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Gazing at Navels and Practicing the Preached

July 17, 2010

I want to tell you a story, and it’s frankly not particularly novel.  Nor, I’m sure, will my comments be particularly incisive, or even philosophically interesting.  But I want to tell you this story because it reminds me just how difficult change is, even when it’s just the (supposedly simpler) task of changing yourself.

I went swimsuit shopping today.  Having lived in a beach town for 5 years of my life, it was bizarre to think that this was my first swimsuit shopping experience since 2003.  But it was.

It was much harder than I hoped it would be.  In the car on the way home–with a new suit, I might add–I found myself in tears.  This is in many ways an embarrassing thing to admit.  I am a feminist.  I am a philosopher.  I know that the images of beauty we are bombarded with are capitalist productions, effective in transmitting the idea that we are tragically defective and unhappy in order to sell us goods and services that will, supposedly, fix the problems behind our defects and unhappiness.  I know that the imperative to be beautiful is a mechanism for keeping women in our place.  I know that my drive to compare myself to other women is internalized misogyny.

And yet.  I give myself back pain from struggling, in vain, to hold my stomach in to make a completely flat surface.  I think about returning to my old habit of sneaking diet pills when no one is looking.  And I stand in front of that dressing room mirror, hating what I see.

The fact that this sort of story is not an uncommon one is more depressing than I care to think about right now.  Instead, I want to share with you this picture (and wonderful post) from definatalie, who is fantastic:

Image via

She continues:

This war is personal and this war is being waged on you, from within your consciousness, and it seeks to inhibit your self expression and nullify your body. This war also works to nullify whole groups of apparently odd-looking people too: fat, old, tall, short, brown, and disabled (and more!) If you’re not white, able bodied and young, the overriding message being spruiked by the beauty, health and fashion industries is that you’re not good enough and that in order to be as beautiful as you can be you have to buy clothes and make up and diet pills and encourage all your friends to consume what you’re consuming.

I want to move beyond that internalized war and self-hate.  Some days I do better than others.  On the days I don’t, the shame is double-edged–because, as a feminist, I know just how privileged I am.  I am white, I am not fat, I am still under 30, I am cis-gendered, I am mostly able-bodied.  It feels whiny and self-indulgent to spend time thinking about the ways in which the beauty industry affects my body image.

But on the other hand, I think–when we are told, in a million ways every day, not only by television and magazines, but by our mothers and sisters and friends and teachers and mentors, “We are Unacceptable as we are,” and when the process of learning to speak to ourselves and to the people around us differently is so excruciatingly difficult, even after years or decades of trying–well, then I’m not sure that it’s such a small thing.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2010 6:58 pm

    Ironically, swimming is one of the things that makes me feel happiest to be inside my body. We should swim together soon, maybe, huh?

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      July 17, 2010 7:49 pm

      Yes. Especially if we can eat ice cream after.

  2. July 17, 2010 7:06 pm

    Thank you for this.

    It is so hard. And then when I lose the battle against myself, because I should KNOW better, right?, I beat myself up for losing and being a bad feminist. It’s a vicious cycle.

    But it helps me to know how other people lose the battle, too, as sad as that is. Because then I know it wasn’t my singular failure.

    And to totally change the focus, sorry – is that your bathing suit, dude? It is CUTE.

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      July 17, 2010 7:48 pm

      Vicious cycle is right. It’s interesting that we (I?) tend to approach this one issue totally differently than other things in the feminist web of concern–like, in any other circumstance, I’d think, “well, of *COURSE* it didn’t work when you just willed yourself not to be racist/homophobic/etc. When we’re talking about structural oppression, freeing your mind isn’t something you can just DO whenever you feel like it.” But somehow with this, I feel like I should be so totally over it. It makes sense that it’s a gradual process of relearning, failing to learn, and trying to make changes both at the social and individual level. So I think the self-shaming of the feminist ‘failure’ is particularly harsh, because we have the theoretical framework not only to understand why the body-shame happens, but why it’s so difficult to overcome.

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      July 17, 2010 7:50 pm

      Also, yes, that IS my new suit, thanks! I’m pretty excited about it.

  3. July 18, 2010 10:43 am

    I absolutely love the color of that bathing suit! And you are beautiful, but I know how hard it is to believe that when you’re bombarded with images of what you “should” look like. Good for you for posting this picture. I’m sure it wasn’t easy! ❤

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      July 18, 2010 9:44 pm

      Thanks, Britni.

  4. July 19, 2010 5:14 pm

    I credit the HAES and FA movements for saving my sanity, and I try really hard to keep that in my mind when I get cow-called while walking down the street, or have one of those mornings where I’ll tear my entire closet apart and discard outfit after outfit after outfit… trying to find one that doesn’t make me “feel so fat.”

    But gods damned, if some days it all doesn’t just come surging back.

    I nearly made my husband late to work last week because I couldn’t settle on an outfit, granted, that’s the first day I’ve done that in nearly a year, which is progress. The days where I find myself in tears because I want to eat something, I am hungry, but that horrible, awful little voice in the back of my head keeps telling my how good something will taste if I just eat it later, later, always later… I have been known to later myself into days subsisting on nothing but coffee and yogurt.

    And I totally feel like a bad Feminist, bad HAES and FA advocate.

    It’s hard, insidious and everywhere. All you can do is keep on fighting the good fight, and don’t beat yourself up too bad when you backslide, because you will.

  5. switchintoglide permalink
    September 5, 2010 12:28 pm

    Love the bathing suit, and I think we all need to do a little navel-gazing every once in awhile. I know it’s been very therapeutic for me. It is tempting to only write about those things that are beyond your body proper when you are privileged, because acknowledging your own pain gets tied up with denying privilege, which is simply not true; writing about your own body and internal life is also a deeply political act, especially for a woman–one which many people like myself really appreciated reading!

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