The word “feminist” is a very polarizing word. A lot of women don’t like to identify themselves as feminists because of the negative stereotypes of being dogmatic, sexist, petty and hypocritical that go along with the word. For me, being a feminist means that I recognize discrimination against women exists, that I believe all humans should have equal rights and opportunities, and I want to work to improve women’s status in society. Now, you’re probably saying, “Great Melissa. Now what does this have to do with body image?” Well, let me tell you.
A distorted body image, self-criticism, and the pursuit of “perfection” were all passed down to me from the women in my family and was further influenced by the unrealistic images manufactured by the mass media. Growing up in this environment, I didn’t stand a chance to emerge unscathed, with self-esteem intact. The women in my family were constantly dieting, tracking calories in food diaries, lamenting weight gain, celebrating weight loss and sizing other women up. For as long as I can remember, I had an unhealthy pre-occupation with my body and food. This pre-occupation manifested in all sorts of dangerous methods to obtain thinness: diet pills, colon hydrotherapy, fasting, calorie restriction, self-induced vomiting and excessive exercise.
In college I took a course in Feminist Theory where we would read and discuss pieces of feminist literature about beauty culture and how it does not evaluate one individual’s relative worthiness, but rather acts as a system that afflicts and controls women as a group. These pieces and discussions helped me to evaluate why I was doing the things I was doing and why I placed such an emphasis on an arbitrary number on the scale. I realized I was wasting a lot of energy calculating the calories in my breakfast when I could be doing more positive things. I began viewing exercise not as something needed to “work off” what I ate that day, but as something to keep me healthy. Exercising made me feel like a strong woman!
This combined with my new more educated, empowered mindset helped me view ads and other sources of media targeted at women a lot differently. I stopped reading magazines focused on dieting and pleasing men; and started reading magazines like Bust that included women of all shapes and sizes, that focused on empowering women instead of tearing them down. When a female in my family complains about her body or starts talking about the latest diet she’s on, I don’t encourage her. I tell her I’d rather talk about something else. Feminism has taught me that women are equal and are to be celebrated. Because of this, I no longer view women with envious eyes wishing I had their body; I appreciate the diversity in women’s body types. Instead of spending time counting calories and making up exercise plans, I spend time volunteering at an animal shelter. Not only is it fun, but it makes me feel like I’m putting positive energy back into the world.
Although feminism provides some protection from body-image problems, it isn’t a cure. I admit that I feel healthier and better about myself when I’m thinner, but I’m not striving to reach an unrealistic weight. I still have days when I look in the mirror and am less than happy with what I see, I’m definitely my own worst critic. How I handle these feelings is a lot different now than when I was growing up. Feminism has offered the ideological tools to examine my feelings and my relationship with my body. It has raised my consciousness and led me back to myself, in love.