With the flood of ‘love your body’ rhetoric floating around, there’s a group of people who get continually left out of the discussion: people who don’t love their bodies, and are okay. There’s a whole panel at WisCon dedicated to talking about this very subject, and the people who lie at the intersections for whom this kind of rhetoric and the way it is framed can be very harmful, instead of empowering or helpful.
On the surface, ‘love your body’ seems like a radical thing to say, especially among women. We live in a world where bodies are heavily and tightly policed, where they need to be a certain shape and size, to have just the right proportions, to look and feel a certain way. They must be young and taut and slim and tanned just so (only white bodies are beautiful, you know), with long flowing hair and flowing eyes and perfectly smooth skin. The list of standards for what comprises a beautiful body seems to get more rigorous every year.
In the face of that, ‘I love my body’ and ‘love your body’ can be calls of defiance. That a fat woman should say ‘I love my body! It’s awesome!’ is an act of heresy in a world where fatness is undesirable. That a disabled woman should say ‘I love my body and I don’t want to change it!’ upends assumptions in a world where disability is unwanted and people assume disabled people want cures for what is ‘broken’ about them. The advancement of this kind of rhetoric in feminist and social justice circles is intended as a sort of call to action, for justice, for reclamation, for empowerment; it is assumed that people who do not love their bodies in the face of this rhetoric, then, must be self-hating. Must need more educating.
For surely, who would hate her body after being told that she must love it, that she is honoring herself and a larger movement by embracing it? Who, after looking at people with hugely varied[1. Though I’d note that many ‘love your body’ campaigns actually stick to a rather narrow range of body types and lived experiences.] bodies, could look at her own and still hate it? She must be a traitor to the cause, because she can’t get with the programme and admit that, yes, she loves her body. She loves the luscious folds of fat that roll down her back, perhaps, or the scar tissue on her leg that’s so dense it’s caused muscle contractures, making it difficult to walk. She loves her richly black skin, or her thinning hair.
In fact, some people don’t love their bodies. And that’s okay. Yes, I realise this runs in the face of everything these movements are telling you, but, truly. These people need body acceptance and advocacy too, not hatred and exclusion because they don’t fit with the desired new normal of radical body love. And people need to learn to distinguish between those who are exercising learned self-hate and engaging in damaging social patterns, and those who are well aware of movements to embrace all people and all bodies, but still feel uncomfortable in their own skin.
Because one of the things worse than feeling uncomfortable in your own skin while living (and sometimes actively advocating, speaking, and working!) in the midst of a movement that tells everyone to embrace her body is being told that you’re wrong for feeling that way. Is being informed that your feelings are invalid, because they go against the teachings of the movement. You’re supposed to love your body, therefore, you need to display radical self-love and talk about how much you love your body.
What if you have a disability that you really actually genuinely hate and wish you could cure, though? Not all disabled people want to be nondisabled, and I spend a lot of time fighting that myth, but I’m not going to pretend that the entire disability community feels that way. One woman with a significant impairment might jump at a cure while another might not. One woman with Parkinson’s might hate her body for betraying her, might loathe the tremors in her hands and arms. And that’s okay. She doesn’t need anyone’s permission to hate what is happening to her body, to be enraged and furious about it. She doesn’t need to be shamed if she seeks treatment.
Any more than a trans person who wants gender confirmation surgery needs to be scolded for not embracing his body. He doesn’t like his breasts, his vulva, and he wants surgery for them. There’s nothing wrong with that, and he shouldn’t be told to just embrace what he has or be thankful for the gift of life or any such nonsense. Maybe another trans man doesn’t feel like he needs to pursue medical transition and that’s also fine, but his colleague who does need that to feel whole, who hates his body and struggles with it on a daily basis, who experiences dysphoria when he catches sidelong glimpses of himself in the mirror, he doesn’t need to be told that he is a bad person for not loving his body.
The list goes on, but I’m going to stop now, because the important point here is that there is nothing wrong with not loving your body when that contradicts with your own lived experience within that body, and people shouldn’t be pressured into it. If you’re, say, disabled and happy, that is fantastic and wonderful, but it doesn’t invalidate the experience of someone who is disabled and unhappy. Nor does it invalidate the fact that for both of you, a more accessible and less ableist society would bring about positive changes for your quality of life, and that for both of you, full acceptance as who you are is a critical need.
In the rush to empower people by rejecting the narrow range of physical ideals, people need to remember that the key goal here is safety and acceptance for all.