During my first six months in Jamaica, I put on twenty pounds. I would be lying if I said that hasn’t bothered me immensely. The growth of two pant sizes resided in the back of my mind, interfering with every decision I made, from what to eat – or if I’d eat at all – to whether I’d go swimming with my friends at the beach. I grimaced at my reflection when I dressed every morning, and felt my self-esteem slip lower and lower.
At the same time, I began to witness a movement among women on the Internet. It was becoming more common for girls to discuss their distaste with their bodies, in the hopes that they might inspire change. Upworthy.com hosts a slew of videos covering this topic, ranging from the damaging effects that flawlessness in advertising has on young girls, to inspirational messages about loving yourself regardless of your size or body type. A department store in the UK recently put out a catalogue featuring regular women (as opposed to size zero models), and Dove is constantly pushing for natural beauty.
More importantly, my friends were talking. It was becoming easier for them to accept who they are – body image and all – and were pushing for all girls come to this same understanding. They shared stunning videos of women reciting slam poetry, or time lapsed images of what photo editing can really do to a model before getting plastered on a billboard. In my newly acquired pant size, I joined the fight.
As I tried to come to terms with my new weight, I began looking at the women around me. In good company, Jamaica is a country where their women are preferred a little thicker, and where, generally speaking, women don’t have body image concerns. In fact, when caught complaining about my additional weight, I was often told that I was too skinny when I first arrived.
My favorite line came from a robust woman who heard me whine that everything I eat goes to my rear, and that I wish I could lose some of its roundness. Her response? “No no, if you lose that, you lose everything!”
Then a few weeks ago, a miracle happened; I lost weight! Suddenly, my pants were all a little loser on me, and I wasn’t so repulsed with my reflection. I was elated. Ecstatic. There was a new spring to my step. I felt a little more like me again. And I realized…
How wrong was that!? I’ve been me the whole time, but only at a certain weight did I feel good about myself. Never mind my intelligence; never mind my altruistic commitment as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The only thing that seemed to matter was that I was down a pant size. And then I thought… what would the women in Jamaica think if they heard my self-debasing mantra?
So I asked them.
Over the last three weeks, I spoke to as many women as I could about this “trend” in America and other consumerist countries. I explained how companies that sell beauty products or clothes use photo-editing techniques on their models before they publish images on billboard, magazines, and commercials. I detailed the ways in which this image of flawlessness is being pushed on women of all ages, and I discussed the haunting fact that girls as young as twelve are ending up in the hospital, malnourished, with eating disorders, and despising their bodies.
I then asked them what they felt when they heard this, and what they would want to say to these young teenagers. If they had a daughter, I asked them to consider how they would react if it was their child who suffered from this kind of personal debasement.
Many of the women said they were appalled, but mostly sad. They lamented that it’s not fair what the industry is doing to them. My Supervisor, a mother to three boys, commented that girls at twelve are impressionable, and if she’d had daughters, she’d urge them to love themselves for who they are.
The three most common responses included:
- “You need to love yourself for who you are.”
- “It’s more important to be healthy than beautiful on the outside. Real beauty comes from within.”
- “God made you this way for a reason.”
Then I shared this image.
Loud and outspoken by nature, these Jamaican women hollered! There were whoops, and cries, and, “Laad almighty, why dem so skinny???” I talked to fifteen women and every single one of them said they’d like to feed the Victoria Secret models. After they got over how scrawny the models were, they admitted the girls also looked sickly and ill, like “air-brushed cancer patients,” as one woman put it. Certainly not healthy, which is what they thought when they looked at the Dove women.
Finally, when the shock of the picture had worn off and their exclamations noted, I asked them what their final thoughts were. The general consensus was that beauty comes from within, and that it’s more important to be healthy than skinny. A few said they would pray for the twelve-year-olds with eating disorders, and those without children promised that if they ever did have a daughter, she would be raised to believe that she is beautiful, regardless of her outward appearance.
I consider myself a sensible individual, one that often doesn’t buy into something as trivial as a number on a scale. But even hearing these things – the respected opinions of these Jamaican women – isn’t enough to change my attitude of my self-image. It is not an easy fix. Decades upon decades of strategic marketing, promoting an image of flawlessness that is impossible to achieve, has engrained in women of all ages a self-fulfilling prophecy of personal discontent.
We live in a revolutionary new world; one where technology and Internet communications allows us to join forces and fight battles we otherwise never dreamed of fighting. The idea of positive self-worth is certainly one that should be high on our list. If we’d all just take a moment to look around, we’d see that evidence of manipulation is insurmountable. We’re at the mercy of fashion tycoons. They dictate how we feel about ourselves by force-feeding us a standard of perfection we could never attain. And they’re single handedly destroying generations of females.
Consider this: if children learn by observing their parents, and their mothers regularly shame themselves, then what kind of message are those mothers sending to their granddaughters?
How can we save ourselves?
I believe that we can take a cue from some wise Jamaican women, and we can treat ourselves with the love and respect we deserve, and teach our daughters to do the same.
5 Inspiring Videos that have been April-Approved
Amy Poehler on Body Image:
Girls & Body Image on Common Sense Media:
Dove Real Beauty Sketches:
TED Talk with model Cameron Russell:
Slam Poetry – Fat Poem: