body positive

Overcoming a Culture of Ideal Body Types

Author: Mary Grace Donaldson, Real Life Stories

We all know the feeling. You’re looking through a magazine, or watching footage of New York Fashion Week wondering just how a model’s body can “look like that.” It defies all logic, and what you know to be healthy, but you still wonder if this is the person you “should” want to look like.

In today’s world, where we are bombarded with images of seemingly “ideal bodies” — on magazines, on billboards, on television, you name it, — there’s no sugar-coating the fact that it’s tough to be a size that doesn’t fit the mold, whether you’re “too fat” or “too skinny.” And while this issue is stereotypically associated with women, men are not immune to criticisms about their bodies from those who have no idea what it’s like to be inside their bodies.

I’ve always had a body that didn’t, and still doesn’t, fit that “ideal,” and like many of my peers I spent some of my formative years wondering what I “should” look like. Why the pants that were sold at Limited Too fit me, but the tops never seemed to work. And why no matter how much I wished to, I’d just never have a body like Britney Spears… my body is just not made that way.

Overall, we live in a society that discourages body positivity and encourages going after that ideal, even if it’s through what could be perceived as subliminal messages transmitted via advertising and even through clothes that aren’t accommodating to certain sizes.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Today there are activists out there fighting for body positivity. Reality TV star and highly empowered feminist millennial Whitney Way Thore won’t rest until her voice is heard, and she’s granted the same rights and privileges as her thinner counterparts. Plus-size supermodel Tess Holliday inspires fashion-forward thinking in the hopes of bringing a more “fun” wardrobe to plus-sized women, particularly through her clothing line. And plus-size model Ashley Graham has appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Vogue, SELF, and Cosmopolitan magazines, just to name a few.

But even those with star power aren’t immune either. Social media critics who think they’re doctors take every opportunity to remind Thore and Holliday about just how much they “need” to lose weight. Graham couldn’t even find someone to design a dress for for the 2016 Met Gala. And if you’ve ever read any interview with any of these women, they encourage loving your body, and not “being unhealthy.” They work out on a regular basis. And they would never stop or discourage their fans from losing weight if that’s what they decided to do.

If those with some degree of star power aren’t immune to seemingly unfounded criticism (in some ways they’re more liable but in other ways they’re less so), those of us who are living their lives in bodies that are not deemed acceptable by society are by no means immune to the remarks, stares, and microaggressions.

Retail stores
Upon entering stores that are geared toward thinner people, I can feel the confused stares from the sales clerks, as though I set off an alarm. As though I’m stepping on a rug that activated an alarm I could only title the “Fat Person Alert.” It’s important that I don’t let the hostile, confused stares rattle me in the moment — but these are experiences I’m not going to forget quickly, and I know I’m not alone in such experiences. But it’s also important to remember that a person of any size has a right to enter any store. News flash: the stares are completely unnecessary. Most of us with non-conventional body types know which stores carry clothes that fit us, and which ones don’t.

Dating sites
Almost all dating sites ask for your body type. Who cares? If you truly have a connection with someone, what does it matter what your body type is? They also try to create euphemisms for “overweight,” a la MySpace’s “More to Love!” option. We don’t need a euphemism for “not acceptable,” if that’s what you’re trying to say. But you shouldn’t let the euphemisms stop you from joining sites if that’s what you want to do. And if the right person is meant to find you on a dating site, the right person won’t care if you have “more to love” (or less, for that matter).

The workplace
If you’re overweight, no one’s surprised when you take the elevator instead of the stairs. When you’re sweaty. When you’re tired. When you pick a lunch that’s less than healthy. Your weight is clearly the reason — it can’t possibly be for a different reason altogether. While it’s difficult to not be self-conscious in that spot, your work ethic, however, will take the spotlight away from your size — whatever that size is. And if your size does take away from earning that respect that you do in fact deserve, it’s probably time to find a new workplace.

The media
You’re “not supposed to care” what the media portrays, right? But if we’re being honest, it’s easier said than done, and it’s unfortunately natural for us to compare ourselves to these unreasonable ideals set forth by Hollywood — in fact, it’s downright difficult not to. Do whatever you have to not to give in, and to be happy with yourself, even if that means going on a “media fast,” in which you purposely don’t expose yourself to images of ideal bodies.

Well-meaning friends and family members
Sometimes, your friends and family truly mean to encourage you with passive-aggressive comments about your body. Spoiler alert: they don’t help, even though they are not delivered with bad intent. “Imagine what you could look like if you lost weight!” Because I’ve never thought of that. How original! While it’s truly difficult not to care what others (especially others who play an important role in your life) think of you or your size (hello, size 22 over here), they are toxic to you if they don’t understand that there’s more to you than a number on a tag hidden in your clothes. You could be any size and be a great person, or you could be any size and be a horrible person. What ultimately matters is how you treat people.