A Woman’s Worth is More Than Her Body

I was 12 years old when a grown man told me with a wink that he noticed my chest was “starting to fill in”.

Like most 12 year old girls, my changing body was a confusing and frankly upsetting thing, and this comment threw me into a tailspin of panic and shame.  As my skinny, hairless child self was morphing into this lumpy, bumpy stranger with unpleasant hair growth and smells, the last thing I wanted was people NOTICING, most especially not a man who seemed to be taking a proprietary interest in my breasts.  I decided that action was necessary to curb these unwanted changes and attention.

So I started my first diet.

My personality being what it is, I threw myself into this project with gusto; I read every diet book I could get my hands on, studied nutrition labels like they were the gospel and carefully documented every calorie that passed my lips in a daily food diary.  I stopped eating eggs because they were high in cholesterol.  Yeah, I was 12.  I bid adieu to sugary drinks forever and weighed myself religiously.

All of my hard work paid off and my lumpy, bumpy body soon began to resemble the scrawny 10 year old I had so shortly before been.  At which point a grown man told me, as he appreciatively placed his hands on my jutting hipbones, that he liked my “new, skinny body”.

Yeah, I was 12.

Thus began my war against myself, against this body that I didn’t know, against the unwanted attention it seemed to garner for me.  Dieting became my on-again, off-again lover, and there was no trend I did not try.  I felt the burn, cut the fat, even ate rice cakes like they were a treat and not a disgusting waste of empty calories.

But my body remained a stranger to me, someone I didn’t understand and who didn’t seem to understand me at all.

Starting college and being away from home for the first time, food became my go-to comfort source, and the fabled “freshman fifteen” ballooned into something closer to the “freshman fifty”, to this day the heaviest I have been in my life with the exception of pregnancy.  Yet I saw at school people of all shapes and sizes who seemed able to inhabit their skin with a comfort and grace that entirely eluded me.  Heavy me was just as much of a disgrace as thin me was; I felt somehow wrong, no matter what the format.

My weight stabilized and normalized my last two years at school and for a while after graduation, until an unwelcome sexual encounter again triggered the “dieting response”.  In retrospect, I realize that my solution to unwanted attention tended to be to try to become less noticeable, to take up less space.  Not easy when you stand 5’ 11”, but nobody tried harder than me.

Moving to L.A. served to put all of my “imperfections” under a harsh spotlight; when a boyfriend told me that my body was “just okay” shortly before dumping me, I decided once again that action was necessary to curb this kind of undesired attention and response.  So I went on a diet.  And also began exercising compulsively.

And wouldn’t you know it?  All of my hard work paid off again as I whittled that 5’ 11” frame down to a mere 115 pounds!  Boy, did I show him!

Except for that I was starving myself to death.

Fortunately, my roommate and dear friend saw what was happening and quickly helped me get the help I needed.  Now I had to keep a daily food diary to bring to the hospital for weekly weigh-ins.  One day, as my nutritionist and I were walking the corridor after my appointment, I saw another young woman who was in this wing for the same reason as I; I wistfully remarked that I wished I was as skinny as she was.  My nutritionist took me by the shoulders and said, “But you are.”

I couldn’t see myself.  I couldn’t feel my hunger.  I only felt my inadequacy.

It was a slow climb out of the hole where I viewed both food and my own body as “enemies”.  Food was a betrayer that made my figure bulk up proportions I couldn’t live with; my body was a neon sign, attracting all kinds of unsavory come-ons and propositions .   I never felt safe in my own skin; trying to disappear seemed like a logical response.

And I was one of the lucky ones.  My strong support system of friends and family watched over me and encouraged me while allowing me to be right where I was.  If they had tried to shame me out of my behavior, I don’t like to think what might have happened.

But I survived it.  In middle age, I have a stronger, healthier body than I did in my 20’s.  I am more comfortable than ever in “taking up space”.

Yet even to this day, I am amazed at how comfortable people generally feel talking to me about MY body, or how much I eat (a lot) or how much I exercise (frequently).  This communal idea that a woman’s body is public property seems to be so deeply ingrained in our society that we can’t escape it.  This is what creates a culture where people believe women should be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, or should not drink alcohol or wear certain kinds of attire if they don’t want to be raped, or that “women’s work” should be done dutifully with no thought of reward.

And the truth is that we still live in a world where the way a woman looks is undeniably her greatest asset or liability.  Beautiful women will always have doors held open for them, literally and figuratively, but often at a steep price.   Being beautiful or not can end up feeling like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition.

When I hear about pre-pubescent girls dieting, or see them dressed in fishnet stocking with short-shorts (yes, I did) I wonder if we have made any progress at all in teaching our children that a woman’s body does not exist for the aesthetic or erotic pleasure of others.  If I had been a 12 year old who dressed provocatively (I wasn’t), would that have served in the minds of some to justify the comments made to me by a grown man about my breasts or my “new, skinny body”?

When do we as a society take responsibility for preaching the sexualization of girls and women through virtually every mass consumed media outlet available?

There is no freedom for women in a world where how we look and the shape of our bodies remains of primary concern.  Body shaming is insidious in our culture, but only the tip of an enormous iceberg lurking below the surface of the female psyche.   When the questions “Who am I?” and “How am I?” are constantly subjugated by the driving query “But how do I look?”, there is little space left for peace, let alone self-actualization.

My body was my shame and a huge distraction from my authentic self for so many years that it is my sincere wish that young women growing up today suffer this experience for not one second, though I realize this is virtually impossible.  Now I have entered the era in my lifetime where society has conditioned me to believe I should feel ashamed of aging, and that my “value” has been drastically diminished by the normal wear and tear on my face.  So the question remains—when will my internal value outweigh our culture’s external valuation of my physical appearance?

And why is this even a question?

 

 

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project

Posted by

I am Editor-in-Chief at OTV Magazine. Find me also at "Your New Best Friend" (http://karapostkennedy.blogspot.com/), The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kara-postkennedy/),The Good Men Project (https://goodmenproject.com/author/kara-post-kennedy/) and Twitter (@kpk_newbf)

14 thoughts on “A Woman’s Worth is More Than Her Body

  1. Why is it even a question? I don’t have a satisfying answer, one that doesn’t leave a bad taste. It would help if so many grown men didn’t feel entitled to make the kinds of comments and gestures you received at age 12, or worse.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a young adult writer, I have written many fictions of teenage girls (and boys). Between the ages 12 and 21, both girls and boys have both fears and concerns about their body. Most of it is internal. But many are very concerned about appearance and how they look among others, either adults or those their age. Like the opening line in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Adolescents and teenagers are going through the same thing.

    My observations of high school students at school events such as football games or high school performances as well as the local food court at the mall opened my eyes. To many, appearances are important! They sometimes have to have the right shirt, shorts, pants, leggings (ladies). All of the colors have to match. If something is wrong, they feel ostracized.

    Very good essay, Kara.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I, too, suffered many, many, many years of severe anorexia. I remember being admitted as an inpatient in a hospital when my weight reached 78 lbs. I burst into tears when another young woman was admitted because she was thinner I. I was shocked when my nurse pointed out that the other woman was nowhere near as thin as I was. I am now in my mid 50’s. Although I no long suffer from anorexia, I suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. My days of any type of physical activity are long gone and I am housebound and sometimes bed bound. This, of course, has caused me to become out of shape and a bit overweight. Still I feel the need to explain to everyone why I am overweight. I wish I could get beyond that. I owe no one an explanation and I am not my body. Anorexia haunts me still.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a struggle because we have been taught to identify with our outer selves more than our inner selves in terms of self-worth. Anorexia hijacks your brain in a way people who never suffered from it can’t ever truly relate to or understand. But the primary thing we need to focus on, apart from simply caring for our health and well-being, is remembering that our value is not tied to the shape of our bodies. Thank you for sharing your experience, I know how hard that can be.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this post so much. Thank you for sharing your experience. My turning point was when I was about thirteen and my out-of-state grandma called. As usual, my mom passed the phone over so I could say hi. Instead of asking how I was or how school was going, she asked how much I weighed.
    To this day, I feel guilty for consuming beverages that are more than 100 calories and when I indulge in a heavy dessert. My middle-aged brain knows these things won’t make a difference in moderation but echoes from my younger years remain. I honestly wonder what it’s like to enjoy a milkshake without guilt.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. yes, the fear of/vilifying of certain foods is my “hangover” as well…there are still things I just don’t eat because I will not (emotionally or intellectually) enjoy them, no matter how delicious. The positive side is that I did develop a robust enjoyment of healthy eating and yoga and I do feel better in my body now than I did as a young woman. But it does make me wistful, especially around the holidays, that I can’t just “indulge” without feeling like I am doing something “wrong”.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your post is wonderful. To this day, despite my knowing it shouldn’t matter, I allow the judgements of others about how I look affect me. For me, it began at home where everyone had the right to comment, shame, or praise my weight or what I wore. Even now, writing this, I want to tell you that I actually looked great. See. Deep down, it still matters. Thank you for your eloquent post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is startling that we still have this “ownership culture”, where our bodies are like a public thoroughfare–strangers touching the pregnant belly, catcalls, and disparagement, all part of this collective idea that we are everybody’s business instead of our own, and not in a good way. I am glad you know that you looked great. I hope you were/are able to enjoy feeling good in your own skin even a little bit. I don’t think there are many women who consistently do, unfortunately. I appreciate your comment.

      Like

  6. I just finished a book by Lee Child that touches on this topic. The novel is called “The Midnight Line” and it is a Jack Reacher story. In this story, Reacher is helping twins. The first twin he meets is stunningly beautiful. He is helping her and a retired FBI agent that is now a PI search for her sister. While the three are hunting for the twin sister in Montana and avoiding trouble and getting killed, Reacher has an epiphany when he figures out why the twin is in hiding and avoiding everyone.

    The twin they are hunting went to West Point and served five tours in the Middle East. Soon after she left the military as a major after nine years in the Army, she had been wounded by an IED and was awarded a Bronze Star.

    The military files on this twin are redacted and Reacher can’t find out what kind of wound it was or what happened that caused the wound.

    When he has his epiphany, he asked the stunningly beautiful twin, who never served in the military, that wants to find her sister what it feels like to be so beautiful – what it does to the way she thinks.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Hi Kara, wonderful post. And I really have no good reason for writing, because I know you are not looking for solutions from others. Your solutions are all inside you, it takes finding them. But having said that, I think there is a solution on a societal level, one that could work if women could stop taking advice from men (of which I am one, doing exactly what I am advising against!) There is a book called “Black Consciousness in South Africa” that is attributed to the most under-rated Black activist in the history of black activism. It is attributed to Steve Biko, but really it is the testimonial evidenciary interplay between “Bantu” Biko and a white prosecutor at the trial of 9 fellow activists before the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and before the murder of Steve Biko while in the custody of the South African police. I will not say anymore about the book, except that it is a “revolution in waiting” for someone who is downtrodden (all women) brave enough to decipher its secrets and put them into action for all others similarly downtrodden (all women). Biko is the real but unacknowledged hero who caused the downfall of apartheid. Could you be the real and acknowledged cause of the uplifting of all women? I can only hope so.
    (And should you be willing to accept the help of a man who is totally on the side of women “should you need it, but hopefully not,” just let me know. I promise I will not take a position of authority or direction, but act only to help you discover any secrets you may miss uncovering in this book. It truly is the best guide to successfully accomplishing a revolution” I have ever encountered.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a brilliant essay and I feel exactly as you do. When will the world value something other than appearance indeed? And I ditto the comment above too.
    Wouldn’t it be fab if we could start a revolution to explain what the real world should ‘look like’?
    New follower.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for following! I do think the revolution has begun, however slowly and imperfectly. The tide will slowly turn as we support each other in exposing the culture of abuse.

      Like

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