"Augh, I need to get back into my work outs, I look like a friggin' balloon!" said my friend who is, if memory serves, a size 4, as a few of us hung out at my place for drinks one night. I looked her over. Her body was, as far as I could tell, perfectly toned, and the only reason she had gotten "out" of her workouts was because of an injury. The men in the room rolled their eyes. This wasn't an uncommon thing to come out of her mouth, but no one wanted to be the one to fight with her to say that she was gorgeous, and even if she wasn't, it shouldn't matter again. God knows I had tried enough times.
Still, it pained me to listen to someone I love hate on their body like that, and I had an idea, one that took some balls. "Look at me," I ordered, leaning back on the armrest of the couch, facing her so she could get a full view of my figure. "I think we can all agree that I am a motherfucking babe," I said, gesturing to my body with one hand before flipping my hair over my shoulder dramatically.
They laughed, because women are taught at a young age that we will never be pretty enough, and so a woman bluntly declaring herself attractive is always seen as a shocking (as well as vain and arrogant) thing. Still, I was among friends, I figured I was allowed to be a little bit vain and arrogant. Besides, I've never been shy that I am bold enough to actually like my body (mostly), even if I'm not supposed to. "You are," she agreed smiling.
"Now look at you," I said, gesturing to her. Her smile faded a little as she began to compare her slender curves to my dramatic ones, "You're saying you're fat and ugly and flabby, but you're way smaller and more toned than I am," I yanked my shirt up to grab my stomach and wiggle it at her, demonstrating the difference. I waited to see if she was with me. She seemed to be, so I went on. "So when you say you're fat, what the hell does that say about me?"
Her brother, who was on the other side of her cheered me on. I suspect he had tried to talk her into better self-esteem more than I had. She looked horrified. "No! That isn't what I--but you're gorgeous!" she gushed.
"Damn straight," I said without missing a beat, "we just went over this. Motherfucking babe--and you are, too. Besides," I flopped off of the armrest and onto her, "even if you weren't, you're awesome people and your inner beauty would shine through," I flashed a brat grin and she laughed again, but for once I felt like maybe my words had made a little impact.
It is common for women to all get together and bitch about our bodies. Then everyone is supposed to reassure each other that no no, you're beautiful, shut up! This is a normal bonding activity for women. For all I know it may be for men, too, but I've yet to encounter it, so guys feel free to chime in in the comments on that. If I thought it was a matter of sometimes having to remind and reassure people that they're awesome I wouldn't take issue, but I don't think it is.
We encourage ourselves and each other to dwell on what we look like, and not only that, but the parts we like the least. When you spend so much time dwelling on the bad things, they become bigger, and when other people chime in and say "YOU'RE AWESOME!" you've spent so much time dwelling on your big nose and crooked teeth that you're convinced that is all people see when they look at you. That "YOU'RE AWESOME!"? It just sounds like pity. They can't really mean that, who thinks someone who has a big nose and crooked teeth is awesome? And if you try to game the system by skipping over the physical compliments and go straight to "but you're smart and funny!"? That's even worse; that's like saying "You are so ugly I can't think of anything nice to say about your looks", even if what you mean is "I think you are so much more than your looks." Hell, I think that about everyone, and I sometimes want to grab them by the shoulders, shake, and scream that, but that almost never goes over well.
It is yet another situation where no matter what you do, you lose. You play along and you contribute to a society that tries to (and sometimes succeeds) in reducing a woman to her appearance, and holding her to impossible ideals of beauty. If you don't, you run the risk of alienating and hurting people you love. So, I will make a modest suggestion. When you find yourself about to start bitching about your body, stop and pick something you like about it instead. Yes, I am suggesting that when you want to complain about your weird teeth and big nose, stop and think about how bitching your cleavage is--or whatever fits for you and your relationship with your body. When you catch your friends talking trash about their bodies? Say the negative self talk is really getting you down, and ask them to say something nice about their bodies (and have something ready to offer, as well) instead.
It may seem like such a silly thing, but it's such an insipid, toxic thing which we let run unchecked feeds into so many bigger, more serious ones. These are the seeds that we plant that blossom into eating disorders or self confidence, which would you rather foster?
You can find more Erika on twitter @SnappyErika