My father is gay and a gay New York male to the core. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this subset of person, gay New York males tend to be just a little bit concerned (consumed) with body image and style. I have often marveled at the fact that it is nothing short of a miracle that I never developed an eating disorder or any serious body image issues. Don’t get me wrong, I am conscious of what I eat and how clothes fit me. I know what features are “not my best” (upper arms) and what kind of skirt length is best for my rather petite (short) height. I know all of this because my dad told me. He told me pretty much every time he saw me. And I don’t mean simply when I arrived for my five day visit and we hugged, assessing each other, I mean every single morning and every evening when a change was required for an event.
Perhaps because of this or perhaps just because I was a teen and every teen rebels against their parents, in my youth I insisted on wearing only ill fitting thrift store clothes. I pierced things and styled my hair with cuts that were “not right for the shape or length for my face”. That would show him, I thought! Ha! And it did sometimes evoke the desired reaction. Either that or it evoked a shopping trip, something I could not resist though I’m sure I acted disgruntled about it. It took me a while to find my own style because although I am independent I am also impressionable. Now I would say that the clothes I wear and the way I present myself to the world is a total blend; sometimes new, sometimes vintage, but generally always the correct size.
I suppose the reason that I have always felt pretty okay about my body, despite intense scrutiny and sometimes criticism, is that my parents also taught me how to be assertive and though they often challenged me, I was totally and fully loved and supported. As a result of this I grew up reasonably confident and secure in the internal and external variables that when added together made me. I knew that there were things I could control about who I was and how other’s perceived me and that there were things that I couldn’t. There were things I could change about the way I looked and things I couldn’t save by surgical intervention, something I thankfully have never considered.
So I have been lucky. Really, really lucky to cruise through life not necessarily thinking I had anything fantastic going for me physically but without any debilitating doubts or insecurities. I choose those words carefully and I don’t use them lightly because for many people, especially women, their relationship with their body is just that, debilitating. Conflicted, limiting, and always, always in their awareness. I figured this out as a youth in gym locker rooms and at sleepover parties and I hear it from friends and clients as an adult. I hear it and I hear it again and again and again. For some women it’s their whole body that they hate. For other’s it’s a specific part: breasts, thighs, you name it. There is virtually no external rhyme or reason for this perceived flaw and the feelings come from women of literally every shape, size, weight, color, and proportion. The twenties seem to be an especially rough age for women, probably because that is when they are most sexually objectified and also when society would deem them “on the market” for an eligible man to partner up and settle down with.
We all know that women (and this is true to a lesser degree but certainly for men, too) are held to unrealistic and impossible standards of beauty. Even the images of already young and thin models are airbrushed before we see them. We look to our stars, the most visible people in America, as role models and try to intimate their values. We see that they are chosen for their looks. That further they have chosen to profit from these looks and to cycle the money they earn from doing so into their looks again through clothes, makeup, skin and hair care products, surgery. We look to sex workers and pornographic performers as examples of how we should look and behave sexually. These are the ways many women learn about their bodies. These are the images we see and the messages we get and it really is impossible to escape from them. We expect impossible things from ourselves and sometimes male partners expect them from us as well, weakening our self esteem even more.
Some women are able to mitigate some of the effects of this exposure because they are also receiving positive and healthy messages from their parents or other important figures in their lives. And because they are are also exposed to the bodies of real women and real women talk to them about what it means to be female, the good and the bad. The women I have met who have the strongest sense of self esteem and are the most content with their looks are these women. The women who shed their clothes and go into saunas and tubs with other naked women whose bodies are fat and thin, hairy and hairless, scarred, tattooed, puckered, top heavy and pear shaped, all of it. ALL of it. The human body is amazing. Totally and completely awe inspiring. Every single one of us has one and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to be hidden because it doesn’t look like what someone somewhere decided it was supposed to because of their own issues.
I’ll get off my soap box and take my leave now. But I share this because I fully believe that no matter what age you are, you are never to young or too old to start loving yourself, body included. So let your upper arms see the light of this beautiful summer sun like I am, let your jiggling bottom and thighs wear shorts, show your pigeon-toed feet off in short skirts and sandals. Show the world, show the women young and old, that you are PERFECT just the way you are. And so are they.
Alyssa K. Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II, The Dance of Therapy
First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog on October 14, 2011.
Body Insecurities, Eating disorders, This is my advice to you.
by Pauly C.