Radical Beauty

by | February 22, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

by Sarah Jensen

As a teenager, I worshipped the pages of Seventeen and Y&M, later graduating to Glamour and Marie-Claire. I even read Cosmo for a while, in an effort to learn all the dirty sexy secrets that weren’t included in the sex-education curriculum at my Catholic high school. As I flipped through the magazines, one flawless model after another stared back at me from the pages.

While finding my footing as a woman, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Linda Evangelista were strutting and stomping down runways; they were beautiful. They were perfect.

As a slightly pudgy thirteen year old, I looked nothing like these models. The more I compared myself with them, the less beautiful I felt. I started wearing makeup daily with the hopes that maybe it really was Maybelline. 60 minutes of layering, shadowing and blending produced results with which I was seldom thrilled. I assumed, however, that the makeup was an improvement over what hid underneath.

Though dissatisfied with my face, I reserved the most hateful thoughts for my body. I’d been a fairly average-sized kid, but puberty hit and I filled out before many of the other girls in my school. I began to feel like a fat troll compared to the elfin-sized popular girls. I wasn’t overweight then, though an unhealthy diet, often fueled by self-hatred would soon change that.

Both my parents worked full-time, so my brother and I spent a lot of time with babysitters. During the week, my best-friend’s grandmother watched us after school. She was a tiny, round, Haitian woman whose eyes always smiled. She spent most of her time in the kitchen, singing in Creole, dancing and cooking. Her specialties were fried chicken, fried potatoes, heaping plates of rice, and something we nicknamed “deep-fried deep fry”, which was basically deep-fried dough sprinkled liberally with salt.

Back at home, my meals could usually be described as “convenient”. By the fifth grade, I was packing lunches for myself and my brother. They usually consisted of luncheon meat-filled Wonder Bread sandwiches,  a heavily processed fruit-based snack, candy bars thinly disguised as granola bars and occasionally an actual piece of fruit which was destined to shrivel and die alone, untouched and unloved. On the bus-ride to school, I often traded my sandwich to another girl whose own lunch was a can of Dr.Pepper.

Kraft-Dinner, frozen pizzas, hot dogs, diet Coke and French fries all made regular appearances in my diet, courtesy of both home and school. My body gasped for nutrients while it drowned in calories. After school I rarely had energy to do much more than lie on the couch and watch television, or sit in bed reading. Among the mess that cluttered my room, the aforementioned stack of fashion magazines could be found. They were always there for me, like a hip but hardened older sister whose very existence assured me that, if I tried hard enough, I too could be beautiful.

Being beautiful meant being thin. I combed my magazines for diet tips, grasping for an easy way to transform myself. Inside the pages, an occasional cautionary tale would be told about a girl who had become too obsessed with being thin and had developed anorexia or bulimia. I wished I had enough self-control to be one of these girls. I would starve myself for a couple days, but then give up in defeat and soften my feelings of failure by giving in to the warm embrace of fatty, sugar-laden food. Other times I would try to make myself vomit, but rarely succeeded.

As the pounds increased over the years, so did my unhappiness. By the time I entered high school, I was miserable. I had lost interest in learning, except the few subjects I loved, such as Art and English. In most other subjects I tried hard enough to avoid failing, but not hard enough to excel. School felt like hell and home soon did too, as my parents’ marriage unravelled. On particularly dark days, I’d swallow a handful of Aspirin before having a nap; part of me hoped to never wake up. I also started cutting myself with a razor, sliding it back and forth against my wrist until an angry, stinging welt would appear and begin to bleed. It felt somehow cleansing and the external sensation of pain helped numb the pain I felt inside.

High school ended ten yeasr ago, but my feelings from that time still resonate. My weight has see-sawed over the years, but always remained in plus-sized territory. I hate myself less, but I can’t honestly say I love myself all the time either. My self-confidence has grown, however, with my realization that our society’s beauty standards are unattainable.

I grew older, and my interest in fashion magazines slowly waned as I tired of lusting after clothes that I could neither fit into nor afford. I began looking online for images of women who looked more like me, and while doing this I discovered plus-sized fashion blogs. Gabi’s blog was the first I discovered, soon followed by Frocks and Frou Frou and Good Stuff Only. Watching these women flaunt their curves helped me gradually awaken from the trance that mainstream media had put me under. I began to realize that beauty was so much more than the narrow definitions prescribed by the fashion and cosmetics industries.

I broadened my search and found women around the world, at every size and age, who radiated beauty. I found Stephanie Zwicky and Les Pitreries de Vanoue from France, A Curious Fancy from India, Weesha’s World from Dubai, Jennifer from Sweden, Rebequita Rose from Spain, Fat Nurse from the UK, Blog to be Alive from Belgium, Stiletto Siren from the U.S., Gazel from Canada, the women from Advanced Style, and many others. They became the sisters that fashion magazines could never be; instead of cruel older sisters who dangled happiness just out of my grasp, I now had sisters who seemed to hold my hand and help me feel less alone.

Putting yourself out there for the world to judge takes a lot of courage, and I commend these women for doing it. It has been argued that they promote an unhealthy lifestyle, but I think the lifestyle marketed by fashion magazines is much more harmful to society. At any given time, 70% of Canadian women are on a diet. Up to 5% of Canadian females will develop an eating disorder (a number that may be much higher, as the illness is often kept secret) and as many as 20% of those afflicted will die from complications– a mortality rate higher than any other mental illness.  As girls are sexualized and pressured to conform to beauty standards at younger ages, eating disorders or their symptoms appear earlier: 9% of 9 year-old girls admit to having vomited in an attempt to lose weight. 42% of first-, second-, and third-grade girls say they want to be thinner.

It’s an uphill battle to love myself, but I feel like I’m making progress. I started taking yoga a few months ago and have slowly cut out a lot of unhealthy (i.e. processed) food. I’ve lost weight, but have avoided stepping on the scale to find out how much, because I know it can quickly turn into an obsession. Instead, I’m trying to concentrate on feeling healthier and getting stronger. I’ve given myself a three-year goal of being healthier; each day I get a little closer.

There are many things I’d like to change in the world. I want to break down the barriers that keep women from equality; I want to smash glass ceilings. Sometimes I beat myself up for not accomplishing more, but I try to remind myself that loving myself is one of the most radical things I can do.


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