I recently came across a video on Upworthy that I found both powerful and profoundly unsettling – perhaps most unsettling because of how strongly it resonated with me. The video features Wesleyan student Lily Myers performing her poem, “Shrinking Women,” at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. In her poem, Myers draws on her own personal experience to explore the pressures on women to conform to societal expectations about their bodies and their behavior. The physical shrinking of women, fueled by self-deprivation in pursuit of “the perfect body” (whatever that is), is reflective of, and intrinsically bound up with, the metaphorical shrinking of women to fit the roles established for them by a patriarchal society.
On the surface, Myers’ poem is a painfully honest representation of the fraught relationship many women have with food, eating, and their bodies. Myers describes her mother as “a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled,” because for Myers, her mother, and too many others, eating has become a socially complex act permeated by guilt and self-loathing. Rather than being seen as a basic right, a way of nourishing one’s body, eating is experienced as an indulgence that must be strictly policed and monitored. If we slip in this self-policing, a shaming ritual follows, an acknowledgment to ourselves and others that we know we can’t get away with eating like this. Or at least, we can’t get away with it and still look good, still feel good about ourselves. We tear our bodies apart to prove that we know how the game works, that we always could and should be doing better and working harder.
Myers says of this behavior that “we learn it from each other,” but I would counter that we instead reinforce it in each other. I contribute to this twisted mentality every time my best friend tells me she’s having a fat day and I reply eagerly that I feel like a complete whale, that my stomach is disgusting, that an extra pound or two is somehow manipulating my entire sense of self-worth. But we, and all of the women in my life – we didn’t learn that from each other. We learned that from a culture that presents us with a narrow, virtually unachievable definition of beauty and teaches us that we can’t feel good about ourselves if our bodies don’t fit that standard. This culture shows us women whose bodies are digitally altered by Photoshop and tells us this is what it means to be perfect, and then it shoves diets and workout regimens down are throats as a reminder that if we just worked a little harder, maybe we could be perfect too. It tricks us into believing that our value depends on how we look, how successfully we can police ourselves into thinness, and that if we somehow stray or fall short, then we must not be worth very much at all.
Women are bombarded from all sides by expectations and rules dictating how we should look and act. The same is most certainly true for men, and I don’t want to ignore that – men have their own standards by which they are judged, and these can be enormously damaging and restrictive. But my focus here is women, and the reality that women, far more than men, are “taught accommodation” (as Myers so perfectly articulates it). We are programmed to be passive rather than assertive, to be quiet and modest and adaptable rather than to speak up and ask for what we want. We learn that women are not entitled to certain things, like the right to take up space, the right to be heard, the right to embrace our agency and demand respect. Instead, we are taught, as Myers explains, to shrink ourselves both literally and metaphorically, to get out of the way and let others decide how we should look, what we should want, and how we should behave.
So how do we combat this? How do we stop sending messages that are so utterly destructive to women, that teach us we don’t have the right to claim the space and attention and respect that we deserve? I’ve thought a lot about this, and what it all comes down to, at least for me, is agency. Agency and choice. Rather than establishing a standard and expecting everyone to meet it – you must be this thin, have this many sexual partners, behave this way in the workplace – we should instead reinforce the idea of determining that standard for yourself. We will always be bound by societal norms and the pressure to conform, but I know we can be better about teaching women to assert their agency and make their own decisions. We can teach women things like this:
You have the right to decide for yourself what food you will eat, what size you will be, what kind of body feels healthy and comfortable for you. You have the right to eat a piece of pizza without having to justify yourself and to like your body even if you don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model. You have the right to have zero sexual partners, to have 7 or 75, to sleep with men, with women, whoever you please. You have the right to say “no,” to say “yes,” to give pleasure or to ask for it, to know what you want and to say what you want, and to have your desires and self-knowledge respected. You are entitled to speak for yourself and demand that others listen, to be assertive rather than accommodating, and to claim space beyond merely what has been allotted to you.
When these are the things women learn from each other, we will find ourselves in a much better place.