[I’ve been on a bit of a body-image/fitness kick lately. Maybe because it’s summer. Not sure.]
I am waiting for a man to approve of my body. How did I get here?
That’s what kept running through my mind a few days ago. I was laying on my couch feeling a weird mixture of rejected, angry, and confused. I had submitted for a job, and knew my ability to do it would be based on whether “the client” approved of my “look.”
For context: I occassionally am a promo girl. Nothing crazy, but sometimes I dress in cute outfits, put on make up and hand out fliers and samples. I also get paid $15/hr to do it, which is comparable to what I made as a tutor for a large test-prep company. Plus, student loans.
For the most part, I like my body. It’s not perfect, but (especially after the last post) frankly, I am generally feeling myself. I put hard work into it, and beyond aesthetics, I just like what it is capable of doing. So, when I submitted to work a job for a large sun screen company, I wasn’t concerned. I had worked for them before and it had been a shorts-and-tshirt deal. Easy.
Then, I discovered it was actually a bikini job.
I’m not particularly conservative (I live in Hawai‘i, and swimwear is pretty common around here), so I don’t have qualms about being seen in a swimsuit, but I also don’t have a “typical swimsuit model body.” My stomach is toned, but not always tight. I have short legs. I have smaller boobs for my frame.
The marketing company that I work for asked me to send photos of me in a bikini to send to the client (standard practice). Oomph. It was mid-afternoon on a day where I felt bloated and gross. Still, I changed, took the photos, and was waiting for someone to approve of my body for work.
A part of me wanted to be full of indignation: how dare these people get to pass judgement on me? How dare they feel as though they can decide if I’m “good enough” for the job?
Here’s the thing, though: I had agency and choice throughout this entire process. I submitted for the job initially. When I found out it was a bikini job, I could have said no, or that I wasn’t comfortable, and my employer would’ve been totally fine with that. If, when they asked for photos, I had said no, no one would’ve been salty.
So what do you do when the agent forcing you to validate to your body is no one but yourself? How do you battle all the voices screaming at you to look a certain way when their only yours? If “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” as Elanor Roosevelt is quoted on millions of magnets and tshirts around the world, what do I do when I’m not just giving consent, but I’m the one with the megaphone to my ear yelling, “Stop eating that caramel corn!”?
I spent much of the rest of the day waiting around feeling sorry for myself. Finally, my boyfriend surprised me with a rose and banana lumpia, my favorites. He lovingly listened to me rant all the way home, as I tried to figure out who I was angry at. Then, he said something enlightening:
“The thing is,” after he heard me rant about parts of my body (like my thighs) that I knew wouldn’t change, “most swimsuit models aren’t super ‘ethnic’ or even muscularly built to begin with especially when they’re Brown. They’re white or, here, maybe Asian, and their the stereotyped versions of that: thin, small…”
“…willowy,” I filled in, a word often used to describe Asian female bodies.
“Right,” he said.
I wasn’t sure, but then I remembered that I was also going to flat-iron my hair for the job, since my curls didn’t “fit the look.” Now, it had me asking “whose look was I trying to fit?”
As we push to become more “diverse,” it’s important to remember that diversity isn’t just shades of color on our skin. It’s all aspects of loving and valuing different, perhaps cultural, parts of our bodies: including hair curls, thick muscular legs, and the softness of hips. We cannot keep letting society exoticize brown skin in advertising without accepting the fact that the brown bodies inside it may not match the shape that mass consumption thinks is “right.” I wasn’t the only one yelling in my ear to look a certain way, it was my voice backed with decades of cultural indoctrination that has told me I should look this way.
In some ways, though, I think the work starts with us. I think the work is internal, as it always begins.
If, as Tatum says, racism and its beliefs are the smog we breathe, that means we also have to know when to look at our bodies after a big, heaving breath to clear out our lungs from the toxic beliefs we’ve taken in. If I’m believing societal things about what my body “should” look like in a swimsuit, then they’ve already won half the battle. It doesn’t start with me raging at a company for making me feel this way, it takes me finding the strength to tell anyone that they don’t get to make me feel this way. It takes me choosing to not make myself feel that way.
So some of it starts with me, internally doing the work and perhaps unabashedly going out in a swim suit or a sports bra and being okay with that. I love that other women are out there, doing this. Hopefully as it happens more, it will mean that advertisers catch on, and at some point the “look” will expand far beyond what we’re already seeing. We have to be able to challenge those negative thoughts when we have it, though.
As for my “approval,” I was asked to be a back up for the job. I laughed after finally getting word, bemused at how riduculous I had been about the whole situation. I respectfully declined (and it wasn’t a problem) and got up to look in the mirror. Above it, is a race-medal hanger PJ got me that says “Run Like A Girl.”
Thank you legs, I thought, thank you thighs and feet and arms. Thank you grandma for the hair and mom for the eyes and family for the caramel skin and generations back for this body that runs, that moves, that works. Thank you Lord, for the blessing of a working body at all. Thank you. Thank you. May it always be glorified, just as it is.