I care about how I look. I care about what size I am (within a range), and that I have visible muscles, at least a little bit. I like feeling pretty. I like feeling strong and moving in a way that suggests I’m capable and athletic.
I have reached the point in my life that I mostly don’t care about how I look to YOU. I don’t care if I’m slender enough for nameless, faceless society (or a BMI chart). I don’t care if you think I’m pretty enough. I don’t care if you like the “tone” of my arms or if you think my muscles are too masculine. I don’t do it for you. I like the look of my arms. I do it for me.
And this is my first problem with the notion of being beach body ready–and Sam touched on this in her post already: it is defined by someone else–mainstream society or the media or Hollywood? It isn’t about MY values and preferences. These narrowly defined beauty standards, based on strict definitions of heteronormative femininity, white European body types and features, don’t represent the genuinely wonderful diversity of humanity. I care about how I look, but not in comparison to these narrow standards. Gratefully, somewhere along the way, I have internalized how arbitrary these standards are, and I’ve become ok with letting them go.
This isn’t to say that I don’t care what other people think of my appearance, but I am working on that being as tightly defined as possible. I care that my appearance is perceived as professional when I’m at work. I want to be recognized as safe and welcoming when I’m out in the community. How I dress, do my hair, and wear make-up impacts how people interact with me. Unfortunately, I have witnessed how my size changes these interactions, too. But I don’t maintain a smaller size because others approve of it more. I do it for me. In contrast, I absolutely wear make-up for other people, and I look forward to the day that I feel like I can put it aside and be treated with the same level of respect.
My other problem* with the notion of being “beach body ready,” is the implication of temporary status–I must do something to BECOME ready for the beach. Rather than simply showing up, at the beach. And this smacks of the obsessive, distracting, disempowering process of endless pursuit of body transformation that helps keep people from having the confidence to go about and live their best lives. I have no interest in pursuing temporary changes. It doesn’t feel good. It feels like punishment, restriction, and self-harm. Making lasting changes in lifestyle that impact my appearance have been empowering, and I would argue were necessarily empowering to “stick.” Who wants to spend the rest of their lives feeling less-than? Improving how I take care of myself has allowed me to feel stronger, more capable, more energized, and more in control. And I like how I look–yes, I’m smaller than I used to be (which is the least empowering consequence), and I’m also stronger, have greater endurance, and am more at ease in my own skin. No temporary pursuit of a “beach body” would have the same result.
I think it would be good if the feminist goal wasn’t to NEVER care how we look. I would like us to give each person the power to define for themselves how they want to look and to what degree it is important in their lives. Just as we want everyone to have the freedom to define success in other aspects of their lives like relationships, work, and family. The pursuit of an aesthetic is only oppressive if it is holding us back. I love that Cate discovered that she could change the stimulus (her clothes) and feel better about her body. And I agree with Tracy that many (most?) of us have work to do to heal the wounds of a lifetime of internalized body shaming, myself included. Part of that work for me has been making peace with the fact that I do have aesthetic goals for myself. I’m ok with working on it, as long as I am choosing the direction of “progress,” not society. Focusing on what I want for me, alongside having plenty of other goals to measure success by, keeps my self-talk pretty friendly. So, I get to decide how I show up at the proverbial beach, and in my opinion, I’m ready!
*My THIRD problem is that I live where the ocean water stays at hypothermic temperatures year-round, the air temperature rarely gets above 70 degrees (21 celsius), and the wind never stops blowing. So even in summer, you probably need a jacket.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .