Earlier this week Demi Lovato posted a super body-positive Instagram selfie captioned, "Learn to lurrrrrvveee yerrrrr currrrrvveees." Lovato has become a body positivity champion in recent years; photos like this one, along with many #NoMakeup photos and images of fitness inspo geared towards encouraging us to love our bodies and ourselves, frequently pop up on her Instagram feed. And neither is the pop star the only celebrity preaching body positivity: Selena Gomez's recent swimsuit photo, Kylie Jenner's weight-gain caption on Instagram, Lena Dunham's refusal to dwell on her size, and Kim Kardashian telling British Cosmopolitan that she loves her cellulite are all examples of body positivity from people in an industry where there is an emphasis on looks, people who have refused to succumb to all the pressures and standards imposed on them, and people who have reclaimed their bodies as their own.
Of course, celebrities aren't the only people in the world who face pressure to fit their culture's beauty ideals; in fact, all of us are affected by these standards. It makes sense, then, for people who are struggling with the way their body looks or feels to look up to someone they admire for hope, guidance, or a positive message — whether that's a celebrity, a parent, or someone else important in their life. Unfortunately, though, in my own journey to love my body a little more, I find these kinds of messages — these demands to "love your curves" and "love yourself" — to be unhelpful.
Every time I see a message telling me to embrace my body, my curves, my thighs, my arms, my stomach, or my chin, I feel worse about myself because I just can't seem to do it. Every time I see photos of girls who are considered plus size showing their skin, I feel guilty for not being strong enough to flaunt my skin myself. Every time someone tells me I look good, to stop worrying, and to eat whatever I want because life is short, I feel like a bad feminist for focusing so much on my outward appearance. Sometimes, it feels like no matter what I do, I'll still either hate my body, or hate myself for hating my body.
My body struggles began, unsurprisingly, around puberty. That was when I started to become more conscious of the pressures placed on women in many Western cultures — pressures to look thin, take up as little space as possible, and have literally no fat, excess skin, cellulite, or blemishes. I remember watching Miss Representation for the first time and truly understanding the ideas that were being presented, like how integral a role Photoshop plays in photographs of celebrities, how limited the portrayals of women are in our society and in the media, and how wildly unrealistic it is to be as thin and fit as we are told to be. I remember learning, a little later, about how beauty standards are socially constructed, how the patriarchy plays an important role in denying women the right to love their bodies and carry them the way they choose, and how much discrimination women face who don't fit these standards — standards which are virtually impossible to attain in the first place.
But I also remember waking up and realizing my stomach wasn't flat anymore. I remember not being able to fit into my friends' clothes, even though they were the same age and height as I was. I remember not being able to shop at the stores that were popular when I was in eighth grade because they only sold jeans in sizes like 00, 0, or 1. I remember being so embarrassed about my weight that I would deliberately buy clothes that were too big for me so I looked thinner in them. I remember always "sucking in" when I walked around. To this day, I have a hard time taking a full-body photo without either drastically pulling in my stomach or covering it up with something else.
Over the years, I have tried everything to feel better about my body, especially my not-so-flat stomach and my not-so-slender arms. I have tried intensive exercise, starving myself, decreasing my daily calorie intake, smoking cigarettes to kill my taste buds and decrease my appetite, going on all sorts of silly diets with weird names, drinking lemon water for a week, starving myself again, lifting weights every day at the gym, going on protein-heavy diets, completely cutting out sugar, completely cutting out carbs, caffeine pills, weighing myself everyday, taking supplements, starving myself again, keeping a food journal where I write down everything I eat, every calorie I burn, and every dress I try on that's too tight, forcing myself to exercise a lot and eat very little, and, yes, Demi and Selena, I have also tried looking in the mirror at what I've been told are my problem areas and embracing them.
But as I've gone on these endeavors, some of them wildly unhealthy and some of them totally fine, I've also felt a huge sense of guilt for doing this not necessarily to be healthy and happy, but to look thin, fit, and toned. I've felt like a bad feminist for not being confident in myself, for letting myself surrender to the very system I want to dismantle, and for setting a poor example for everyone around me, all while jeopardizing my health in the name of beauty.
The ultimate problem is that I constantly feel that there are two extremely oppositional messages being thrown at me: The first, from society, is "fix your body," while the second, from feminists (which includes myself!) who are critical of society and this kind of social construct, is "you don't have to fix anything, you're perfect the way you are, so love yourself." Since both of these things can be really hard to do, I would like to offer a variation on radical solutions to body positivity in a body-negative society.
Just as I don't want someone telling me whether I should or shouldn't shave my armpits, or whether I can or can't use the word "bitch," I don't want to be told that I have to love my curves because it's the only way to be liberated. Instead of telling women to love their bodies no matter what, I would argue that we should encourage women to embrace their bodies while also acknowledging that it might be difficult or feel impossible sometimes. Instead of putting yet another requirement on what makes someone a good or bad feminist, we should be more understanding about how complicated and nuanced the systems of patriarchy and oppression are. We need to acknowledge that self-love does not happen overnight — and it certainly does not happen just because someone else demands it of us.
I am all for body positivity, good role models, and copious amounts of self-love. I am also all for understanding that everyone's struggle looks a little different, and that everyone's path to self-acceptance and self-love involve different routes. I am not making the claim that every celebrity, parent, therapist, or friend is demanding that we love our curves, but I am asking the people who do to understand that it's not always something that is immediately within everyone's reach.
Right now, at 21 years of age, I'm still struggling with my stomach and arms; I still have a hard time feeling comfortable rocking a sleeveless dress or crop top; and I still consider taking all sorts of drastic measures to change my body. However, I can confidently say that I am much farther along in the process of understanding the way my body works, the clothes I feel best in, and the conditions that make it happy (not just the conditions that make it adhere to society's sense of "pretty") — and a large part of that is because of the autonomy I have over the life choices I make. As I get older, I also get better at making choices that come from my mind and my heart, rather than from the ridicuous or unfair demands of people (people whose business my body or mind isn't, anyway). I get help from support systems and role models that encourage me to think in new, flexible ways.
Like I said, I'm still getting to the place I want to be, but what's important to me is that in the process of getting there, I have become ultimately happier and ultimately more OK. As long as I keep up that upwards trajectory — as long as anyone who is struggling with body image can slowly work on understanding themselves in a way that leads to a positive outcome — well, that's what counts. In the end, it's the journey that matters.
Images: Mehak Anwar (5)