“What’s that there?” A grandmother points to her granddaughter’s belly. The girl is large. This is not an insult. She is very tall, very strong looking. Everything about this body exudes capability and health. For a group of women sitting in a nursing home, I am surprised that the body under scrutiny is that of a young, thriving girl.
Her mother looks and calls the girl’s stomach a spare tire. The girl turns pink but stays quiet. “We all have one,” the mother says. She is obviously embarrassed for her daughter, but does not defend her. I watch,uncomfortable. I know what it’s like to be the fat girl. The mother then redirects the conversation. “Do you like her shirt? It’s new.”
I said nothing. And I am sorry.
For women, there is nothing new or surprising about being critiqued for our weight, and yet I was still amazed when I watched it happen to someone else. I don’t remember when or how I came to struggle with my body, or how I came to hate it, but for many women, it becomes just a part of growing up. And in this one moment, I understood how insidious and normalized this behavior was. I could tell that this was not the first time this girl had been critiqued for her size. She blushed, and cast her head down, a sign of shame. Somewhere along the line she has learned that her body is shameful and not worth defending. To her, it was acceptable for her body to be pointed at and ridiculed in public, and that she is supposed to take this abuse quietly.
We wonder why girls as young as 10-years-old worry about their weight, and we blame the media. However, we fail to realize that we inflict just as much, if not more, damage on these girls. You may feel like you don’t have anything to do with this. You may think that you would never dream of saying these things to a child, and you may sincerely believe in all the lessons the body positive community has taught. However, that just doesn’t cut it.
It felt like a slap in the face when I realized that I had watched this whole exchange in silence. I had watched something that I morally disagreed with, but did nothing. As I watched the scene, I felt that I should speak up, defend her, but I didn’t. Part of me realized that my silence was the result of social rules—knowing that it was considered impolite to interrupt someone else’s conversation, but another part of me realized something much sadder; that my own internalized body hatred kept me quiet, kept me passive. I know what it’s like to be that girl, to be teased and joked about. I knew that deep down there was a part of me that believed that I still deserved to be spoken to like that, that I didn’t deserve to be treated with respect. A despondent piece of me tried to say that this was just what girls like she and I had to live through.
Everyday I have to reaffirm my body to myself—to tell myself that it is good, capable, and sometimes even beautiful. I wish it was something I didn’t have to do. It feels like an obligation, and sometimes it feels like I am lying to myself. It was with a sense of guilt I realized that my silence was only perpetuating this cycle. More and more young women would grow up and see their bodies as burdens. I should have looked out for this girl. As a feminist, I should have disregarded social codes and my own self comfort to reach out to her. It could have been a small gesture, something as tiny as saying “I think you look great.” This is an element of my feminism that is often hard to execute. The realization that I have to put myself out there sometimes, that people may think I’m being rude. However, I can’t even imagine the good it would have done me as a young girl to have someone tell me I looked fine the way I was. For so many girls, our compliments are pointed: you’d look good if you did this, if you lost a little you’d look amazing.
I have to remind myself that if I want women to be happy in their bodies, I have to do my part, no matter how small.
Nothing is ever accomplished by silence.