For the month of September, the GirlSense & NonSense blog will feature guest writers who have something to say about body shaming and our #NoShame campaign. Feel free to join in on the conversation by leaving a comment.
An Essay by Joshua M. Watkins
Humble Beginnings (But Not Humble Pie. Too Many Calories.)
When I was in 7th grade, my parents informed me that we would all be going on the South Beach diet. On the first morning of our new healthy eating lifestyle, I awoke not to Eggos, or Poptarts, or any of the other usual breakfast items my mother made for me, but rather sat in front of a quiche made with substitute eggs. Having never eaten eggs that were not a) scrambled and b) served with grits, I had what I believe was a justified reaction: uncontrollable sobbing. Finally, my parents gave me the only other food in the house that might somewhat qualify both as a breakfast item and South Beach-approved: cherry Jello. This became my breakfast for six weeks.
When I was in 12th grade, my high school girlfriend (I’ll pause while you laugh at that visual…welcome back!) told me she wanted to go back to her previous boyfriend because he had six-pack abs. That semester, I ended up doing two hours of cardio after school Monday through Friday.
When I was a junior in college, my friend showed a photo of us with food babies during an end-of-year slide show. My parents had a personal trainer call me the next day.
When I graduated undergrad, I weighed 230. This morning, I weighed 179. (#BLESSYOUZUMBA). Yet three weeks ago, during a, shall we say, intimate encounter, I was told it was refreshing that I had “a little chub on the stomach, it’s less intimidating.”
The point of all these embarrassing moments is to confess: I may have some emotional baggage when it comes to body issues, but none of it arises from being skinny shamed. So why am I here writing? First, I was asked to, so calm down Beyonce, but also, while GirlSense and NonSense has featured some wonderful personal accounts of the effects of body shaming, and skinny shaming in particular, thus far, I feel as though there’s a part of the discussion missing—a question that we should often ask of many societal ills, but rarely take the time to focus on:
Why do we do it?
A Brief Detour So My Clever Title Has a Purpose
With little attention paid to skinny shaming, it’s imperative to investigate the motivation behind the phenomenon just as much as the phenomenon itself. For me, these roots exist in the acceptance of physicality for personality—too often, we allow appearance to serve as a placeholder, or a catch-all, for who a person is, simply because we reject complexity and desire easily constructed judgments of those we come into contact with.
To illustrate my point, one need look no further than the terminology commonly used within the male homosexual community. A finite number of descriptors have become the standard—twink, bear, jock, otter—but these terms have morphed beyond their original purpose, to self-identify as a particular body type, into a representation of almost every aspect of an individual’s persona. When I hear the word “twink” used to describe someone, for example, it’s no longer just to talk about a thin guy, but to paint the visual of a hyperfeminine, stereotypically lispy, Lady Gaga-loving* male. Of course, it’s incredibly illogical to peg someone’s entire life story based on the thinness of their body—but nonetheless, the irrationality of the human once more creates shortcuts, however misguided and at whatever expense to those around us, to achieve the simplicity it craves.
*I’m unsure if this pop culture reference is in any way still relevant. I partially don’t care (don’t tell my agent).
Back to the Task at Hand: We’re just Green Teas Living in an Earl Grey World
I have a friend, who, while I was discussing the writing of this piece, succinctly described what I think explains so much of skinny shaming—primarily, our innate jealousy towards that which we believe is unobtainable. In much more eloquence than I’ve bothered to produce, she said, “The best [kind of skinny shaming], which usually isn’t a public thing, is heavy women bragging about breast size to put the skinny girls down. It’s a way for them to say: ‘You aren’t a sexual being and therefore can’t be attractive because you haven’t got fat pockets as large as mine.’” I disagree with the notion that skinny shaming arises from the refusal to accept thin individuals as sexual beings (more on that briefly), but recognize the sentiment behind claiming so and why such a statement could be used as a defense mechanism.
While it may be one of the least controversial observations of human interaction, I do think that, across sexuality, there remains a majority that idealizes thinness. Such idealization derives from what “being skinny” represents—a notion of femininity that holds a physical allure for the other, yet simultaneously exists as an externalized manifestation of the unobtainable (at least, unobtainable in the moment encountered). I use the term “externalized” deliberately, because it is that distinction that helps us understand where the act of shaming originates from.
Our validation is (mostly) externally sought and externally granted—a byproduct of a shift, as sociologist David Riesman has articulated, from an inner- to an outer-directed sense of self. What is misunderstood about how we seek validation, however, is that the externality we rely upon to confirm our belonging, our existence, is not limited to acts of affirmation. Rather, what shaming a body functions as is an external projection of insecurity—a projection that acts to provide internal validation, if such a phenomenon can occur. Shaming exists because we have rerouted the notion of purpose into an other-directed construction. Less broadly, shaming exists because it reinforces the instant gratification needed to maintain the delicateness of our narcissistic nature—a narcissism that Sherry Turkle, in her seminal work Alone Together, writes does “not indicate people who love themselves, but a personality so fragile that it needs constant support.”
I fully recognize that there are other factors and possible motivations for shaming the thin—the rigid structure of masculinity and the desire for the cultural “necessity” of polarizing the opposite, or even revulsion at the aesthetic of skinniness (societal cues tells us this cannot explain the majority, but it may at least provide insight into a particular subset of people). I write this in no means as extensive research, and would altogether reject the term research for whatever this is—I prefer the phrase “qualitative inquiry,” though “incoherent rambling” may be more representative. In any case, let this serve to expand the questions we ask when we talk about shaming, and in the meantime, stop treating difference—in any shape—as exotic. To let ourselves define, and even moreso, be defined, by our physical appearance isn’t doing any of us any favors.
And that, dear readers, is the skinny on shaming.
GirlSense & NonSense is seeking writing and essays from women in the military. To find out more, contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.