SDS Womyn's Caucus Blog

Who Says Ugly’s not the new Beautiful: Some Thoughts on Body Image and Critical Consciousness

Posted on: July 19, 2009

Throughout my life-and yes I think every woman’s life but I’ll stick to talking about mine since I know it best-I have struggled with body image, continually wavering from acceptance and love of my body and disappointment and even disgust for it. Looking back at my childhood and adolescence, there are many painful memories that I can dredge up, experiences in which people who were supposed to be loved ones, caretakers (including teachers, family members, neighbors, friends) knowingly or unknowingly reinforced what the dominant culture told me about women’s bodies, my body, through movies, books, tv, textbooks, etc. There was an ideal woman out there. She was/is pretty, docile, thin, demur, and I learned, was taught early on that I was not HER.

Whether the time when I was a young girl, probably 5 or 6, that my grandmother told me not to eat so much, something that would never and still will never be told to any of my male cousins (in fact, they should eat more!), or the time a gym teacher told me she was surprised at my athleticism because a girl of 11 with a short stocky build is not usually such a good runner!, or my mother expressing her concern over my upper lip hair upon accompanying me to my first visit to a gynecologist- all of these experiences continue to hamper my love for myself and my body as well as my ability to truly love and trust all women despite my discovery of radical politics and feminism and my continued work to develop and promote critical consciousness-my own and others.

On a recent visit home, my mother commented that she thought people might think my un-shaved legs “looked ugly.” At first I was hurt, but this hurt was quickly replaced by sadness and rage at the fact that my 50 year old mother is so insecure about body image that she is concerned (anxious and worried, stressed even!) about my leg hair and how others might think about me, and about her, because of my not so out of the ordinary choice to not shave it.

I responded to her that “You might think that but I don’t and a lot of  other people don’t either.” My confidence and disregard for caring whether I “looked ugly” caused her to rethink her statement and she realized how hurtful it was, not apologizing but quickly adding that “of course I think you’re beautiful”- not indicating any body hair in that phrase.

This most recent experience was an eye opener for me. Like I said, I continually struggle with body image-wavering between shaving and not shaving body hair and continually worrying about my weight. (Yes, that’s right, I am not afraid to admit that these negative thoughts still plague my mind and I would venture to say they plague the minds of many alternative women I know and love as well. We have to acknowledge them before we can eradicate them!) This last exchange with my mother however, caused me to critically examine many of the hurtful memories and experiences linked to my body and affecting my body and self image, confidence, and love. I concluded that these things were often keeping me from fully expressing myself, embracing all of my varied selves that are suppressed by attempts to feel comfortable, to not stick out or gain unwanted attention.

I also realized that having confidence in my own decisions and perception of my self was crucial to helping other women, like my mother, battle their own hang-ups and self hate which has been ingrained in every woman living in a patriarchal capitalist society that values them only as commodities and sexual objects. And more than ever, reflecting on my own struggle to love my body and myself and all women despite difference left me with an overwhelming drive to infuse this struggle into my everyday life, my social organizing, and to find new creative ways to bring radical feminism not only into radical circles but into the mainstream!

I strongly believe that along with the dominant patriarchal capitalist vision of women that continues to thrive in the mass media and to a large extent in academia and even in radical organizing, personal experiences in which loved ones or caretakers betray our trust and assert the power of these same oppressive structures over us represent a huge hindrance not just to developing and maintaining critical consciousness and love for ones body, self, and of others, but to a powerful, radical feminist movement among the many voices currently working for social change. I think it is vital that we confront the hurtful, damaging experiences that occur living in a patriarchal society and that we be vocal and supportive of each other in these efforts so that we can transform our hurt into action, our pain into change!

LOVE JO PHILLYSDS

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2 Responses to "Who Says Ugly’s not the new Beautiful: Some Thoughts on Body Image and Critical Consciousness"

Thank you for posting this! It’s a constant struggle for myself as well to have a positive body-image and not cave in to considering myself “obese” or “unhealthy” because of my weight, or unfeminine because of my leg hair, etc (you’re not alone!).

You’re absolutely right – we need to create a safe space in our communities for womyn to be able to be who they are without judgement or mistreatment based on gender or looks. Here’s to working towards that.

I keep trying to listen to my 16 year old self who told me, sick of the shitty feelings that were puberty, that hairiness, scars, big feet, etc. must be womanly because I am a woman.

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