To the acquaintance who suggested I was bulimic because I sometimes went to the bathroom after lunch;
To the mother of a high-school boyfriend, who asked me when I was going to get my pigeon-toed walk fixed;
To the girls who mocked the way I spoke, likening me to the pedophile from Family Guy, until I left a party in tears;
I'm sick of the way that self-loathing, and all the heady analyses it incites, has seeped into every facet of civilisation. This new era of hyper self-criticism is not limited specifically to women, though they are the predominant victims. People from all walks of life can be found second-guessing individual features their appearance, noticing something about their body, and then, in the split second after, trying to make a judgement of something that does not demand it: "Wait, is this 'good' or 'bad'?"
And it's hard, isn't it, when fashion changes too fast to even keep up with the ideal body? The 80's was the age of the heroin-chic look, which requires no explanation. Those of my generation are probably more familiar with the very carefully constructed trope of exoticism, where cookie-cutter white girls were supplanted by cookie-cutter Hispanic and black girls. It's not my place to say whether this shift was a good or bad development for minority women, because I don't have the lived or academic experience to be sure, but I can appreciate how hard it is to be perceived as exotic. There are so many extra clauses to accommodate. For women, it's generally a need to be top-and-bottom heavy, but with a tiny waist. Blowjob lips are a plus, but hairlessness is a prerequisite.
Though I'm undoubtedly the palest family member of my Mediterranean lineage, I can assure you this on behalf of my extended family: these specifications are near-impossible unless you've already conquered the genetic lottery... and even then, you'd have to solicit a little help from your local beautician to get the hair thing under control.
It seems nobody remembers that give or take some decades, a century, and a totally different geographical location, (since Australia was not yet the land of bush-pigs and convicts), it was chic to be pale and rotund. Just as Rubens. Pale skin exemplified a charmed life, where one was not required to labour in the sun. To be large was testament to your wealth, because you weren't starving.
But centuries change, trends change, and people internalise shame for things that should not make them feel ashamed. This live in an era where even "real beauty campaigns" make people self-loathe further. Why else would these shoots comprise entirely gorgeous models with flawless skin, teeth and hair who dance around at 170cm and size twelve, harbouring the pretence that they represent the stretch-marked, mole-smattered, flat-arsed masses.
Nobody questions the purpose of nasty, paparazzi-style analysis of other peoples' bodies much anymore, either. It's become a standard that we've accepted and internalised as part and parcel of humanity. There's a far more sinister, below-board bullying that pervades social interactions between millenials. It doesn't have a name, but it's easy to spot: a subversive critique of another person's appearance or mannerisms under the guise of friendly banter. It's a way of blindsiding someone, leaving them self-conscious, winded, and pathologising their every feature. I've been on the receiving end... and boy, it hurts.
Teenage me was a dancer, and extremely skinny despite an overzealous habit of devouring two or three king-size Crunchie bars a day. I can't count how many times people asked me whether I had an eating disorder to my face. Admittedly, some of those people might have been jealous and just wanted to bring me down a peg, but what irked me the most about these remarks was that if I objected to having my body policed by someone else, suddenly the fault was mine. After all, I "couldn't take a compliment".
Having friends who have grappled for enormous chunks of their lives with eating disorders, I would never want to perpetuate somebody else's shame-cycle. To be dressed down for objecting to someone being overtly rude is just beyond belief. And yet some people are so offended by somebody else taking offence to their offensive statement. Do you see the predicament here?
I was lucky to have an amazing mother, who kept my self-perception in check by reminding me that my body would eventually "catch up" to the size it was meant to be. If she hadn't, I would have been horrified to one day wake up on the wrong side of 50 kilograms. It's scary to imagine becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-loathing that other people so desperately hoped I would be. I'm not arrogant enough to think that I was above falling into such a snare, because although the constant critique of my body was upsetting, it fed into itself. What I didn't expect was how deeply self-conscious I began to feel when it... well... stopped.
I didn't throw the yoke of scrawniness off until university, which should have been exciting, right? Except that there's something about those negative feedback loops that makes you feel like that even if you don't agree with them, you should. I tuned into seemingly subconscious thoughts that fluctuated between "I have boobs and a waist, hurrah!" to "blergh, my thighs rub when I walk" and "my arms seem to be the only ones on earth that don't look slimmer when I do that stupid hand-on-hip pose for photos." Like that was the sum total of what my body was capable of. What a sad thought process.
It's so strange to think all I ever wanted were curves, but that when I got them, the line between "ideal" and "fat" seemed to blur in my silly little mind. I joined a gym (fun!) and a had brief flirtation with calorie-counting (less fun), and long before my weight shifted, something else did: my self-perception. Because this body, with or without a box-gap, is the only one I've got. I've realised that pathologising perfectly normal parts of my body is exhausting, not to mention self-indulgent. And for all my research into stupid fitness regimens and diets, I've realised that none of it matters if I have enough self-esteem to refuse to buy into it.
So it comes down to the only question that actually matters: can I be happy the way I am? I think I can.
I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a voice in the back of my mind that had spruiked its discontent at the idea of me accepting myself. But I try not to heed it anymore, because it's a product of the world around me. It's not what I really believe.
When I realised all of this, I made assertive, though truly terrifying, changes, such as flat-out refusing to compare my body to those of celebrities anymore. I seldom weigh myself, and value my body instead by how I confident I feel when I play dress-ups, and how bendy it will let me be in yoga classes.
But my reckless pursuit of self-satisfaction did not end there.
My lifelong project is to prune myself of poison. That means cutting out self-loathing thoughts and cancerous connections as they arise. If I'm being cheeky, I'd call it trimming the fat. After all, what's more detrimental to your self-worth than people who make you hate yourself?
So to the person who pointed out flaws I didn't know I had: get ssssssssssstuffed. With as big a lisp as I can muster, my left foot pivoting inward, and both my middle fingers raised high.
Author's note for the curious: In the year or so since writing this post, I have shed 8 kilograms, a viper nest of friends, and a boy... and I've never been happier.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.