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The Danger of a Single Ideal Body

This post is written by Caitlin of Fit and Feminist.

Recently, I came across a blog post by a personal trainer in which she explored the one of my least favorite terms as applied to women’s bodies – the word “bulky.”  Any weight-training woman is familiar with this term, as it is often the first thing other women will say as their reason for refusing to lift weights.  The idea is that lifting weights will lead to the development of big muscles, and the development of big muscles means a woman will no longer be beautiful and will instead be manly, unattractive, scary and doomed to a sex-free, love-free life.

The comments on the blog post illustrated this line of thought clearly, as woman after woman expressed dismay that she had taken up heavy lifting and was horrified to see that her body had developed muscles.   Some even clearly articulated their belief that in doing so, they had crossed a very bright line in which women were meant to be weaker and protected by the men they loved.

The women had set out in pursuit of the slender, compact body most often displayed by female celebrities, and instead they found themselves becoming muscular.  It didn’t matter that they were also stronger and that they were most likely healthier, with tougher bones and a stronger heart.  What mattered was that they were bigger.

As I read through those comments, I reflected on a TED talk given by writer Chimamanda Adichie in which she spoke about the “danger of the single story.”  She described growing up in Nigeria and yet writing stories in which her blonde-haired, blue-eyed characters ate apples and played in snow.  Every book she had read was written by British authors about British life, and as a result she hadn’t realized it was possible to write books about her own life.  She thought the only way to be worthy of literature was to be a foreigner.

I thought about her words and I realized that we as a culture had accepted the single story of the “ideal body” so thoroughly that no room remained for alternate definitions of female beauty.  Take the comments on the aforementioned blog post.  The “ideal female body” – a slim figure with breasts that aren’t too big and thighs that don’t touch and a butt that isn’t too flat and nothing that jiggles too much – is desired with such single-mindedness that the non-cosmetic benefits of weight training are dismissed without a second thought.

Muscles.I use the example of women and muscles because that is what I, as an athletic woman who lifts weights, am most familiar with.  However, the story of the single ideal body manifests itself in breast augmentation and pumping parties, in gimmicky diets and weight-loss gadgets bought on installment plans, in firming creams and treatments meant to zap cellulite into non-existence.  Fortunes are spent and made in pursuit of the “ideal body,” and yet the only thing that has happened is that the ideal has become even more unattainable than ever before.

It’s not hard to see how this happened, either.  Look at our culture, at the bodies represented on television and in magazines and in movies and in advertising.  Just as Adichie only thought she could write stories about white children in snowy climates, we as a culture have trouble envisioning a standard of beauty that is not tall, thin, able-bodied and European.  Even when we do embrace someone who does not fit that standard, we tend to be very self-congratulatory about it, thus undoing whatever progress was gained by reducing that person into little more than a symbol of our open-mindedness.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of a world in which the only people who are considered beautiful have a specific body type, a specific kind of hair, a specific tone of skin, a specific shape of face.  I find such a world inhumane and cruel, bordering on insane.  Plus, as an aesthete who revels in beauty and sensation, I also find it dreadfully boring.

Consider the natural world, with all of its abundance of living things.  Think about flowers. In my neighborhood in Florida, I can count the following: birds of paradise, hydrangea, plumeria, magnolia, jacaranda, orchids, Confederate jasmine, black-eyed Susans, coreopsis, spider lilies and dozens more whose names I don’t know.

Few of us would look at all of these flowers and say that, for instance, orchids are the only beautiful ones.  Sure, we might have a preference, but most of us would not take our preferences to mean that all other flowers are ugly, and that we ought to rip rosebushes and tulip bulbs out of the ground so they can be replaced with even more orchids.

Yet this is what we do with our bodies – we say that all bodies that do not fit that single ideal are ugly, and that all bodies must fit that single ideal to be worthy of respect and care and affection.   We say that if you cannot force yourself to fit that ideal, then you must hide yourself behind shapeless clothing and maybe even consider never leaving your house because you are too revolting to be seen.

How is it that we can so easily recognize beauty in all of its millions of manifestations in plants and animals, yet our definitions narrow radically when it comes to human beings?   Why do we value diversity in all things but scorn it in ourselves?

It’s clear to me that the expectation that our bodies must be a certain way to be feminine and beautiful is an artificial one, one that is informed almost entirely by the culture in which we are raised.  The bad news is that it is a powerful expectation, filled with privileges for those who conform and punishment for those who do not.

The good news is that we can resist it.  We can resist by refusing to hate our bodies for the way they look.  We can resist by catching ourselves when we think harshly about other people’s appearances.  We can resist by refusing to judge other people based on their bodies.  We can resist by calling out those who make those kinds of moral judgments about other people.  We can resist by refusing to support media outlets who uphold such narrow beauty standards.

We need a radical redefinition of what it means to be beautiful in this society.  We need to pry open the definition so it includes all bodies, whether they are tall or short or average or slender or fat or muscular or disabled.  Enough with this idea that beauty must somehow be exclusionary, like it is this finite quality that loses its potency as more people gain access to it. Such a view of beauty is blind to the core, irreducible truth about us, which is that our existence is nothing short of a miracle.

We do not blight the world with our cellulite, nor do we somehow diminish it through our sagging flesh.  The natural order is not upended by our muscles, nor does the universe gasp in horror when it sees our bellies.  We are just as much a part of the brilliant multiplicity of the universe as the flowers and the birds and the stars in the sky.  We are beautiful because we exist.  We are beautiful because we are.

Caitlin Constantine is a writer, editor, zinester, blogger and athlete based out of Clearwater, Fla.  She writes with the goal of pushing back against a culture that defines femininity as weakness and that seeks to deny women their physical power.  Her writing has appeared in Bitch and Creative Loafing, and she blogs at fitandfeminist.wordpress.com.

Body Image Warrior Week Participants:

Already Pretty. The Beheld. Decoding Dress. Dress with Courage. Eat the Damn Cake. Fit and Feminist. Not Dead Yet Style. Rosie Molinary. Virginia Sole-Smith. Weightless.

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8 Comments to The Danger of a Single Ideal Body

  1. February 29, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I just watched a really horrible two minute video about a celeb’s workout routine with a famous female trainer who actually said these words, “no woman should use over 3 pound weights.” The ignorance of that statement is so multi-layered, it would take a BOOK. Of course, the most obvious ignorance: we all have a different capacity for “bulking” and we will all bulk according to our genetic encoding. No bigger, no smaller, and really? Regardless of the weights. Thus the “need” for steroids by some competitive body builders. To spread crap like that as real information makes me so angry. We are so ignorant about the basics of our bodies to begin with…

    And yes, no ideal type. I am a dancer. I am slender but I was raised to hate my thighs for being “too big.” The other day another VERY slender dancer friend whose body type I have always admired (she is longer and leaner…) said to me, “I wish I had your thighs…”

    MY GOD. We need to stop this.

    • mmarzipan's Gravatar mmarzipan
      February 29, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

      I just love this comment Christine. It is SO true that we are always longing for what someone else has. I had a funny moment with my sister the other day where I was looking at what I thought was a picture of her, and said “you have such awesome calf muscles” to which she replied “uhh.. that’s you in that picture.” Fascinating.

  2. February 29, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    What a beautiful post. I’m so glad to have come across your blog, I think you will be quite an inspiration and source of strength for me!!

    • mmarzipan's Gravatar mmarzipan
      February 29, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Mary! I’m so glad that you enjoyed Caitlin’s post. xo

  3. Annie Goddard's Gravatar Annie Goddard
    February 29, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I found this really interesting to read. I’ve recently started to work out at the gym. Mainly because I want to get fit. Also because I have a longstanding back injury that I want to improve. I’m I weight about 17st 13lb and I’m a good 5ft 11in. Yeah, I could stand to lose a bit of weight – I look like I less as I’m so tall. But I get annoyed with myself – look at what I’ve just written I could stand to lose some weight. I’m guilty as the next person when it comes to being conditioned by society. I stopped going to the weight loss clinic at my GP practice because I was tired of getting shit off the nurse because I wasn’t losing weight quickly enough for her – God knows I was trying. Conversely, now I’m hitting the gym or using the treadmill at home. I’m in better shape than I have been for a long time. My clothes are certainly loser – yet the scales tell me I haven’t lost any weight. I complained to one of the gym assistants about this. She looked at me steadily and said, ‘the important thing is that you’re building a strong, healthy body.’ Which about sums it all up, really.

  4. February 29, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Great read. I especially loved the sentence, ‘We do not blight the world with our cellulite, nor do we somehow diminish it through our sagging flesh’ – so true!

  5. March 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    So many great thoughts here Caitlin.. thanks. Sometimes I honestly think we have gone insane… I know that my own eyes love lots of variations on beauty (even during moments when I am being mercilessly critical of my own looks) and find the attempts to fit-the-mold extremes terrifying.. Stepford..the ultimate betrayal of our self expression and how beautiful that can be. I think most of us have had the experience of seeing a woman who is truly embodied- not necessarily conforming to whatever society thinks is the right size or features or whatever.. but she has something else. A presence.. it’s energy and she is fully taking up space in a powerful and lovely way. I know that when I see this I am so moved by it. I want what she has.. I want everyone to see what she has and find a little of that for themselves instead of chasing some false-self version of presence.

    I too use the flowers metaphor. It’s so much easier to see these concepts in nature than in ourselves and they are powerful..Is a rose more beautiful than a peony? We get that they each have their own gorgeousness.. we don’t consider comparing.

    Our society is truly crazy on this issue, and we have a long way to go. But it has to go deeper than the physical piece. Healing the parts where we feel so disconnected, so distressed and shameful or guilty or ugly inside..And then see exactly where we start using “code” of body hatred to deal with those feelings.
    It’s not simple and heaven knows it ain’t easy… but it’s worth it.

    With love from my heart to yours..

    Lisa

    http://www.IntuitiveBody.com
    Simple Sacred Solutions for Living Beautifully In Your Body

  6. March 1, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Wow–this is just so well written. Thank you for articulating this!

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I’m Mara Glatzel. I’m an intuitive coach and writer. I guide women home to themselves and teach them to create lives brimming with supreme self-care. read more
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