This post was written by Anna Rabasco, an intern at Maine Family Planning and a senior at Colby College. Anna is passionate about reproductive rights, watching documentaries, and eating cheese.
The topic of body image is all over the blogosphere and magazines, and last month, Colby College joined the conversation. At the recent Body Image Narrative event, students from Colby submitted stories about their personal experiences with body image. The event provided a look into how body image is being talked about, albeit within the context of a small liberal arts college. Many of the stories involved messages of struggle and hope. Here is a quote from one of the narratives:
The calories needed to be burned. The food needed to stay away. The voice needed to be happy. This cycle went on for a few months….There is a lot left that I need to work through, a lot of healing that still needs to be done, but I am strong now.
Many of the narratives contained similar themes that come up in this quote – a struggle with disordered eating and the journey to overcoming that struggle. While these narratives were powerful and the response from the audience was overwhelmingly positive, there were certain audience members who expressed their disappointment with the lack of diversity in the stories. Out of twelve narratives read, only one was from a male viewpoint. Most of the stories had white, cisgender, able-bodied authors, and focused on eating disorders, rather than positive stories of body image.
So why did this event attract the stories that it did? Why did certain groups of people feel comfortable sharing, while others didn’t?
I think that the answer resides in what kinds of stories are associated with conversations on body image – when magazines and blogs discuss body image, who are they talking about? If everybody with a body has body image, then why are we only hearing about eating disorders and white, cisgender female bodies?
In order to make this conversation more inclusive, we can start by doing a few things:
- Get comfortable talking about the ways in which negative body image manifests in men’s lives. Discuss the unrealistic expectations on men to “bulk up” or be tall and make an effort not to contribute to those unrealistic expectations. For example, speak up when someone equates masculinity with a certain body type—remind those around you that a person doesn’t have to be tall, muscular, or bearded (for example) to be a man.
- Recognize that our culture’s standards of beauty often exclude people of color, gender non-conforming people, and people with disabilities. This is especially prevalent in mainstream media. Next time you are headed to the beach, avoid the People or Cosmo magazines and try out Ms., Bitch, or Bust magazines.
- Support positive body image, and don’t buy into the cultural tendency to consider it “bragging.” It should be okay for your friend, sibling, partner, or anyone else to say when they are feeling good about their body, without incurring an eye-roll. In fact, we should encourage people to express appreciation for their own bodies more often!
- Remember not to value beauty and physical appearance above all else. While celebrating all types of bodies is important, it shouldn’t come above valuing personal talents, skills, attributes, and quirks.
Ultimately, everybody needs to be included in these conversations about body image because body image is connected to many aspects of life, such as mental health. For example, poor body image has not only been linked to eating disorders and low self-esteem, but also to anxiety, depression, and suicidal feelings. It’s time to make body image a conversation for everybody, because the consequence of ignoring certain voices extends beyond the momentary and the physical. We have the power to change the body image conversation and change people’s lives, for the better.