Beyonce’s song Pretty Hurts made my internal struggles come to life before my eyes. No, I don’t know what it’s like to be considered pretty and not given validity outside of my body or looks. But I know what’s it like to be fat and for everyone to feel the need to tell me how cute I’d be if I just lost the weight.
“My aspiration in life would be…to be happy.”
There’s not much that I have in common with your stereotypical beauty queen. I’m fat. I have horrible posture. I have really bad stage fright. I don’t really have a talent that anyone in particular would want to watch.
But I do long to be beautiful. I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never wanted to fit inside of society’s beauty standards. While being happy is always an aspiration, sometimes beauty outweighs my want for happiness.
“Mama said, ‘You’re a pretty girl. What’s in your head, it doesn’t matter.’”
There are so many stereotypes and societal expectations surrounding beauty and intelligence – expectations that make people believe that a beautiful person cannot be intelligent and that intelligent people aren’t attractive. Growing up, because I was a straight-A student, no one expected me to wear stylish clothes or be attractive in general.
I was a fat, dark-skinned black girl with a kinky hair texture, and if I weren’t smart, I wouldn’t have had much going for me in the eyes of most folks. I felt like the whole world was telling me that, because my body was neither desired nor wanted, my only contribution to society could be through my academic successes.
“South Beach, sugar free. Vogue says, ‘Thinner is Better.’”
When I was a teenager, my family always kept me updated on the newest fad diets – I’m assuming in case I ever wanted to lose weight and evolve into my better self, like a Pokémon. While I never dieted, I did take matters into my own hands. I wouldn’t eat breakfast. Most days, I didn’t eat lunch. And I might have a snack at some point during the day. I never really lost any weight. But I kept doing it for years, because a part of me felt ashamed to eat in front of people – as if, once they saw me eating, they’d know it was my fault that I was fat and ugly. I knew that I would never be pretty by society’s standards, but I didn’t want anyone to blame me.
Instead, I was blaming myself. I shamed myself into not eating. I was hurting myself when my anxiety and depression became too much to bear. I wasn’t allowing myself to be happy.
“Nobody frees you from your body.”
By the time I made it to college, I had little self-esteem left. But college gave me something new: freedom. Freedom to eat whenever the cafeteria was open. Freedom to eat whatever I wanted without my mother’s glaring eyes. Freedom to wear whatever I wanted. Freedom to learn how to be happy.
But freedom wasn’t the answer to all of my problems.
“We try to fix something, but you can’t fix what you can’t see.”
During college, I began to lose weight. It’s amazing what eating regularly, having fun with friends, and being happy in general can do for your body, both physically and mentally. By my third year of college, I had lost around 30lbs and was blooming into someone I had only dreamed of becoming.
As my body started to change, the way I felt about my body and the way that people responded to my body began to change as well. As my waistline got smaller, somehow I became deserving of all the love and desire my fatter body had been deprived of.
However, I hadn’t lost the weight due to any long-term changes to my diet or exercise. So as time went on, my weight started to creep back on. By the end of my first year post grad, I had gained all 30lbs back. At first, I felt sad – as though I’d had my 15 minutes of skinny fame and somehow gave it up.
“You stripped away the masquerade. The illusion has been shed. Are you happy with yourself?”
It didn’t take too long before I started realizing that others were perceiving me differently due to my weight gain. But when I noticed that people were once again treating me like a fat person, I had a breakthrough. I began to realize that I still was comfortable in my body and the way I dressed and presented myself. Yes, I mourned the body that I had grown to love, but I was still open to loving my fatter body.
Everyone’s response to my fatter body made me confront the reasons that I had fallen in love with my smaller body. When I realized that I loved my body more than others loved it, I had to critically think about my internalized fatphobia. I had to start actively and intentionally rejecting the oppressive ways in which society talks about fat bodies. I had to challenge myself to always find love and happiness within myself.
In recognizing my own internalized oppression, I have to recognize where I learned those notions. My family’s constant diet updates may have seemed innocent to them, but they sent a clear message, and it’s a message that didn’t start with them. As Geoff Williams writes in The Heavy Price of Losing Weight, “According to data by Marketdata Enterprises, a market research firm that specializes in tracking niche industries, Americans spend north of $60 billion annually to try to lose pounds, on everything from paying for gym memberships and joining weight-loss programs to drinking diet soda.” When looking at numbers like this, we must be honest about why this industry is booming. We shame people into believing their bodies aren’t good enough as they are and should be changed, even at the cost of their health.
While “Pretty Hurts” may be a simple pop song to some, it’s truly speaking to the ways in which beauty standards have an impact on people. Systems of oppression shape the ways in which we think about our bodies, and popular media works to disseminate and maintain those notions. I’m in no way shaming folks who want to lose weight or have cosmetic surgery, but we can’t overlook the reasons that some people feel shamed into doing these things.
When our society has built multibillion dollar industries to convince people to change themselves, we can’t shy away from these conversations, and we must be sure to prioritize self-care and self-love. While our bodies aren’t politically charged beings, the ways in which we understand and take care of them are political. We shouldn’t be ashamed to fervently defend and love them in spite of larger, oppressive messages.
So now, on those days when I find myself longing to fit inside of society’s beauty standards, I hear the melody of Queen Bey’s voice: “When you’re alone all by yourself and you’re lying in your bed. Reflection stares right into you. Are you happy with yourself?” Upon reflection, I am happy with my life and myself. No, I don’t fit within the model built by an oppressive system, but I was never meant to fit within it. And that’s okay, because the model and space that I’m building for myself are better.
All italicized lyrics are from the song “Pretty Hurts” by Joshua Coleman, Sia Furler, and Beyonce Knowles, © 2013.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a young black woman with long black hair. She is facing the camera at a three-quarter angle with her eyes closed and a serious, almost sad expression on her face.]