When I was in high school and cell phone cameras were still four-leaf-clover rare, my best friend carried her digital camera everywhere. Her favorite activity, while we were driving around, was to snap selfies of us "casually hanging out." This form of entertainment filled me with anxiety then, and I've been photo-phobic ever since. It wasn't the fact that I'd had an eating disorder that made me self-conscious — it was that my best friend was model-beautiful.
Literally. She was a Ford model.
Even with a seatbelt sashed across her chest, Shannon posed and pouted like it was her job. (OK, it was her job.) While I always looked stunned, half-awake, between-blinks, casually-hanging-out Shannon looked coy, flirtatious, caught-off-guard-but-totally-hot.
"Do we always have to do this?" I'd protest as Shannon scrolled through the photos.
"JoAnna," she'd say flatly. Then she'd adjust the interior lights.
That's because living women do actually look like celebrities — after all, celebrities, Photoshopped or not, are real people, too. And body envy in real life is a real thing that has to be addressed.
In her book Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight — and What We Can Do About It , journalist Harriet Brown explores the many-headed monster of body-size fixation. Yo-yo dieting, demonizing foods, even buying into ephemeral Big Pharm-endorsed weight reduction procedures: Brown shows how our culture's inherent weight bias is cultivating a population of chronically dissatisfied bodies. And Brown is insightful and probing in much of her examining, but when she writes about beauty and how it is manipulated by advertisers, I bristle.
Maybe the secrets and tricks of the fashion industry — Photoshop, clothespins, makeup — have become common knowledge, and they're not something that most women are concerned about replicating on a daily basis, or living up to. But when Brown writes, "We know intellectually that no living woman actually looks like Beyoncé or Katy Perry or Kate Moss," I take issue.
That's because living women do actually look like celebrities — after all, celebrities, Photoshopped or not, are real people, too. And body envy in real life — beyond celebrities — is a real thing that has to be addressed. I'd know: It's something I've had trouble stomaching for a long, long time.
In photos, Shannon is an expert at the leg-forward, hand-on-the-hip pose. But regardless of pictures, in person, no makeup, the morning after a high school sleepover, Shannon always looked that good. Skinny-skinny, shiny hair, flawless skin, endless legs.
I started out always envying Shannon, but after a while, I trained myself to mostly observe her flawlessness with almost clinical detachment — I had to, otherwise I would lose my best friend. Otherwise, there'd be no one with whom to drink liters of Diet Coke while screening American Pie and other awful teen movies. There'd be no one to whom I could vent about how my parents didn't get my eating disorder (and only made it worse). And I wouldn't have anyone to pass notes to for eight periods of school, either. It was in what I wrote to her, anyhow, where I could tell Shannon how much I wanted to be her. Her retort: "Don't envy me."
It shouldn't have surprised me. She didn't condone the way I idolized other people. Lane in AP History? Shannon deemed her "mousey." Deanna, the class valedictorian two years up from me? "A chipmunk." I don't know what Shannon would have said about my first babysitter, Sophia, who had wavy black hair that always looked beach-tousled in the way that I loved.
I don't know what she would say about the way I stared at the cheekbones of the poet across from me in workshop as recently as last year. Still now, there are the dozens of women at the gym whose bodies I've envied — the woman on the yoga mat right next to mine last Wednesday: her arms, ropy and strong, look way better than Beyoncé's.
There are the dozens of women at the gym whose bodies I've envied, the woman on the yoga mat right next to mine last Wednesday: her arms, ropy and strong, look way better than Beyoncé's.
This problem is... a problem, and something needs to be done about it. As the conversation about our country's weight obsession inevitably becomes more nuanced, maybe more time needs to be spent promoting self-acceptance and cautioning against comparison, whether the ideal figure in your mind's eye is a celebrity or the girl in the photo next to you. We're so used to the grass always being greener when it comes to our self-image — even when your best friend isn't a model.
Beyond understanding that images that influence us don't only come from "expected" sources like media portraying celebrities, the other change we need to make is how the images we see influence us. We're not going to avoid being exposed to beautiful women any time soon — be them of Katy Perry or of our friends — so we need to be cognizant of what our definition of beauty actually is, and make sure it's broad.
In Body of Truth, although Brown acknowledges most of us long to be attractive in the eyes of others, she suggests "looking inward for that sense that we're OK, we're attractive enough, we fit in." Brown writes that she's "freer to appreciate what [she] finds pleasing about [herself], whether it's socially valued or not. [Her] Jewish nose, for instance, is a perfect replica of [her] adored grandfather's nose, and therefore looks good to [her]."
Thanks to her genetics, someone like Shannon may look like what I've always constructed beauty to be, but now maybe it's up to me to change that narrow definition. Will I ever stop comparing myself to her? I'm sure as hell going to try. But the effort I would want to spend telling her how much I want to be her is much better spent wanting to be me.