Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Pretty for a Big Girl

Venus with an Organist and Cupid

The conversation on diversity and representation has gone from quiet elevator chatter to screaming-words-to-each-other-at-the-club decibel levels. It's exciting, it's refreshing, it tries to be inclusive, and as with most things, it's also problematic. The body positivity movement, in particular, has attracted such conflict that a new concept is trying to rise in its place: Body Neutrality. 

If there is a topic that absolutely terrifies me, it's talking about my body. I've been wanting to write a story about this conversation for so long and never quite mustered the courage. Last week, while looking at videos about body positivity and the "plus size" models leading it, the comments I came across were so incredibly hurtful and hateful that it was the final push I needed. Perhaps we all need to be reminded that regardless of what we have for lunch-- we are all humans and should be treated as such. 

Blessed with Hispanic genes and a healthy childhood diet of straight up carbs and delicious things, I was never the athletic type. I went to an all-girl Catholic school and wore a skirt that went well past my knees for years. Until I moved to the U.S, I wasn't aware of the fact that my entire existence as a girl was to try to resemble pop stars, attract the male students in my class, and act in a real-life Mean Girls experience. It wasn't long until the girls and the boys in my middle school very kindly reminded me that if the desired beauty type was at point A, I was at point B, and not even google maps could save me.  Looking back at this in my late 20s fills me with deep sadness, not for that younger version of me but for the way we somehow teach children to criticize and diminish others. It's not at all shocking that this same nasty behavior only gets worse as we age. 

From that moment on, my life has been a blur of ridiculous diets, lots of tears in dressing rooms, an incredibly complicated relationship with food, and an even worse relationship with my own body. Most days, I feel like a prisoner of my own body and I don't know where the keys are. I feel ashamed and guilty about the insecurities I feel have rubbed off on my sister growing up. As we grew up together, I often felt the pressure of being a role model to her and always coming up short. 

For me, the most important message of the body positivity movement is for women to look at their bodies through their own eyes and not through the image that others have given us of ourselves. We see our bodies through a lens that is so bent out of shape by all the images we see daily, by whatever the beauty standard is at the time (I've lived through both the stick-thin beauty ideal from the Nicole Richie/ Paris Hilton/Rachel Zoe days, and now through the fake booty/curves craze), by what people's idea of beauty is (whether it be those close to us or complete strangers). 

Some of my classic all time favorite one-liners about my body are:
- (While at the emergency room) Male Nurse: "If you lost weight, you'd have a line of boys at your door"

- A former boss: I saw you post a photo of a crêpe on Instagram, should you be eating that?
- "If people looked at your Instagram salads, they'd think you're so skinny!"
- (While running at the park in front of my house) Complete Stranger: "You're doing great! Keep running! You're so pretty, you shouldn't be fat"
- "You are sooooo pretty, you're not like other fat girls, you're like so pretty and you dress so well too!"
I've always been marveled at how people will be so quick to comment about your body, while I've never made a comment about someone's intellect along the lines of "You're so gorgeous, if only you weren't so dumb. Have you thought about reading a book? You truly are too gorgeous to be this unintelligent!" mostly because it is not our place to make hurtful remarks about others, especially under the guise of "compliments". And the scariest part is how quickly we can become caught up in faux compliment game and in trying to prove that we are not like the other fatties, we eat really well, we work out! In every situation mentioned above, I have smiled and nodded, instead of standing up for myself and my body. 

Last year, This American Life had an episode titled Tell Me I'm Fat, which compiled stories about weight and bodies from authors Lindy West, Roxane Gay, and Elna Baker. Gay talked about the different kinds of overweightness, labeling heavy but still acceptable women as "Lane Bryant fat" which is a criticism that a lot of women who feel misrepresented by the body positivity movement can identify with. It was Elna Baker's story that made me cry for the entire weekend after I listened to this podcast. She touched upon my two biggest fears- the idea that every rejection and misfortune you face is related to your body, and the thought that even after the weight, our brains will never be able to shake off all the pain and years of criticism. Till this day, Baker is plagued by the idea that her husband would've never spoken to her, loved her, and eventually married her, if she were still "Fat Elna".

The toxic thing about hating your body to such an incredible level is that you forget who you are, your accomplishments, your worth. 

When I first moved to Paris, I had drinks with someone I had worked with and I mentioned how shocked I was at all the doors I was taking in the face here. In Miami, holding doors and being courteous was embedded in the macho Latino culture, it wasn't an act of courtship, it was... manners? She quickly let me know that the problem was that we weren't good looking and made sure to mention that her friends who were beautiful always got the door held for them. I would've been offended, but I was too busy feeling so bad for someone who thought she didn't deserve a simple courtesy, such as holding a door for another human being, just because she has deemed herself not beautiful, like her beautiful friends. 

But I couldn't blame her for thinking this. Every single time my love for someone has not been reciprocated, I'm immediately plagued with the idea that the problem is that I'm not beautiful enough. Why are we so willing to be our own worst enemy? And why do we forget all the things that make us incredible? With a single rejection, I am willing to forget that I was strong and hard working enough to start my life from scratch in two different countries, and in two different languages, that two decades ago I was a little girl from a communist country and that I didn't have a particularly promising future, that I'm intelligent and kind, and I think I'm hilarious so that totally counts. Sometimes I find myself being so incredibly mean to myself that I can barely remember who the hell I am anymore. 

If there is anything that we should applaud and cherish from a movement that hopes to make women accept and love themselves and their bodies is that representation is so important, it shows us images of people who got there before us and who show us that we can get there too. Not all the women leading it may look exactly like each one of us, and no one is asking us to be excited about our bodies all of the time (although, why shouldn't we be?), but it is trying so hard to overturn all the negative imaging we've been fed over time. 

And if there is anything I hope to learn and remember every time I'm being mean to myself, it's that our bodies are so incredible. Bodies heal themselves, grow, learn different patterns, have the ability to get stronger, change shape, create and birth other humans, give you pleasure, what else can we ask them to do? The only thing that bodies cannot do is hold all the value of a human life on its surface because who we are and what we're worth goes way beyond our bodies. 

I can't stop others from making comments about my body, I can't stop my thin friends from complaining about their bodies (which indirectly hurts my feelings) because I understand we are all trying to accept and love ourselves in our own way, but if there is one thing under my control, it's the way I choose to think about myself. There is a brilliant meme out there that says something like, be kind to yourself, you can't get anything done if you have someone being mean to you all the time. Let's stop becoming our own 6th grade bullies and start being kinder to ourselves.