In light of this month’s news regarding body image and physical identity (read: Caitlyn Jenner’s public appearance and Amy Schumer’s phenomenal Glamour UK acceptance speech), we wanted to hear our friends’ and readers’ perspectives on body positivity. That’s why we’re sharing this guest essay from Rachel Leonard, sister to BYOM co-founder Sarah Leonard, on her personal experiences.
As someone with an unusual body type, Rachel deals with public commentary and even critique of her lifestyle. She’s been brave enough to express her personal experiences in a way that is honest and vulnerable. As you respond, and we hope you do, please be considerate of the woman behind the words. Here’s what Rachel has to say about body image and why it matters that we be kinder and more sensitive to each other.
People feel comfortable commenting to me on the way that I look, and they have for as long as I can remember.
As a woman in today’s society, I expect a certain amount of public and personal response to my body – whether I want it or not. Add to that the fact that, statistically, I’m an outlier in terms of my height to weight ratio. Since I look different than most people, I can’t be too surprised that people notice the difference. However, I am constantly surprised by the way they express it.
From judgement and criticism to awkward pseudo-compliments, I’ve heard it all. Luckily, my family and friends have always fostered healthy body image and body positivity, so I have pretty much always been happy with the way that I look. But that doesn’t mean that sometimes the comments don’t hurt, or that I wish they didn’t happen.
I’m 5’10” and I weigh 123 pounds. I share that only for the sake of full transparency, but I know that readers will have a whole host of reactions. You might wonder whether I have an eating disorder. You might even question whether I can really comment on the issue of body image because the mainstream American media has deemed my physique attractive or desirable.
That’s not really the point, though.
The point is that no one should have to deal with unsolicited public criticism and commentary about their bodies, regardless of their shape or size, because it fuels negativity and insecurity.
The commentary is, as I mentioned earlier, an unfortunately regular occurrence for women today; it’s just more common and more obvious for those of us who fall outside the norm.
These comments on how I looked started early, and made a strong impression.
At a time when I just wanted to go through the world unnoticed (I am a fairly reserved, quiet person) just the opposite seemed to happen. When I was only a preteen, a female friend of my mother’s gushed over how skinny my legs were. At that age, I was still growing and still extremely sensitive to any commentary, be it positive or negative, on how I looked. I cried to my mom in embarrassment and shame. I felt like a giraffe with braces.
The criticism did not ease up as puberty hit. Body issues became central in teenage girl world. I slowly grew into my height and eventually got my braces off. Finally, I started to feel good about how I looked. I ate what I wanted, when I wanted it, and went about my life like any average teenage girl.
But I’m sure you remember Cady’s situation in Mean Girls, where she has trouble connecting with other girls. “So you think you’re really pretty?” says Regina scathingly. When it comes to female bonding at that age, it can be a bad thing to like how you look. Cady receives appalled looks when she has no body part to complain over with the rest of the girls.
A seemingly large part of female bonding as a teenager comes from commiseration over each other’s body image issues. We feed off each other’s insecurities, as if by sharing similar obsessions over our “huge thighs” and “man shoulders” we are somehow a part of some elite girl friendship club. Basically, if you don’t have issues with your body, someone will make you feel like you should.
“Basically, if you don’t have issues with your body, someone will make you feel like you should.”
So I spent the next eight years of high school and college battling between the positive body image I held for myself – fully aware that I maintained healthy eating, exercise, and lifestyle habits – with the skewed perceptions of how others viewed me. There were many with the firmly held belief that I must be either bulimic, anorexic or seriously ill if I was able to maintain such a low weight. Rarely was it considered a viable option that maybe I was just born this way.
People have said they don’t like to stand around me because I make them feel short. Or fat. Or ugly. A patient at work asked if I ever ate. Men have hit on me at the water fountain with the line, “You must be on an ice cube and water diet!” A stranger told me once to “go eat a hamburger!” (Yes, please. I’d love one.) Friends have expressed serious concern, even in the moment of watching me dig into an enormous Chipotle burrito.
Though I do believe most of these comments are somehow meant as compliments, does this really seem appropriate? And despite intentions, most of the time these encounters did not feel good at all. They really hurt my feelings.
A person’s physical appearance is a part of who they are, and many times it is out of their control. Any comment that makes someone feel subjected to another’s judgment should be left out of normal behavior and conversation. The shaming, of any size and of any kind, has got to stop.
“Any comment that makes someone feel subjected to another’s judgment should be left out of normal behavior and conversation.”
Only now that I’m older have I come to understand that we see a lot of ourselves in each other, and that some people may take the way that I look personally. Many of the comments I have received may have been motivated by someone else’s sense of self. Be honest: have you ever seen a friend that lost or gained weight, and felt good or bad personally about that change? I know others’ appearances have made me feel differently about myself. And that makes me extremely sad.
The snide comments and backhanded “compliments” that we give each other only plant seeds of insecurity, and consequently perpetuate the culture of negative body image. It doesn’t feel good, and it certainly does not promote healthy relationships with your body and with food. Not to mention with your friends.
We’ve got to stop comparing ourselves to those around us, especially those we care about who only want us to feel good and happy with ourselves. Where is the positivity?
What makes me beautiful is my spirit, not my appearance, and that is true for all of us. As for my body, concern from others recently drove me to get a full check-up, just in case something really was awry, and I am 100% healthy! I take care of my body. I feed it and I exercise it. And that is something to be proud of, no matter what form or shape it takes. Love yourself and love your body!