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.

In Defence of Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery seems to get a bad name in our society.

Without calling any specific person out, there are many celebrities who had quite clearly surgically altered their appearance, and yet they will deny it despite all evidence to the contrary.

Many body-positive women, including artists Melanie Martinez and Alessia Cara, have called out plastic surgery as being a problem that targets emotionally vulnerable and self-conscious women.

And in our everyday society, you often hear people laughing at plastic surgery, especially if they decide that the someone has ‘overdone it’ or that they shouldn’t have done it at all.

For one reason or another, there seems to be a certain amount of shame attached to getting plastic surgery. People are expected to learn to love the things that society has told them is flawed, and if they can’t but they don’t want to simply let it be either, then that’s considered a shame. But, personally speaking, I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with plastic surgery.

And maybe that’s just because I’m a big fan of body modification in general. I love piercings, tattoos, hair dye – all sorts of things that alters the way nature made you to turn yourself into something that you made. Personally, I hate my natural hair colour and feel much more confident and beautiful with red hair. There’s no shame in that, and there really shouldn’t be. It should be treated as just another thing that I do to present myself on my body, like clothing or jewelry.

And because I love body modifications, I can completely understand someone wanting plastic surgery. I know what it’s like to struggle to make yourself love something on your body when you know that there is a way to change it. If that’s what you want to do, if it will make you feel more confident and comfortable in your skin, then I say more power to you!

The problem is not plastic surgery. Plastic surgery is only a means to an end – a tool, as good as hair dye or clothes. The problem runs much deeper than that.

The problem is that we live in a society where girls are told that the only way they can be beautiful is if they have big lips, youthful skin, large breasts. Our definition of beauty is far too narrow, and that isn’t okay. It is perfectly fine to have personal preferences and want to change your physical appearance for yourself, but it is not okay when you are altering something because you think that that is the only way you can become beautiful.

The problem is when people are so desperate to change something about themselves that they’re willing to put themselves into harmful situations to do it. Maybe they spend more money on it than they should, maybe they go to doctors who are unlicensed, maybe they don’t really know what they’re doing.

The problem is that the beauty industry is so complex and invasive that, at this point, we don’t even know what’s real and what isn’t.

And when people complain about plastic surgery, when they scoff and roll their eyes and say “you can tell she’s had some work done,” I like to think that this is really what they’re complaining about. Not that someone has had the audacity to surgically alter their body, but that there’s always this underlying suspicion that they’ve only done it to conform to this ugly and pervasive definition of beauty in our society. That’s really the problem here.

But the person who gets plastic surgery should not be treated as the one at fault here. Even if the only reason they are getting it is because they have been told all their lives that they needed to in order to be beautiful, that is not their fault. That is society’s fault, for making them feel that way.

Plastic surgery is not at fault. The narrow-minded definition of beauty is, and that is the thing that should be challenged. We need to let girls and women both know that they can be beautiful just the way they are, that they don’t need to change anything if they don’t want to. And if they still want to change something after that, then let them! That’s perfectly fine.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing inherently wrong with plastic surgery. If you’re doing it because it’ll make you feel happy, then do it! You deserve some happiness! Just make sure that the only person you’re doing it for is you.

Bullies at the Gym

I’ve only really been attending a gym since about last summer, although I’ve been exercising regularly for a year and a half now. There’s no real reason why I started at home, besides the fact that I had a sufficient amount of equipment (thanks, mom), it was fairly inexpensive, and it was just easier to do in general. But because of this, I never really had the experience of being a person who was self-conscious of her body going to the gym. By the time I started, I already felt like I was fairly fit – maybe not as fit as I wanted, but still, nothing that I was ashamed of.

But even still, I hear stories all the time of girls who are incredibly self-conscious of their bodies and afraid to go to the gym because they might get made fun of.

Hell, I hear stories all the time of girls who do go to the gym and get made fun of.

And though I’ve never seen it personally (I’m pretty oblivious to what’s going on around me at the gym, with my headphones blaring 80’s rock music directly into my brain), I am sorry and disgusted for the girls who have, and the girls who are afraid to go to the gym because of it.

Because the gym shouldn’t be an elitist sort of place. In fact, I love the gym because of that. I love looking around at all the different sorts of people that go there. I love the muscle-heads who drop their weights dramatically after every set and walk away, satisfied to have achieved dem gainz. I love the super skinny girl there to show up every guy who automatically assumes he can do better than her. I love the people who are just starting out and don’t know what to do yet, because this is all so new to them and who knows, maybe they’ll grow to like it. Or maybe they won’t. That’s okay too.

The gym is supposed to be a place that brings so many different kinds of people together in a non-judgmental, trying-to-improve-your-life-if-you-can sort of way. It is not supposed to be a place that knocks down your self-esteem.

Because regardless of how your body looks, regardless of how much you can lift or how long you can stay on the treadmill, this is supposed to be a space that you can occupy. It is supposed to be a space that can help you – not to lose weight or look better (the two things do not necessarily go hand-in-hand), but to achieve your fitness goals and maybe get a little bit healthier. To build up a endorphins that will make you feel a little bit better throughout the day. To do what you want to do without anyone trying to pull you down because of it.

And that’s what I think all of this bullies at the gym forget when the mock someone for how they look. These bullies buy into a very limited ideal of what is beautiful (probably because they’ve spent so much time and energy simply trying to chase it themselves), and in some strange, cruel way, I imagine that they think they’re helping you by giving you inspiration to work harder and lose the weight that, really, isn’t holding you back. The gym is a place to get healthier, and fat isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re unhealthy. It’s just fat, and it is as beautiful as anything else on the human body.

These bullies are wrong, and you don’t need to listen to them. I know, it can be very hard to do, especially considering (whether they realize it or not), they’re preying on the weak. They’re attacking things that your very presence in the gym might prove you’re self-conscious of. It can be very discouraging to be trying to lose that weight and have some make fun of you because it isn’t going away fast enough. They might make you want to give up, to stop trying altogether. But they shouldn’t. You have just as much right to this space as they do, and you deserve every chance to make the most of it.

So as difficult as it might be to do, if someone ever tries to tear you down because of how you look at the gym, remember that they’re the pathetic ones. They’re the ones who have bought into an incredibly limited definition of beauty, ones that is harmful and false, and you don’t have to listen to them. All you have to do is keep doing what you do, and rocking what you have. Because it is incredibly beautiful.

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.

The Beauty in ‘Flaws’

When I was in high school, I came to the conclusion that I was beautiful. In my head, I vainly described myself as resembling autumn, with my hair of red and my eyes of green, my skin as white and cold as the oncoming winter. I don’t think I was ever condescending or cruel about my beauty, but I was most certainly aware of it.

Truly, from the time I was in high school, I only attributed myself as having one real physical flaw: my stomach wasn’t flat.

I wasn’t fat by any definition of the word (curvy, maybe), but even still, my belly was naturally rounded, protruding just a bit at all times. It was simply how I was built.

And for a long time, I hated it: that one physical flaw to mar what was otherwise perfection.

So, about a year ago, I came to the conclusion that I would fix it. I would lose weight – whatever amount of weight it took to get rid of it. And doing so was surprisingly easy. I came to enjoy it, really. Exercise came to be a great de-stressor for me, and eating healthy was just another way to be creative, considering I was constantly striving to create delicious recipes that would shrink my stomach at the same time.

Overall, I lost about fifty-five pounds, and at my smallest, I was about six pounds underweight. And my stomach still protruded nonetheless.

It wasn’t fair, I thought. After all, all that I wanted was what came naturally to so many other girls. I didn’t necessarily want to be Jennifer Lopez or anything – I just wanted there to be a single flat, simple plain stretching between my ribs and my thighs, like every other girl had. Why was I different? Why couldn’t I look like that?

It took me a while to accept that that was just the way my body was. Naturally, I was built to have a stomach that protruded a bit. There’s no real reason why, it just is. And I could say that it was God’s cruel joke, that when he was constructing me he had physical perfection in mind but decided to throw in one small defect like a hero’s fatal flaw in a tragedy, but I don’t want to say that. Because, really, when you think about it, why is it a flaw? Why do I think that every other girl has a perfectly flat stomach? Where are these opinions coming from?

I think the answer is pretty obvious: from the media.

It didn’t occur to me that it might not even be possible for me to achieve a flat stomach simply because, all my life, I was surrounded by images of women with flat stomachs. It seemed to be the default – the easily attainable for all girls of a certain size. All I had to do was achieve that size and I would get it. Nobody told me the complexities of the human form, the fact that some people could achieve that and some can’t, until the former message was already so engrained in my mind that no amount of logic could chase it out.

Now, I’m not the sort of person to demonize the media. Generally speaking, I don’t think the media is the cause of everything that’s wrong in society. I’m much more inclined to believe that the media is merely a reflection of all the ugly values society holds. The media only ever portrays women with flat stomachs as beautiful because, en masse, we as a society have come to accept that that is the only way for a stomach to be beautiful. But why? And who says so? Why can’t my protruding belly be just as sexy as another girl’s well-earned abs? As a matter of fact, I’m fairly certain that there are people out there who think just that. So why should I put myself down for something I can’t really help anyway? Why torment myself, why force myself down to an unhealthy weight, all in the pursuit of someone else’s definition of beauty.

And although I used my stomach as an example here, that is only one way in which the mainstream media has completely sidelined or ignored one form of beauty for another.

I’m pretty sure that I’ll never see a desirable woman in a movie with as much body hair as I naturally have.

Women over the age 0f, say, fifty are too rarely represented as beautiful, to the point that we just accept that good looks have an age limit. “Beauty fades” we all so poetically point out on our Facebook pages, without ever asking ourself why we think that way.

And what about women with muscles? Women who worked hard to achieve a goal they had in mind, women who structured their every day around gaining strength? Shouldn’t their beauty be publicly celebrated?

If I went over every type of beautiful woman, I’d be here all day, but I think you get my point: there is more than one way to be pretty. There are countless, infinite ways, endless combinations of features that we don’t even think about on a day-to-day basis because the media never tells us to think about them. They’re too busy showing us a single image. And so, today, here I am, demanding them to show us more, because we deserve more. We deserve to recognize the beauty in what others tell us are flaws.