One day at the grocery store, I saw three young people walking through the parking lot. One of the girls wore short shorts. Very short shorts. And Ugg boots. I commented — a lot. My children were with me. I didn’t think at the time about what they processed as I ranted about how short the shorts were. How ridiculous she looked wearing Uggs in July.
My own words came back to me when my ten year-old commented on a girl her age wearing short shorts and a half shirt. Despite having made a vow months after the first incident to not comment on women’s bodies, my own words haunted me. My ten year-old didn’t come to this judgement by herself, but instead from my example.
What made me sad is that when I first saw the child in short shorts standing by our van, I had the same thoughts my daughter articulated. In that moment, I realized how insidious this form of judgment was entrenched in my way of thinking. But even more important, I realized the incredible vulnerability of that young girl, and how my own vulnerability could create a way for me to re-think how I talked about other people’s bodies.
Gender theorist Judith Butler writes in Precarious Life, “The body implies morality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of these as well.”
For a number of years, I have worked diligently on being vulnerable to myself and others. Years of pain and shame lay wrapped around my core like an onion, each layer a bit closer to the skin, raw and fresh. The risk of vulnerability sometimes made me want to wrap myself back in those layers, but for many reasons I pushed through: my children, my partner, my friends. Learning to be vulnerable meant not just self-examination but also exposing myself to those close to me. Learning to trust them as I learned to trust myself.
While I would not call myself a finished work, I can look back at those scattered peels and see how far I have come. Accepting myself has been a radical act of love, and as such, the love has spread to those around me. My self-acceptance made it easier to fight for my daughters’ bodies. To push for more help when I knew my son’s medical condition warranted it. For all the love I missed out as a young child, I poured more into my children. I poured love into myself as well.
But there was a deeper vulnerability I did not understand until a few days ago. This vulnerability arises in the relationship between my own insecurities and the body of another.
While radical self-love made it easier to respect the vulnerability of those closest to me, it did not necessarily extend to those whom I did not know in an intimate way. While it was easy to encourage body positivity in my girls, easy to think only wonderful things about their dress and their body movements, that generosity didn’t extend to other people’s bodies. Every day, I find myself making an internal running dialogue, especially about the women around me. I comment on their dress, their bodies, the way they talk.
What horrified me the most was how hard it was to stop doing this, even when I made a conscious decision to stop. It wasn’t just commentary on young college girls, who frankly brought out my own insecurities, but it was simple things, like commenting on how old someone now looked, or that so-and-so seemed to have gained weight. While I imagined myself to be saying these things in a completely neutral way, they were reflections of how society too often views weight and age.
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I undermined my own work ending my body shame by feeding the beast in other ways. I realized this when my knee started to give out during my runs, and when I had my first miscarriage at 43. The anger at my body for aging shocked me. But further reflection made me see that if I didn’t honor the body, that soft vulnerability in all bodies, it would always be impossible to fully honor myself.
“The body has its invariably public dimension,” writes Butler. “Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life…”
I don’t think Butler is suggesting in the above quote that our bodies belong to others to do with as they wish. Rather, the way we come to understand our bodies is part of a social relationship. After all, we don’t form our ideas of self inside a vacuum.
For many of us who are fat, we were told from a young age that our bodies were wrong, malformed, needed to be changed. As we grew older, doctors told us our bodies were sick because of our fat. For those with disabilities, the message is clear that there is “something wrong.” I hear that message when people ask me what’s wrong with my daughter who has Down syndrome. They then act confused when I explain that there is nothing wrong with her.
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But what if we came to see the vulnerability of other’s bodies? Would we be so quick to lash out at them with violent ideology and violent actions?
For me this has become a new work in understanding body positivity. If I can learn to recognize that the vulnerability in those around me is the same vulnerability within myself, then I hope I’ll come to not only honor their bodies — aging, fat, thin, abled, disabled, Black, Brown, poor, and so on — but also my body as well.
[Feature Image: Photo of a group of women sitting in rows of chairs in a seemingly professional setting. The camera focuses on a woman with light brown hair as she listens to an unseen speaker while holding up a coffee mug near her mouth. To the woman’s left, softly blurred, is another woman gazing at her with a look of judgment or irritation as she, too, holds a coffee mug. Other women are blurred and have serious expressions as they look in the same direction toward the speaker. Source: Daria Shevtsova for Pexels]