If there's somebody I want to teach me just about anything, it's probably a burlesque performer. Funny, smart, and oozing positive energy — all of the burlesque performers I've known are seriously delightful human beings who look at things with a critical and playful eye. So even though I was skeptical of watching a TEDx talk on body positivity, I was willing to give it a shot, knowing it was delivered by Lillian Bustle.
When it comes to body image, it can be easy to feel fatigued by the messages to "stop hating ourselves" or "love our body" or to "stop listening to what the mass media tells us is the beauty ideal." Yeah, feeling awesome about your fat body isn't easy, and I completely understand the power behind this simplistic messaging. When I was first becoming aware of the role media played in body image and also how frustrating it was to actively hate my body day in and day out, these messages were important in strengthening my resolve. I lapped them up, not being able to consume enough positive messaging that countered everything else I was being fed. I reblogged my heart out on Tumblr and posted these platitudes on my bulletin board.
But after being in the game for a while, this messaging seemed patronizing and condescending in its simplicity. As I was peeling back the layers, diving into the complexities, and starting to understand the overlapping oppressive systems that contributed to me feeling like garbage about my body, being told to "Find Myself Beautiful" started to feel like an insult, almost. To be honest, I was reluctant to watch this video, for fear that it — like so many body image-related conversations — be full of such platitudes. I understand they're necessary for some people to hear, but they're no longer for me. However, Bustle's talk was positively delightful and nuanced and left me feeling a bit teary. Here are nine important things that I think we can all take from this talk:
1. It's okay to call ourselves fat, if we are
"Nobody says to a tall person, 'Oh, you're not tall' because tall isn't a dirty word. We're programmed, as women, to tell each other that we're not fat... I'm 5'3", so I call myself short. I'm married, so I call myself a wife. I'm 240 pounds so I call myself fat. And I am beautiful, so I call myself beautiful. And I am all of those things at once."
2. No body positive spaces are a perfect utopia
Bustle admits that show promoters do sometimes favor the conventionally attractive, more traditional "showgirl"-type body. Even though burlesque is known to be somewhat progressive and transgressive, there's no space or person that's completely free of the influence of the dominant media paradigm about what's attractive. If we're not perfect, it's time to give ourselves a little bit of a break. Spoiler alert: None of us are perfect body acceptance experts.
3. Body image isn't just how we feel about how we look
It's easy to dismiss body image as "just" being about how we feel about our bodies and our appearances, but it's so much more than that. Body image encompasses how you feel about your body; how you sense and control your body as you move; and how you feel in your body. Our feelings about our bodies run deep and this is why talking about and encouraging good body image is important — it's about so much more than just feeling cute.
4. The number one "magic wish" for girls between 11 and 17 is to "be thinner"
As Bustle points out, she knew this already because she'd made that wish before herself. I think there are a good amount of people who have made that wish before, too — myself included. As she also points out, it's such a waste of a wish. Girls, and grown women, spend too much time and give so much head space to being thin. My magic wish these days would totally be never-ending tacos.
5. We still don't really know how cultural messaging affects the body image of women who aren't white, young and cisgender
It would make sense that women who are more marginalized in society face even more body-negative messaging. But there are not enough studies being conducted into these groups to really know how they're being affected. And this is completely backwards. So researchers, can you please remedy this immediately?
6. Size discrimination in the workplace is real and has risen 66 percent in the past 30 years
This is something that's totally alarming to me because size discrimination is often written off as "not being that big of a deal" or something that's superficial. Fat women are told that if they would just gain confidence, they'd be happier and more attractive — like having someone find you hot is the hardest obstacle to overcome. Bustle stated that fatter women sometimes receive 6.2 percent less pay than thinner women doing the same job. Size discrimination is very real and has tangible consequences.
7. Seeing diverse body types gives us "permission" to find them attractive
Bustle talks about a study wherein subjects were asked what body type they prefer and were then shown photos of varying body types in grey body stockings that didn't show the model's faces, as well as glamour shots of women. After viewing the photos, they were asked again. In both instances, a greater appreciation for diverse body types was vocalized when the subjects were shown diverse bodies. When certain bodies are stigmatized or portrayed in media to be "undesirable," we feel that finding them attractive is also undesirable and our desires become stigmatized. When we see these bodies in a positive light, it's almost like we're being given permission to find them desirable. That's why diverse imagery, not only when it comes to size, is so important.
8. The more we see one kind of body, the more we like one kind of body
Additionally, the subjects were found to prefer whatever type of body it was they were being shown the most. What we see directly impacts our preferences and notions of what we feel is "better" or "more desirable."
9. Being beautiful is a decision that we make
While it may seem especially relevant in burlesque, the conclusion that we're "worth looking at" (as Bustle puts it) or that we're gorgeous is ours alone to make. No matter the amount of outside recognition and validation we seek or receive, believing these things about ourselves is the only thing that makes them real.
Images: YouTube/TEDx Talks; Giphy