This weekend my boyfriend asked me an intriguing question. We were talking at dinner about how often women complain about being fat and he suddenly dropped, “Why is it that all women think they’re fat?”
It was a surprising question, especially knowing that he was genuinely wondering this, and wasn’t insulting women or making light of the issues women face.
I thought about his question for a second and attempted to explain to him the pressure that is placed on women to control the outward appearance of their bodies, specifically their weight. Seeing something so present to my experience but foreign to my boyfriend’s made me consider how rarely we address the all-too common body image-pressure that many women face.
Growing up, I was constantly barraged with comments about my body, comments that were often casually made and not necessarily meant maliciously. During my teen years I was told that I hadn’t filled out yet, but to wait for my turn to blossom. Then when I filled out the tiniest bit at 17, I had women congratulating me on how I had finally gotten curves (however small they were).
These women gave me tips on how to keep my figure, the goal being not to fill out anymore than the tiny bit I had. It scared me that I would be met with thinly veiled criticism the moment there was any change in my body.
If I knew I was going to see someone I hadn’t seen in a while, I questioned my body. Had it changed? Did I gain any weight or lose any weight? Do they think I’m too skinny? Are they going to repeat that annoying phrase about eating a burger? The noise in my head was becoming deafening.
In a world where we are constantly told that weight gain is the worst thing that can happen to us, it’s extremely hard for us not to define our self-worth in terms of our bodies.
Any attention that we get for our bodies, either negative or positive, fuels this. Although men often experience this problem too, it’s often much more common for women’s bodies to be the ones commented on and compared to others.
From what I’ve seen, when a woman gains weight, she is often seen as a failure. She couldn’t maintain her lifestyle, she’s not happy, she’s floundering. But when a man gains weight, we are much quicker to provide excuses. He just started college and started drinking beer, he’s got a new job and is in a transitional period.
Often if his weight gain is even noticed at all, it is credited to him enjoying life more.
Why is it that we see male weight gain as more easily excusable than female? Why should weight fluctuation be tied to gender at all?
To be clear though, I’m a naturally slender woman and I haven’t experienced the sort of insults larger girls get. Although all of these comments are unfair, it’s important to acknowledge that I, in most situations, have had the better end of the bargain. I can’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be called “fat” by someone else.
There is no denying that those of us with naturally smaller frames get the better end of the social bargain in Western culture, hands down. This perhaps is the least fair and most damaging facet of our body-image culture. The issue is no longer a lifestyle or health issue, but one merely about genetic cards handed to us.
The body image issue is a more widespread issue than most realize and it’s time we acknowledge the ways we are perpetuating it. Most of the female friends in my life can relate to feeling the pressure being placed on a woman’s body.
We aren’t taught how to deal with the attention placed on our bodies, instead suffering through it quietly so as to not garner more attention to ourselves. I believe that by teaching girls at such a young age to put so much energy and thought into how their bodies look, it creates a cycle of insecurity that is very hard to break out of.
When we become so aware of how our bodies look compared to everyone else’s, we gain a heightened awareness of any minor change to them and how that may be greeted by those around us.
So back to my boyfriend’s question — why do all women think they’re fat and why do they constantly complain about it? In part, it’s because we’re looking for assurance that we aren’t fat in a society that has placed so much emphasis on having the perfect body.
It’s likely we are complaining, because women are taught that we are never skinny enough. We are taught that our weight and figure decides how successful and happy we get to be. In our culture, a thicker milkshake could never be happy and confident.
In order for women to make any progress by focusing less on their weight, we need to teach everyone, men and women alike, that their self-worth is not placed in their weight.
We need to teach everyone that they are no worse for the wear if they’re a thicker or thinner milkshake. If less people felt as if they had the right and even the obligation to make a comment about someone’s body, maybe women wouldn’t need to worry or “complain” so much.