How to Become a Body Image Outcast
By Courtney E. Martin
I was sitting in New York City’s Bryant Park the other day, enjoying a scoop of rich, coffee ice cream while seated across from one of my favorite women—a feminist psychologist and dear mentor—when a strange thing happened. She absentmindedly said, “I can’t believe I’m eating this.” Her eyes then drifted upward and she let out a yelp, “Ah! I forgot who I was with!” We both dissolved into giggles, but I actually realized something very serious. I didn’t “just” write a book on body image—Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters—I wrote myself into a utopian bubble of body positivity.
There were times when I worried that researching, writing, and speaking so much about young women’s relationships with their bodies, perfectionism, and the like would make me even more neurotic about my own physical form. I wondered if, like the medical student who suddenly thinks she has every ailment she reads about, I might start to adopt the neuroses and negative behaviors of those I interviewed and studied.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the opposite transpired. Being immersed in this subject has given me an analytic perspective fierce enough to counter the sneaky acculturation that rears its ugly head from time to time. Thoughts like, “I was too busy to eat today,” get promptly countered by, “Actually, that’s unacceptable—it’s time to find some sustenance to fuel this important work.” Plus, I’m deathly afraid of being a hypocrite—great motivation to feed, move, and appreciate my body and strive for that elusive balance like never before.
Beyond my own personal conviction to “walk my talk,” I’ve found myself surrounded by folks similarly dedicated to the cause and friends who know I’ll give them a talking to if they don’t treat and talk about themselves kindly while I’m around. I give speeches to hundreds of women eager to hear and internalize my message about shifting the paradigm of the successful female life to being defined by fulfillment, relationships, and joy—not achievement and appearance.
I also I’ve become friends with other body image experts like Jessica Weiner, who wrote Life Doesn’t Begin Five Pounds From Now, Jennifer Berger of About-Face, Claire Mysko of You’re Amazing!, and folks from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, Girls Inc., and the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute. In other words, my little world has become almost representative of what I want the big world to look more like.
Do I tell you this just to rub my good fortune in your face? Absolutely not. Rather, I think we all have the power to engineer our own little utopias by surrounding ourselves with strong, like-minded individuals, being outspoken about our beliefs around body positivity, and committing to being models of self-respect. Here are a few of the things that I’ve learned:
Say it out loud.
The moment that protected me from ever getting a full-blown eating disorder occurred one random afternoon in May of 1998. My mom had come to pick me up from my first year of college, and as we walked down Broadway I blurted out, “Mom, I think if I’m not careful I could get an eating disorder!” I hadn’t planned to say it, but reflecting back, I realize that some subconscious part of me was trying to force accountability, to share the burden of my own nasty self-talk. Not everyone has a mother they can trust, but pick someone you do feel safe with and be honest about what’s going on inside your head. It’s the hard but necessary step to making it real.
Get in touch with your own outrage.
Ten million girls and women in this country suffer from diagnosable eating disorders and, I would argue, 95% accept a compromised quality of life because they have settled for some degree of body-hatred. That shouldn’t just make us sad; that should incite serious anger in all of us.
It is clinically documented that dieting is the gateway to eating disorders. We have a $40 billion diet industry in this country that sells us a product that fails 95% of the time. We should all be much smarter than that.
Become the authority on your own body.
Learn how to listen to your body, how to befriend it instead of trying to control it. Reconnect with your authentic hungers. When are you hungry? When are you full? What are you hungry for? Move in ways that make you feel happy instead of getting trapped in strict exercise regimens. If you love running, more power to you, but if you don’t, start dancing, going to yoga classes, or playing team sports.
Pay attention to the voices inside your head.
Counter them when they don’t align with your values. The more generous you are in thought and speech about other women’s bodies and appearances, the more gentle you will be able to be with yourself. It is absolutely a reciprocal relationship. Invite a more generous voice into your head to counter that mean, old witch that’s taken up residence.
Choose your friends!
I know it sounds completely obvious, but too often women—young and old alike—act as if our friendships happen to us rather than recognizing that we are the architects of our own social worlds. Notice how you feel after being around various friends. If someone makes you feel competitive and insecure, stop hanging out with them. When and with whom do you feel happiest and most beautiful? How can you be with them more of the time?
Set the standards for body talk among your friends.
Be the model. Change conversations about weight to conversations about wellbeing. Speak up against fat discrimination. Get involved in feminism—a wonderful collective lens for all of this personal pain—and spread the word.
Put your money where your heart is.
Don’t buy magazines or products that perpetuate your sense of inadequacy. Every time you lay down a dollar for a fashion magazine, you’re telling the editors, publishers, and advertisers that you like to be bombarded with images of young, skeletal women, articles about bogus diet tips, and superficial relationships advice. Instead, give your hard-earned cash to companies that respect your intelligence and your values.
Become a media activist.
Keep a list of the email addresses of all of the editors and producers of your favorite magazines, websites, and television shows and send them feedback—often. Most media powerbrokers count every email or letter they get as the perspective of thousands of readers or viewers because most of us are such passive consumers. That gives you special power to influence the kind of media that is available to you.
Turn your life into a statement.
It is totally radical for a woman in today’s society to love her body, yet doing so can have unexpected, widespread effects. Make conscious choices to heal your relationship with your body every day. Be a revolutionary and turn your personal thoughts and actions into political statements.
Do it for those you love.
And finally, if you find it hard to heal for yourself, do it for your little sister, friends, mother, or daughter. Eventually you will grow into doing it for your own wellbeing, but until then, do it for those you love.
My wish is that one day you, too, will find yourself eating a big scoop of ice cream across from someone you love and realize that you’ve successfully become “weird” by virtue of resisting the new normalcy of body hatred. Sometimes it’s pretty delicious to be the outcast.
About the Author
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Spring 2009 Volume 7, Number 2
©2009 Gürze Books