Friday, 11 September 2015

Body Positivity Beyond Size

During the summer of 2007 I had a fleeting and intense friendship with the new girl in school. It was the kind of friendship you can only have in those early teenage years, desperately clinging onto each other like life rafts through the rough tides of puberty. We spent every day together, drowning each other in our insecurities. Occasionally sneaking out of the house at 6am to go running, or playing badminton for hours and hours in my garden, eventually crawling inside and feeding our exhaustion with mountains of biscuits and cakes.

What we were really doing, was coaching each other towards the eating disorders we were both teetering on the edge of. We didn't see the harm being done, or realise how toxic our friendship was. So relieved to have found someone else to wallow in the new pits of self hatred with. 

When I picture her now I still see one of the most beautiful humans I've ever known. Skin the colour of milky coffee and lips so glossy you could see your reflection in them. She never saw what I saw.

And although we shared the same body dissatisfaction that would tip us both over the edge, hers was tainted with something that mine never would be. After our days of frantic over exercising and binging, I would worry that we hadn't moved enough, hadn't burnt enough calories. She would worry about that as well, and then she would worry that she'd spent too much time in the sun, telling me about the bleach cream she had to erase the signs of a summer outside.

I thought about her a little while ago when I got an IG message from someone in response to a post I made about whitewashed beauty standards. They told me that they'd only just realised how big of a part their skin colour had played in their self hatred. Every time they saw a magazine page plastered with Eurocentric features, or a Hollywood TV cast without a single PoC, even as a background extra, they had learned to see themselves as 'other'. As less than. As not fitting the ideal that is so prevalent in our culture.

When a young black woman sees a reflection of herself on the cover of a magazine, only to realise that her role models skin is perpetually lightened into an indistinguishable shade of tan, what kind of message does that send?

It's the same message that is seeped into the seams of our society - that a persons worth is determinable by the gradient of their skin. Their beauty, and their place in the world beyond it.

By the turn of the 20th Century there was a clear hierarchy of personhood in place that was based on body typing. People believed that someones degree of civilization, and suitability for modern society could be understood by their physical appearance alone. Unsurprisingly, all things Eurocentric topped the scale as indicators of the most civilized persons, and at the other end, the people of colour, still existing in many minds as savage, less than human. 

The Venus Hottentot became a figure renowned for her blackness, and was inhumanely paraded in front of crowds who marveled at her features, paying to touch her full, rounded buttocks, and mocking what they saw as her savage appearance. Any white man known to be attracted to a WoC was shamed as unable to control his base animal instincts, and unfit for civilized society. 

Fast forward over a century and you can hear rap songs glorifying light skinned women. You can find rows upon rows of drugstore makeup brands whose darkest shade of foundation is 'bronze'. You can watch entire series' of popular television and not see a single non-white person, let alone a non-white person who also doesn't conform to societal beauty ideals of thinness and youth. How much has really changed?

Not enough. It's time we start recognising the whitewashing of beauty all around us. It's time we start making our body positivity intersectional. 

True body positivity isn't just about size. It has to reach the bodies who are taught that their beauty is diminished by the darkness of their skin. It has to reach the bodies who believe that their value is lost with the signs of aging, of a life well lived. It has to reach the bodies who are afraid to embrace their true gender, and gender expression, in a world that can't see outside of the binary. It has to reach the bodies who can't find a role model in the able-bodied people in the media and so learn to see themselves as inferior. It has to reach them. That is body positivity for all bodies.

I lost touch with my old summer friend. She moved away again and I moved further into the depths of my eating disorder. But I hope that she escaped. I hope that she recovered too. I hope she realised what a flawless goddess she is and is somewhere basking in the glow of the sunshine, unafraid of the cultural expectations that once held her down.

If I could say something to her, and to all the extraordinary women of colour out there, I would say this: you are beautiful just as you are. Not 'in comparison to', not 'if you just lost a few', not 'but this product can help you'. Just as you are. Never let any whitewashed words tell you otherwise.