so bad in my own body just because it wasn’t thin, wasn’t my fault. It obviously took some time to shift my mindset but realizing how fatphobia is rooted in racism, misogyny, patriarchy, and the way that modern beauty and diet culture profits off of these things made me too mad to continue to put myself on diets, and I couldn’t justify it to myself. I’ve really noticed changes in my daily life, eating is less stressful, I put less pressure on myself on days when I eat a lot of “bad” foods, and I’m able to recognize how my upbringing and my experiences have shaped my relationship with my body. I feel now nothing but grateful for coming to this realization so early in my life, when many women never do. Now I’m just trying to teach this to my mom.
Fellow American millennial woman here, and (oddly enough?) I do feel at ease most of the time in my body. Two things I think have helped: living abroad for the past 10 years (better quality food, less cultural fixation on bodies in general) and also learning to sew clothing for myself and finding out what patterns/fabrics I most enjoy, both in terms of how they look and how they feel. Sewing really drives home the idea that it's the garment's job to fit your body, not the other way around.
I've been reading your writing for a while now and I really appreciate your perspective on these issues. Good luck with your book proposal!