"My body's made of crushed little stars": A Body Image Journey
The journey toward evolving and seeing myself past a mere reflection of other’s perception of my body has been a process that is, in some ways, still ongoing.
I think everyone starts out with the honest and beautiful sentiment that their body is purely and majestically their own, untainted by outside influences and objectives. The body is another extension of the self as wondrous and mysterious to explore.It is a vessel through which we can reach our heights and deepest dreams. It can simultaneously reveal so little --and so much--about a person. Our bodies can range and are unique, but most importantly, they are our own. There is no perfect body or ideal existing image. Our bodies are as we see them, take care of them, and bring them within the framework of society and the world. Society can be prejudiced and unforgiving, perhaps with a deep and sinister desire to control, or rule with superiority, over specific bodies.
The first time I started becoming more aware of my body in a different context as I began to bode into my adolescence was by my educators and instructors. I was an AP Honor Roll Student with all A’s yet my teachers had began to pull me aside about my attire. I noticed that they weren't pulling any other students outside. It was specifically me.
I felt dejected in my beautiful blue skirt that my single mother had selected with her excellent taste and paid for, with what little money she had earned, as my white elderly teacher lectured me about how my style was “cute, but too cute for school.” I gave her no response and simply looked at her because I hadn't worn the skirt because it was “too cute,” but because my mother had bought it for me to make me feel wonderful. I had simply forgotten about it going about my day as a student. However, in the middle of my exam, this teacher felt the need to pull me aside for a very humiliating and condescending lecture about how my body, my body, was causing a ruckus and offending her. But even then, I could see through her, that her claims were nothing but merely a reflection of her own prejudices projected upon a young girl. In fact, it was an even bigger lesson because I realized that it would not always be your educators that would instill pride and belief in you. Sometimes, you would that have to do it for yourself.
Unfortunately, these strange encounters did not end there. In the 8th grade, my AP U.S history teacher was a white southern male, who defended the confederate flag among other problematic things. I was at the top of my history class with the highest grades. There was a baseless rumor going around that perhaps these grades were earned because the teacher had a crush on me. At first, I laughed it off with my friend but I became more irritated when it developed into an attempt to discredit my own work and achievements. I witnessed a similar occurrence when one of my good friends was teased for being the star of the high school’s cheerleading team. Rather than acknowledging his obvious talent and skill, he was teased for not behaving in a traditionally masculine way.
Another bizarre occurrence was the amount of petty contempt I received from other women. My reputation as the “school slut” was manifested largely in part because of these girls who very cattily spread false rumors about me and my apparent sexual activities. It was an interesting situation to observe because I witnessed how other young women could help facilitate and be agents to a toxic male-dominated standard that labeled women as “less than” for their sexual, or lack of, sexual experiences. Many of the girls that were outwardly rude, or claimed to dislike me, were ones I had never even spoken to.
These experiences were all very new to me and I didn't know how to handle them other than to ignore them however I slowly began to rebel in more obvious ways. I began to wear form-fitting outfits and bold colors. These outfits were fun to wear but they also gave me a sense of control over my own body image, regardless of how people chose to misinterpret it.
In fact, it gave me a sense of strength as I went about my business and proudly held my head high. People could say what they wanted to, but at the end of the day, it was my body and my life.
Eventually, this rebellion began to morph into a kind of indifference as I realized more and more that these were not the kind of people I wanted to be associated with anyways. And simply by focusing on and making myself happy, I mitigated the effects of these rumors and slut shaming. I grew and found supportive friends who shared the same interests.
I've carried that attitude into my adulthood. These experiences gave me plenty of insight on the oppressive structures and double standards that still exist in our world. In some ways, it equipped with the tools I needed to navigate it.
However, I still struggle with and question the hypocrisy and dichotomy of concepts such as modesty and chastity. What a person wears and does with their body isn't anyone's business but their own. Yet there are so many outside influences that desire to determine how a woman should behave, and inhibit her body and the world -- residual ideas from a time with strict gender constructs and power dynamics.
And even more recently in my college years, I have experienced the effects of women who loudly proclaim themselves feminist yet participate in slut shaming and upholding patriarchal values. For instance, sharing details of another's sex life that never involved them, being oddly vindictive, and a person trying to ban another person from a co-op for having previously slept someone they were now friends with benefits with. It sounds like something straight out of medieval saga except that this misogyny still exists even within circles and communities that claim to be “woke” and “anti-oppressive.” I experienced the type of male who claims they're about women's liberation and attend these events yet manipulate and mistreat the women in their lives. I'm very skeptical of this performative type of feminism and ally-ship in which an individual may claim this to achieve a kind of status yet ultimately will do what is convenient for them, self-serving, or even act outright misogynistic and fail to address it. It's also disconcerting to see that even in these communities, people may still believe or protect a white male over anyone else. It's more difficult when you're on the receiving end of it, trying to defend yourself against a whole horde of lies or when your voice is deliberately shut down or ignored. I also experienced how easy it is to discredit a woman's perspective or value certain persons over others. However we must continue to address these things otherwise people will continue to perpetuate these toxic behaviors, whether they claim to be against them or not. Many of these people will refuse to recognize their own mistakes, and discrimination, and resort to gaslighting. Communication and fairness is key and a constant practice.
I feel like I’ve personally chosen to not waste my time and would only hope that these kinds of people will grow up and evolve past the harm they spread to others.
Moving to a bigger city also exposed me to a lot of catcalling. These unwanted comments as I was walking down the street or riding the bus ranged from frightening to disgusting. Initially, I was too fearful and appalled to say anything but over time, I have become very vocal and direct.
I have only come to value myself more than ever. I understand the value of an individual’s contribution in this world and of my own. I am immensely grateful for all of my gifts-- my voice, my mind, and my body. I have a very deep understanding that while I am flawed, as we all are, other people's perceptions of me do not diminish my worth. They simply cannot.