Unhappily Beautiful: How Body Shame Burned Me Out

I said nothing as the woman sitting across from me mused that shaving one’s legs in the sink was the ultimate defining moment of womanhood. Whose womanhood? Perhaps only her own, perhaps only the other socio-economically privileged, mostly white women present. Perhaps she thought this expression resonated with all of us or perhaps it was to separate the superior kind of woman she wanted us to be.

Warning: Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of beauty.

Society’s mirror is a false one.

With few exceptions, I try to only dig enough into other people’s own psychodramas to interact with them or make them characters in stories. But I can tell you this barrier she set up affected others; it affected me. It’s never a flaming sword of body hate. No, it’s just tiny little jabs collected over months of similar comments, environments, and messaging that eventually make you bleed, face-down on the ground.

I spent a whole half year unhappy with my wardrobe choices. Staring in a mirror of unhappiness. Nothing looked right, and I didn’t seem to own what I needed. Or it wasn’t clean. My mornings just dragged out longer than necessary. And no amount of shopping or wardrobe purging seemed to fix it.

Finally, my secret became that Jacob, my partner, started picking out my clothes for me. Most days at my behest. And some days, he’d lay them out before I’d finished brushing my teeth. He even picked out my earrings. And even when I protested — I didn’t want to wear the cat earrings because I was feeling butch and they were too femme — I ended up with the cat earrings.

Usually, I’m too opinionated, too stubborn, and too busy sculpting my daily costume listen to anyone beyond a few “which shoe should I wear?” moments.

Lately, I’ve been tired of beauty. Tired of fashion. Tired of Pinterest boards filled with bored-looking models in uninspiring sad-sack clothing. Tired of the empty characterization that’s Daisy Buchanan’s flapper dress in the latest remake of The Great Gatsby. Tired of companies like Dove reminding me that I probably see myself badly in a mirror while reinforcing racially and size-based beauty stereotypes and reminding us women that, at the end of the day, what matters most is our beauty.

Don’t forget, little girls, you aren’t worth more than your beauty.

Fuck that noise.

“Beauty is a responsibility like anything else, beautiful women have special lives like prime ministers but I don’t want that.” – Leonora Carrington

I’m a bit in love with this quote right now. In love because it fits the subversive way I’ve always looked at my forays into fashion, into beauty. I’ve been who I am. Never looking for beauty standards to live up to, and in some cases, rebelling against what I am told. I’ve recently fallen in tune with grotesque burlesque acts that blend the sexy with the ugly. Give me a monster girl or bleeding fire act over a ’40s-inspired fan dance any day. I look at dressing up as a costume, not a substitute for substance.

Yes, in many ways, I am privileged. I am white. I am blonde. Currently, I am young and thin. Though the former will fade and the latter has not always been true and may not be in the future. I am also college-educated, and my preferred non-fiction reading is of the feminist, social justice variety with a fair amount of pop culture. I’m well-aware of beauty myths, body dysmorphia, fatphobia, vanity size marketing, body shaming, slut shaming, etc. I marched in the Slut Walk and have gone to nudist parks unashamed and surrounded by people of all ages and body types.

This doesn’t mean that someone who understands the insidious nature of the beauty myth can’t be corroded by it. When I overhear women, who in the looks department hit every Western beauty standard, talk about their “cankles” or how fat their thighs are, I wrinkle my nose, but don’t know how to say anything. Saying “you’re not fat” isn’t addressing the problem because it doesn’t address how they see themselves, the beauty myths, and frankly, the whole fat issue. When the little comments float around every single day, it all gets overwhelming. To a point where no music in headphones, no reading of feminist blogs can cover it up.

Every day, there are tiny steps to be taken. Steps back to my reclamation of my personal beauty, of my interest in fashion and costume. Getting dressed and not feeling blaize or worse, terrible about myself and choices. It’s not wrinkling my nose when Jacob says I’m beautiful.

And it’s also getting away from toxicity. It’s cutting out people or treading topics carefully when life becomes the YouTube video embedded above. It’s getting reminded not to say horrible things about myself. It’s cleaning up my Pinterest following. And it’s explaining that I’m not interested in body bashing, slut shaming, or other forms of body hatred.

Things set me on edge, and perhaps I’m a bit more guarded and defensive. When my mother telephoned to tell me that my grandfather didn’t want “shoulders showing” at his and grandma’s 60th wedding anniversary, I got angry because of the underlying issue was him being worried his granddaughters would look like loose women in church and that in order to be proper women, the four women in the family — my grandma, mother, cousin, and myself — had to wear dresses. Dresses that we had to approve with him.

My brain went into the fuck the patriarchy and the beauty machine mode. Which means I refused to shave my legs or my armpits. The former covered by leggings due to the cold, and the latter caused my mother to call out as “gross” as if I shit on the sidewalk. I mean, how dare I not pluck every hair on my body that’s not on the top of my head?! And then I chose to wear my cowboy boots instead of silver high heels.

"We're born naked, and the rest is drag." - RuPaul

Words to live by.

When I entered my grandparents’ house, one of the first things my grandfather asked me was what I was wearing to the reception. I responded that I was planning on going naked. Then continued to haul in my luggage.

On the morning of the celebration, I watched my 79-year-old grandma bind herself in a full-piece swimsuit-style Spanx, plus thick hose in order to look “right” in her dress and cover up her legs which she’s sensitive about. My grandfather certainly wasn’t wearing a girdle under his dress shirt to suck in his stomach, and my younger brother wore black jeans without worrying about covering up his Frankenstein-style scars from multiple leg surgeries. My mother kept worrying about the new dress she’d bought was a “larger” size than she desired, while my youngest brother slipped on an oversized dress shirt he’d bought seven years ago for high school homecoming. My own dress had large decorative buttons on the back, which meant I couldn’t lean back against the wooden church pew or plastic chairs at the reception without pain. My adult male cousins loosened or shed their ties (also required) as quickly as possible.

The irony: the dress I ended up wearing, which my grandfather liked, was the one I’d always intended on wearing, since I first put the event on my calendar. It’s my go-to dress for weddings, anniversaries, and anywhere that day dresses are too casual and cocktail dresses too night clubbing. I’m not 5. I’m almost 30. I know how to dress appropriately for the occasion. I also refuse to submit myself to sexist ideals of what women should look like, and yes, sometimes I like to push the boundaries on what’s “acceptable.”

Some days, like last weekend, body acceptance proves harder than others. Every day, I try to remember what RuPaul says, “We all came into this world naked. The rest is all drag.” I wear it as my fashion and beauty mantra whether I’m in sweats lounging around home, cosplaying as Wonder Woman, or going into the office.

My physical beauty is for me, and it’s a reflection of my desires, not yours. Jacob and Lisa are perhaps the only two people in this world who I would ever be beautiful for or whose opinion in that realm I might care about. You can tell me if I have spinach in my teeth or if my dress is tucked into my panties, but that’s about it. If you’re going to complement or even critique me — especially if you don’t know me — there are 100,000,000 other things about me I’d prefer you to say. Instead of commenting on your beauty, I’ll do you the same favor of finding something else. And instead of saying nothing about toxic beauty bullshit, I’m going to say something, even in situations I might be uncomfortable by doing so.

About Erica

Erica McGillivray spends too much contemplating the socioeconomic importance of the bananaphone. Ring, ring, ring. Bananaphone. She loves bunnies, soap opera plots in comic books, and dreams of flying in the stars. Erica works for Moz in inbound marketing, which means sometimes, she'll talk about that.
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2 Responses to Unhappily Beautiful: How Body Shame Burned Me Out

  1. Geraldine says:

    This was a wonderful post, Erica.

    It’s a tough battle, but a noble one. I’ve been making a point of not complimenting my little cousins on their physical appearance. It’s so easy to tell little girls “You look so pretty!” and suddenly have them think that’s important.

    • Erica says:

      Thanks, Geraldine. :)

      It’s definitely hard not to compliment on looks because it’s so what we’ve been trained to do and how to socialize. I mean, I can think of several times where I’ve been given the advice to – say on a job interview or another place where I’m trying to make the best impression possible – compliment someone and looks are an easy go-to. It’s very admirable that you’re trying not to comment to your little cousins’ appearance.

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