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When I was in middle school, my church youth group went to the home of someone from our church who had a big pond on their property. We were going to eat, swim in the pond together, and celebrate a wonderful year of youth group before we went our separate ways for the summer.
I was always a pretty quiet person, shy enough that tears would form in my eyes when someone I didn’t know talked to me in the halls at school. And, I had always been one of the tallest in my class. That would change by the time I was in high school, but being almost 5’8″ in 6th grade makes you stand out a little bit.
I sat a little ways away from the other youth group kids near the edge of the pond. I wanted to swim, but I was afraid to let any of the other youth (especially the boys) see me in my bathing suit. It was a hot day, and as the sweat began to form on my forehead, I decided today was as good a day as any to be brave.
I took off the ratty t-shirt I had been wearing, walked over to the pond, and stuck my toes into the water.
“Oh my gosh! You can see her ribs! That’s disgusting!” I heard someone say.
“Seriously, April, you’re a skeleton. You must be anorexic.”
I forced a smile and said, “I’ve always been tall and skinny. I’ve been this way my whole life.”
And I pretended to let it roll off my back. I hurried into the water and let it cover over my body. My shameful body. My body that didn’t seem to work the way other people’s bodies did. My body that made me stand out when I wanted to hide. My body that made people stare and make nasty comments.
My broken, ugly, so-thin-you-must-be-sick body.
I made a big spectacle of eating as much as I could at our picnic to show that I really did eat. And then I went home and cried.
The first time I broke 125 on the scale, I was pregnant.
When I began training for my first 5K back in 2012, I had more worried comments than I can count of people who wanted me to know, in no uncertain terms, that I did not need to lose weight. People wanted me to know that instead of striving for fitness and health, I probably better eat a bowl of ice cream every night and be sedentary, because, you know, armchair doctor’s orders.
Interestingly enough, it was running that finally helped me break the 130 mark on the scale. Turns out, muscle mass was something that I really needed to build up for my health, and by 2014, I had never felt better in my life.
And even though I’m finally at a healthier weight for my height, I still struggle to accept the long, too-skinny face I see staring back at me when I look in the mirror.
But, this isn’t really about me and my body type. It’s not about my insecurities or my painful memories. It’s about the way the media divides us from each other, pits us against each other, and makes it difficult for us to ever see progress in the way women are portrayed on television, online, and in print.
Lately I’ve noticed a push in the media and among certain fashion companies to intentionally spotlight women who do not wear a size zero. (By the way, I don’t either. I’m a 6-8). I celebrate this because for far too long, the media has favored one body type, one body shape, and sent out the message that in order to be beautiful you must look one particular way.
It’s time for the women featured on advertisements and movies and television shows to reflect a wide diversity of body shapes and sizes.
And, because of how over-saturated the media has been with images of tall and thin women, I even think it is time for things to be over-saturated with images of women who embody other body types. Eventually, I hope we can arrive at a balance in which women of all body shapes and sizes are celebrated.
In some places, this move to celebrating women of all shapes and sizes is happening, and I love that. I also recognize that it is not happening everywhere and change is still needed.
But, I’ve noticed something else that troubles me as some companies have made this move.
Comment after comment reads: “Thank you for showing real women!”
I am a real woman, with stretch marks, gray hairs, imperfections, and not an ounce of cosmetic work. I happen to have been born with genetics that predispose me to being tall and thin. It’s just the way I am. But, I promise I am real.
I made the mistake of commenting, “I am real, just like you are,” to someone who was angrily lashing out at all “skinny b*****s.” And her response was, “It’s more socially acceptable for you to look the way you do.”
Is it?
I wanted to tell her about the time when, at a potluck many years ago, someone brought me two extra desserts because “I needed them.” Or the time when an entire meeting I was attending was derailed because people wanted to talk about how unfair it was that I was skinny. Or, how often people say, “I hate people who look like you.” Or the way everyone knows just what I need to do to put on a few pounds.
But, her comment made me realize that we have all been lied to. Women are not enemies, regardless of body size. In the eyes of the media there is no socially acceptable body size or shape. The women they highlight on occasion in certain ads may be tall and thin, or not tall and thin, but they are all airbrushed and staged to try and teach us what beauty is supposed to look like.
Women with freckles, or moles, or scars, or stretchmarks are either passed over entirely, or “fixed” via sophisticated graphic design technology. Even while trying to appear open and accepting of all diverse body shapes and sizes, we are not shown the full beauty and diversity of human bodies.
All of us are real, regardless of whether we look like the woman on the cover of Vogue or not. We are real women with real stories, real struggles, real fears, and worries, and experiences. We are real women who may feel insecure about parts of ourselves.
We will never get to a place where we can celebrate body diversity if we are busy lashing out in anger at each other. We need to work together to push the media to fairly and accurately portray women in a way that builds up the self-esteem of young girls and women rather than pointing out all the ways none of us will ever measure up.
We are not just our bodies. We are our stories, our life experiences, our hopes and dreams. But, we also are our bodies, and every one of them is beautiful.