Hot or Not: Women and Competition

It was a very usual day, and I was passing the time in a very usual way – by bumming around on the internet. And while I was there, I came across a very usual post, one that I have seen variations of before and will see variations of again. This particular post used the figures of two female celebrities, Madonna and Lady Gaga, and it asked the question: which of these two women is hotter?

Now, there are many things that I could say about this post. I could say that Madonna and Lady Gaga are both intelligent business women and artists who have fought to keep themselves relevant through the changing years, and yet this post reduces them to their physical beauty. I could say that both women are much more than their appearance, and more than that, they have represented themselves as being more than mere objects whose beauty is to be judged and determined by others. But that isn’t what I’m going to say. As much as all of that is true, what I am going to discuss is the manner in which these two women were being pitted against one another as competition in beauty.

And this is not a rare occurrence for women either – sometimes very directly, such as the example of the post that outright asked whether Madonna or Lady Gaga was hotter, and sometimes more subtly, such as when people make comments like “girls who are *insert body type here* are much more attractive than girls who are *insert body type here*”. This last example gets passed around quite often. Women who are a bit larger are made to feel as though they would be more beautiful if they just lost some weight, but in attempt to validate women who are larger, the internet produced a quote that read “real men like curves, only dogs go for bones”. And body weight is not the only area through which women are pitted against one another. Women who don’t wear make-up are told that girls who do are more beautiful, while women who wear a lot of make-up are told that girls who wear natural make-up are more beautiful. And the competition doesn’t even end at physical beauty – many women, especially teenage girls, feel the need to insist that they “aren’t like other girls”, as though to say that there is something wrong with other girls while she is inherently better.

In a lot of ways, it seems as though our society has decided that there is one clear way that is ‘right’ to be a woman, but they haven’t entirely decided what that way is. Some will say that curvy women are hotter, some will say that skinny women are hotter. Some will say that feminine women, who enjoy doing their hair and nails, are better, and some will say that masculine women, who fix up trucks and live for sports, are better. Some will say that Madonna is hotter, and some will say Lady Gaga is hotter.

And you know the reason for this? The reason is that there is no one way to be beautiful.

We too often forget that. We think that we can come up with a definitive winner in this competition that all women were unwillingly entered into. Who is the hottest woman? What is the best way to be woman? But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. One person will like skinny girls, and another person will like curvier girls. One person will like girls who wear a lot of make-up, and another person will like girls who wear natural make-up. There will always be someone out there who will think you are beautiful, and there will always be someone out there who will think you are not, no matter what you do. It is impossible to please everyone, so really, why bother? The only person you have to please is yourself. So long as you are happy and you are comfortable in your own skin, the right people will be able to see that and love you for it.

So let’s stop pitting women against one another. Let’s stop saying that one woman is hotter than another because, really, she isn’t. Both women are beautiful, and they are beautiful in their own ways. And this idea that women need to be in competition with one another to be the most beautiful or gain the most men (if the woman in question wants men, that is) is only hurting us in the long run. We should be supporting one another, not tearing each other down. We should be trying to make our fellow women feel like they have value, like someone out there cares about them, because that is a much more beautiful thing to do than tearing each other down to build ourselves up.

The Sacrifices We Make To Be Thin

A couple of days ago, I saw a picture of a woman on Instagram. The frame focused on the woman’s torso, and she was turned just slightly aside, so that the lighting perfectly caught her abdominal muscles, making her look thin and fit. Underneath the photo, she had written the caption, “This is the only time I have abs, and I haven’t eaten for twenty four hours because I’ve been sick and throwing up”. The photo had been liked multiple times, and it had only one comment, written by another woman: “I’m so jealous.”

Now, I’m sure this woman didn’t mean her comment the way that it sounded. I’m sure she was not actually saying that she would love to be physically ill and vomiting to the point that she cannot bring herself to eat for twenty four hours, all for the sake of obtaining abs. Chances are, she did not read the photo’s caption and merely thought that the first woman’s abs were admirable. However, there was something about seeing this exact comment on this exact photo that simply felt like a microcosm of how we as a society see women’s bodies.

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The photo above shows me two years ago, when I was 175 pounds and unhappy with my body. I was just coming out of a year spent coping with depression and eating what polite society would generously call a fuckton of fast food (pizza was my kryptonite), and so I came to the conclusion that if I was going to make a permanent change in my lifestyle, I was going to start with my diet and exercise habits.

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Fast forward a year, and now we’re at this photo. Here, I am 125 pounds. I had worked damn hard to lose those fifty pounds, and I was incredibly proud of myself for it, but on average, I was only eating about a thousand calories a day – and for those of you who don’t count calories, that roughly translates to “not enough food”, especially considering I was working out six days a week on top of that. There were nights where I only went to bed as early as I did because I knew that if I went to sleep, then that would bring me to breakfast faster. On average, I went through my days feeling hungry and weak. I was shaky, I had a hard time focusing on the things that I loved to do, and there were times where I missed being physically larger simply because I didn’t feel quite so vulnerable and small when I was. But at the same time, as much as I did not feel well, I was dedicated to staying that way. I counted my calories diligently, and if I went over, or if I ate more than one cheat meal a week, then I felt incredibly guilty to the point of tears, sometimes to the point of feeling the urge to go into the bathroom and try to make myself throw up (I never did, thankfully). And the strange thing about all of this is that I don’t really know why I, of all people, felt this way. I mean, yeah, 175 pounds was a little heavy for me, but I had been a curvy girl my whole life until this point – and I was damn proud of my curves too. I was that girl who reminded people that Marilyn Monroe had been a size twelve. I was that girl who rolled my eyes at the idea that women needed to lose weight to be beautiful. I was that girl who seriously questioned why ‘fat’ necessarily needed to be an insult. And yet, here I was, starving my body and putting myself through emotional torment – and why? It wasn’t to be beautiful – I thought that I was beautiful before. So why was I doing this to myself?

Well, to be honest, I think that it was because of the way that we as society view women’s bodies – and I return to the Instagram commenter as my microcosm. It didn’t matter that the first woman needed to starve herself and be physically ill to get abs – the fact that she had abs was the only thing that mattered. We tend not to see the pain that goes into getting the body that society tells us we should want. Hell, we tend to not even think of it. When someone we know has lost a ton of weight, our go-to comment to make is always, “wow, you look great”. And of course, this compliment comes from a supportive place – all that we’re trying to do is assure someone that all of the hard work they’ve put into their body is being noticed. But what about the girl who lost all of that weight by starving herself? What about the person who lost weight because they were sick? When they’re being told that they are increasing their value in the eyes of those around them by causing themselves harm, then that is going to encourage them to keep causing themselves harm. They are going to keep on starving themselves, and they are going to keep on ignoring all of the signs that their body is giving them that they need to change what they are doing, all to get that compliment and feel that sense of accomplishment.

I’ve seen it done, again and again. The woman who knows exactly how long she can go without eating anything is told, again and again, by everyone around her, that she looks great and should keep doing what she is doing. And so she does keep doing it. She keeps on starving herself and she keeps on putting her own health at risk, all because we as a society have decided that the only acceptable way for a woman to look is thin, and so some women will do anything they have to to achieve that.

In my case, I didn’t even think I hadn’t been beautiful before. I just knew that I wanted to change my life, and considering the comments that I was receiving and the expectations that I placed in myself, so long as I kept losing weight, I was doing something right.

I decided to change my lifestyle shortly after I reached 125 pounds. People had been telling me for a while that I looked too thin, that I was a person built to be curvy and I didn’t look right so small and bony, but that wasn’t the reason that I decided to change. No, the reason why was because I sat down to write one night, to do the one thing that I always told myself came before anything else, and I couldn’t do it because I felt so weak and hungry. It was at that moment that I realized it wasn’t worth it. I decided that I would rather feel strong and energetic than look the way that society expected me to look. I still eat healthy and I still work out six days a week, but now, I eat when I feel hungry and I make sure not to count calories. I have gained seven pounds since, and I feel much happier and much more comfortable in my own body.

But it still scares me when I see exchanges like the one on Instagram. I hate to think of all the girls and women who are putting their bodies and minds through hell, and they continue to do it because they continue to receive compliments for their weight loss, as though their being thin somehow matters more than their feeling strong and well. And it’s difficult to say that we should not compliment someone on their weight loss at all, because if someone has lost a lot of weight by simply making healthy changes to their lifestyle, then that is something that should be celebrated. But girls and women should also know that being thin is not the most important thing that they can be – being happy and healthy is infinitely more significant. Strength is so much more beautiful than a lean stomach will ever be.

And my message here is not that there is any one way that our bodies should look. I am not trying to belittle the beauty in thin bodies, nor in larger bodies, nor in muscular bodies. I firmly believe that every body type is beautiful, but it is more important that you feel comfortable and happy, and that you are healthy in mind and body. I believe that it is absurd that society encourages us to sacrifice our wellbeing for a body that is easier to accept. I believe that we are more than our physical appearances, that our thoughts and feelings and happiness has value, and that no one should ever feel the need to cause themselves harm in order to become something that society says they should.

Be Perfectly Imperfect

There’s a lot of pressure in our society nowadays to be absolutely, completely flawless.

You see it in the discussion of physical appearance most predominately. It’s pretty much common knowledge nowadays that the women who appear on the covers of our magazines, our models and our celebrities, even our athletes, are photoshopped to the point that they no longer really look like themselves. With the use of a computer program, we slim and tuck and pull and peel, until women are made thinner than is physically possible, taller and paler and longer-legged than they actually are. And that’s only what photoshop is capable of – let alone hours of make-up and lighting and a knowledge of what camera angles are the most flattering.

In our movies, too, people are represented as looking almost unrealistically beautiful – most predominately in our movies targeting teenagers, it seems. We fill fictional high schools with clear skin and buff bods, with girls who know exactly what to do with make-up and boys who have clearly dedicated countless hours in the gym despite having school work and friends and family and other teenage-related problems to deal with. We take arguably the group of people in our society who are most image-conscious, who are most concerned with looking flawless and attractive, and we ask them, point-blank, “why don’t you look like this?”

And the funny thing about this is, we make our models and actresses and singers look so perfect that, to some extent, we almost make them look boring. They all fall into a fairly standard, fairly limited definition of what beautiful is. All thin and symmetrical and clear-skinned and predominately white. And don’t get me wrong, if you fall into that definition, I’m not trying to say anything against you – you are beautiful, and you deserve to feel beautiful. But when that’s all that we ever see in our society, day in and day out, it tends to get a little bit old.

Where are the beautiful people with pimples?

The boys and girls with body fat?

The towering, Amazonian women, and the men who are totally socially acceptable in all their shortness?

Where are the stretch marks, the belly rolls, the moles and freckles and scars? I don’t see them – not even on the secondary characters, or the characters who actually need them. Remember the 2013 adaption of Carrie? The one that cast Chloe Grace Moretz in a role that is often represented as being outside of the traditional definition of beauty, and yet nobody, not the director or make-up artists or costume designers, made any attempt to make her any less than physically flawless.

The only time that we ever see anyone being represented as less than flawless in our society is if someone is making a statement on it. Acne exists only in advertising for products to remove it. Body fat is present when a character is meant to be unattractive, or otherwise unappealing. And men can only be short and skinny if they themselves are somehow stunted in their masculinity.

This isn’t the only way that our society emphasizes perfection, however. People are often expected to present themselves as emotionally flawless, as well.

People can’t be weak. They can’t look at their problems and be struck by fear at the thought of them, because that’s cowardice or stupidity or some other similar lie. People need to put up a sort of front, appear like they can do anything and everything without once being bothered by it. And the strange thing about that is that it isn’t true. Most people, especially when they’re just starting out in life or in an adventure, are terrified. They just learn to work through the fear. The fear is not the problem – our refusal to accept that that fear is present is the problem. We don’t talk about it, because we don’t want to admit that we have it. We don’t want to appear less than perfect.

We refuse to wear certain clothes or do certain activities because we’re afraid that we’ll look ‘silly’ or ‘stupid’. We refuse to practice certain talents because we afraid that we ‘aren’t very good at it’. But the only way to get good at something is to practice it often, to work through that initial stage of imperfection, and at the end of the day, what does it matter if you look silly? Embrace it! Be flawed! And, who knows, maybe by allowing yourself to be more open and less afraid, you’ll learn something new about yourself. You’ll grow as a person when you are no longer so concerned about fitting into the narrow definition of ‘perfection’.

Perfection is boring. Perfection is a narrow definition of what you should be, set forth by someone who isn’t you, who has never met you, and who doesn’t understand the brilliant and wonderful person that they are stifling in the process. So what does it matter if you look silly, or if you don’t see aspects of yourself represented in the media? Be you, assert your flaws, and force the world around you to accept you for all that you are.

Rock What You Got!

I am not a professional model. I do not get paid for getting my picture taken, but ever since I was fourteen years old, I have been modelling recreationally. Growing up, my mother had plenty of friends who were professional photographers (being a model herself, whose photos have been published in magazines), and this gave me plenty of opportunities to get in front of the camera in my pretty costumes and just have fun.

Fourteen was the perfect age to start doing this, too, because it meant that, all throughout high school, I was never really all too self-conscious about my appearance. I mean, sure, I had some pretty bad acne, and I wasn’t a size zero at the time or anything like that, but whenever I started feeling low, all I needed was a good photo session with a talented photographer, and the next thing I knew, I’d be receiving airbrushed photographs of myself where I always looked stunning.

I knew that it wasn’t always reality, sure, but even still, it made me feel good. It helped me to see myself from an objective, foreign perspective. When I looked at those photographs, I wasn’t looking at myself in the mirror, picking apart my every flaw and imperfection. I was looking at a beautiful woman, and then realizing that that woman was actually me! It made me realize the value of make-up and costumes and confidence, because when I felt pretty, I felt happy, and that happiness made its way into other aspects of my life – more important aspects, like my confidence in my school work, and my socializing, and my art.

Maybe the whole concept is problematic, from a feminist stand-point, but we live in a problematic society. And the way I see it, if there is something in this world that is capable of boosting your confidence, then what’s wrong with it? Especially when there are so many things around us – things like the media, and our peers – who try to tear our confidence down because they can sell us more products or feel better about themselves when we’re weak and vulnerable.

But here’s the thing – I started modelling when I was fourteen years old, and the photographers that I worked with were friends of my mother, so very rarely were the photographs all too sexualized. But there are many women in our society who feel most beautiful when they are sexualized. You see it often on Facebook – women, adults and teenagers alike, who photograph themselves with their own cleavage as the focal point, or in an outfit that you know was deliberately picked out to show off as much skin as possible. My photographer friends, too, post photos all the time of women in lingerie or, at times, completely nude. So what about these women?

I mean, on the one hand, an argument can be made that they are even more problematic than I am. All I am doing is taking my confidence from my own physical beauty, as the patriarchy has taught me to do from the time I was young. But these women are specifically dressing themselves up (or down) for the male gaze, right? They are deliberately objectifying themselves. Right?

Well, believe it or not, I disagree.

I mean, I understand where this argument comes from, and I won’t deny that there may be some problematic aspects to it, but in the exact same way that there are problematic aspects to what I do.

Because these women, really, are doing nothing more than what I do. They are capturing images of themselves where they personally feel beautiful. And these women just happen to feel beautiful with cleavage, or lingerie, or completely naked – whether they felt beautiful that way before they took the picture, or they simply think that they look beautiful when they look at the picture later. Either way, it’s a confidence boost, something that will make them feel happier in the long run, and that will find its way into other aspects of their life. Whether you agree with what they’re wearing or not wearing doesn’t matter – you can at least admit that these women deserve to feel confident and beautiful. And if that is what it takes for them to feel that way, then more power to them!

Is there something problematic about women taking their confidence from their physical beauty? Maybe. But regardless, we live in a society where that is still reinforced. How many of us today grew up being complimented on our beauty, or picked apart because we didn’t look the way that other people thought we should? Whether we like it or not, beauty is still an important factor to many people. It isn’t the most important trait we have, not by a long shot, but it’s still something that we think about, something that can make us feel more or less confident as a person in the long run.

And the thing is – every woman can feel beautiful, because every woman is beautiful, regardless of whether or not we fit into the standard definition. The difference is in what we’re all comfortable with. Some women feel most beautiful naked. Some feel most beautiful covered up. Some feel more beautiful within some sort of middle ground. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you come to feel beautiful – all that matters is that you do.

So, ladies (and, I’m sorry to have ignored you through most of this post, gentlemen) – feel free to present yourself any which way you want! Beauty isn’t the only method that has the potential to increase your confidence, but it is one, and it’s a simple method too. Because all you need to do to achieve it is find what makes you comfortable, whatever that might mean, and go with it.

Why Muscular Women Are Beautiful

My introduction to weight training came when I was about fourteen, when my gym teacher decided to devote a whole week to it in high school. I was a clumsy girl who enjoyed coming to school with make-up every day and had incurred the wrath of my teacher because of it, and so if she was going to hate me, I was going to hate her and everything that she stood for. And so the charms of weight training week was mostly lost on me at that point. The only thing I really remember about it was being nervous about setting the weight too high, because I didn’t want to risk bulking up.

Fast forward a few years, and the same vanity that made me want to wear make-up to school every day has now convinced me to start working out on a regular basis. I started where many girls start – with cardio, but I eventually allowed myself to be talked into trying out weight training.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with weight training, there are two different kinds: toning, which involves doing higher reps with lighter weights in order to build long, lean muscles, and mass building, which involves doing lower reps with heavier weights in order to build larger muscles. In the beginning, you couldn’t pry me away from toning if my life depended on it.

Because, you see, I had the same misconceptions that I think a lot of girls have about mass building: that it is grossly and obscenely unfeminine. That if a woman were to pick up a thirty pound weight, she’d suddenly puff out and turn dramatically into Arnold Schwarzenegger, complete with a deep voice and a hairy chest. So I did my toning exercises, and I maintained my image of the long, lean ballerina woman that I wanted to be.

And before long, I got bored.

And not only that, but when I finally did achieve my ballerina body, I wasn’t personally satisfied with it. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with having a very slight figure – there isn’t, really. But I was coming from being 170 pounds of curves to being 120 pounds of bone, and I didn’t find that it suited me. I longed for shape. I longed for something different.

And so, I decided to try out mass building. And that’s how I discovered that a lot of my previous conceptions about it were entirely false.

First of all – women have absolutely nothing to fear from mass building, even if they don’t want large muscles. Although not true in every case, because there are some women who are simply blessed by the genetic lottery, it is impossible for a woman’s body to build muscle in the same way as a man’s. When men become large through mass building, it is an entirely different shape than women who become large through mass building. For several months now, I have been focused primarily on it, and as much as I’ve built muscle, I’m still very lean, simply because my body is not built to gain substantial size.

But turning my attention toward mass building also taught me something about the way that society views women who do just that. If you’re a woman and you tell someone that you’re looking to gain some muscle, you’ll generally hear the same comments made, over and over.

“Oh, you shouldn’t do that. You don’t want to look like a man, do you?”

“Aren’t you worried that you’ll look too masculine?”

“Men don’t like muscular women, you know.”

Let’s forget about the fact that mass building will not turn me overnight into a body builder for a minute. Let’s pretend that this imaginary reality that all of these people are so concerned about actually happened – I actually did chest press with fifty pounds and turn – poof! – into a female bodybuilder. What’s so wrong with that? Why are we so opposed to the idea of women with muscles and, even worse, why does a woman with muscles automatically equate a man?

Because, here’s the thing: getting into mass building has taught me to notice women with muscles more frequently than I did before, and women with muscles are just as beautiful and diverse as any other group of women. Some women with muscles are as masculine as the stereotype claims, speaking abruptly and connecting only with men. Some women with muscles are incredibly feminine, showing up at the gym every day in full make-up and then changing from their yoga pants to a short, pink dress afterwards. Some women with muscles are mothers, some have husbands, some are lesbians, some go to school, some work full-time, some are bodybuilding competitors, and some just like the way they look with a body strong enough to deadlift me. And every single one of these women are totally justified in what they are, and I don’t understand why so many people feel the need to dismiss them all as wrong.

The issue of body positivity is still a relatively new issue as far as the general public is concerned, and in my opinion, it’s an issue that hasn’t reached its full potential yet. We speak often about the positivity of heavier women as opposed to skinnier women, but in all of this, muscular women generally go unmentioned. We rarely talk about how odd it is that we as women are actively discouraged against gaining muscle, against making our bodies as strong as we’d like them to be. There’s nothing wrong with preferring your body to have a bit more fat on it, but there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to be fit and hard. It’s all beautiful, and it’s all just as feminine as we want it to be. Part of there being no one ‘correct’ way to have a body involves allowing woman to strive for the body that she wants, to do her mass building or her toning or her pizza binges as she feels fit. It’s all good, and it’s all beautiful, and no one should ever have to feel like they need to sacrifice their femininity in order to look a certain way.

So if you’re a woman who wants to try out mass building, then go right ahead and have fun with it! Chances are, you won’t get as large as most men who do mass building exercises, but you will gain some good muscle and be just as absolutely stunning as you perceive yourself to be (and just as feminine as you want to be as well – nobody can ever steal that from you). And to all those who feel that muscular women are too ‘masculine’ to be beautiful – why? Is it because muscles are commonly represented as a sign of strength, and our society perceives there to be something inherently wrong with strong women? Why is it that only men can get away with being strong and taking up the amount of space that muscles demand? What is wrong with a woman who does this too?

And to all you women out there, whether you be muscular, thin, heavy, overweight, feminine, masculine, or whatever – don’t ever let anyone tell you what you are and how you should be. You should be allowed to look the way you want and be the way that makes you feel comfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable being one way, then don’t be it! All that matters, regardless of what anyone around you says, is that you are happy with yourself and that you feel like you are beautiful in your own way.