A female co-worker recently turned down my invitation to get breakfast burritos, stating that she is trying to get in shape by August. As someone in a perpetual state of getting in shape by [insert date here], I sympathetically asked if something special was coming up. She responded, “We’re going to the lake with my husband’s family. His sister-in-law is younger than me and in much better shape, so I have to measure up.”
I was surprised by how her response struck me. I am no stranger to self-objectification and to comparing myself to other as a means of ascertaining my value. It is an unfortunate habit with which I struggle daily to unlearn. Despite doing it to myself constantly, I was so disturbed to hear someone else reduce herself to a body that should primarily be looked at while on vacation. I hurt for her. Even more disturbingly, I allowed my response to completely follow suit. “Haha, I totally know what you mean. I’m going to San Diego at the end of the summer with a group that’s mostly guys. I have to get ready for that bikini.”
For me, this exchange revealed two unnerving concerns that are thwarting our efforts in the movement toward body acceptance. The first problem is nothing we haven’t heard before. We would never speak to one another in such insulting and demeaning terms, so why are we so comfortable accepting our own barrage of insults at ourselves? Hearing my co-worker objectify herself shocked me, but I do it to myself without a second thought. Secondly, our own damaging dialogue surrounding our bodies is a perpetuating force that continues to normalize the notion that women’s bodies exist primarily to be looked at.
What did I want to say to my co-worker in response to her self-deprecating outlook on vacation preparation? I wanted to tell her that she does not need to measure up to anyone. That how she fills out a bikini will never determine her value. That the standard we have for an acceptable bikini body is a lie fed to us by moneymaking machines that thrive on our obsession with looks — an obsession they created. That her time on the lake should be spent relaxing, water skiing, barbecuing, and memory-making with her family, not imagining herself being looked at or determining her body’s acceptability by comparing it to someone else’s. I wanted to tell her how many potentially beautiful moments I regret ruining for myself by obsessing over how others might be seeing me.
But because we are both fairly normal people with fairly normal social skills, I did not tell her that. Turning a casual conversation into a preaching session on body image not only would have been uncomfortable, but it also would have been inappropriate for the workplace. Instead, I went toward the opposite, and potentially even more damaging, extreme of avoiding an uncomfortable interaction by implying my approval of the notion of needing to look as good as the next girl in a bikini.
I believe there is a middle ground. What if instead of feeling compelled to either preach my body acceptance agenda or mitigate discomfort by spouting the opposite, I changed the conversation completely? I could have ignored her body-related statement entirely and focused on her upcoming vacation.
Does your family have a lake house?
Do you go there every year?
Sounds like you’re going to have a great trip.
With such a simple redirection of conversation, I could have achieved the politeness associated with workplace chatter without endorsing such a negative and destructive attitude toward our bodies.
I realize that this formula for avoiding negative body talk is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Women are constantly confronted with opportunities to talk about their bodies, not all of which can easily be redirected or avoided altogether. Certain situations may require an uncomfortable exchange for the sake of speaking out against mindsets that enable self-objectification.
The point is that our levels of awareness need to be raised. I cannot help but be reminded of the scene in Mean Girls when The Plastics enjoy a session of body bashing, while formerly media-deprived Cady awkwardly searches for a feature to berate for the sake of fulfilling their expectations. She had no idea she was supposed to hate everything about herself!
This scene speaks to the truth that obsessing over and hating our bodies is not a natural response. It is a learned behavior, taught to us by an industry that profits from the creation of our insecurities and preys on our desires to measure up to its manufactured and unattainable standard of beauty.
The good news is that if this unhealthy attitude is learned, then it can also be unlearned.
The next time you catch a glimpse of yourself in a storefront window and find your thoughts defaulting to how much you could improve X, Y, or Z, ask yourself if you would ever talk to your friend that way. Imagine how much it would hurt her feelings to hear such harsh words about her physical appearance. If you would not speak to someone else with such callousness, why should it be acceptable to do so to yourself?
Treat yourself kindly. Begin to replace those thoughts of criticism with ones of compassion. For each negative thought, force yourself to acknowledge something positive. Recall attributes like your intelligence, your generosity, or your loyalty to your friends. These qualities are so much more lasting and powerful than a slim waistline.
Furthermore, be the one to not only change the conversation in your own inner monologue, but also in your day-to-day interactions. When you begin to pay attention, you will be amazed to discover how much of our conversations are centered on, or at least begin with, references to our bodies. When we haven’t seen a friend for a while, what’s the first thing we say? “Wow, you look great!” Such brief comments in themselves may be harmless, but they speak to our culture’s preoccupation with appearance-based dialogue.
Instead, replace these looks-based comments with thoughts or questions about her job, her family, a new restaurant that just opened, or a book that you’re reading — literally anything else.
By no means do I want to criminalize the notion of complimenting a girlfriend’s haircut or letting her know how well she’s pulling off that top. There is a place for those conversations. The problem exists in the fact that we go to these topics by default, giving them priority over the dozens of other talents and unique characteristics that make us who we are.
When we hear a friend compare her body to other women and yearn for improvement, we are hearing her reduce her value to that of just a body to be looked at. This is self-objectification. When we try to provide sympathy by offering complaints about our own bodies, we are only encouraging the practice by implying its normalcy.
Changing the conversation will look differently for everyone. Whatever it looks like for you, the end game will always be the same: to be an advocate for body acceptance and to stop perpetuating the damage caused by self-objectification.
Our bodies are strong, powerful creations capable of so much more than being looked at and compared to a manufactured ideal of beauty. Let’s start believing that.