The request had been that I "dress like a feminist" for a photo spread in a mainstream women's magazine, where I'd represent the next generation of feminism, or be, as they keep putting it, "the next Gloria Steinem."
The shoot was last week and I took my readers' fantastic advice—thanks for that, by the way!—and packed in my hanging bag several outfits in which I feel comfortable, happy, and most of all, me.
Yet the clothes I'd worked so hard to pick out were destined never to make it out of the bag. Instead, the fantastic stylist had gone through the mag's generously stocked designer closet and picked out clothes for us that will be at the peak of style when the issue comes out in the fall. This, at first, was fine by me-this thrift store girl will transform into a fashion diva on your dime any day!
Let me stop here and explain something that's not shocking at all considering I was socialized female in American society: I've struggled with my weight and body image issues for as long as I can remember. I went to Weight Watchers for the first time when I was 11 and tried out every fad diet I could find in my mother's magazines. I spent many years sobbing in dressing rooms, at swimming pools and school dances and talent shows, because I could never fit into the blonde, rail-thin ideal of a pretty Texas girl.
After I got to New York and into feminist activism, I gained a perspective on beauty that eased my body hatred a bit. I realized that what's ugly in one culture is desirable in another and vice versa and that this constant pressure –- applied to women by the media, our friends, our family, random strangers on the street and online -– to be unnaturally thin is another form of sexism that at best hobbles women by making us spend unnatural amounts of time concerned with our appearance and at worst, kills.
So, when I walked into that photo shoot last Wednesday, I thought I'd made a fragile peace with my size 12 body. I'd decided that I liked the young women I speak to on campuses seeing a real-looking woman speaking her truth and making waves in the world. I know in my feminist heart of hearts that my words and actions matter far more than the packaging they come in-and, by Goddess, a little extra packaging can be just as hot!
That peace started to crumble fast when all the other women profiled—an amazing cast, including a playwright, a politician, an FBI agent and a fashion designer, among others, who for some reason all happened to be thin and drop dead conventionally gorgeous—were given 7 or 8 fantastic outfits to try on. Since designers don't usually provide size 12 samples, I got a wrap dress that made me look like a sail, a silk dress that made me look like a sail boat, and an embroidered leather jacket that, had it fit, would have been a huge break in solidarity with my allies in the animals rights movement. I pushed back tears, told that evil voice in my head saying, "disgusting cow" over and over again to shut up, and willed myself to smile and walk out of the dressing room in the "sail boat" option.
A pair of fierce, black, six inch platform boots and really awesome snake bracelets made me feel slightly better, but not for long. When we lined up for a once-over from the staff, I was transported back to Lubbock, TX and into a picture of me and a group of friends dressed in the same white dress, except mine was three sizes larger. I was then, and I realized standing in the line-up, always will be, the "smart one" or the "talented one" but never, ever the "pretty one."
I know how it works at group photo shoots: the director pulls different people in and out of the shot to see whose outfits and look work together. Yet as I got pulled in and out of every single shot, I couldn't help but be sure it was because of how horrible I looked. I cried in the bathroom three different times- the make-up artist loved that- and in a moment of being truly flustered, fell to the asphalt in my impossibly high heels and ripped up my legs, as you can see in the photo below.
I was eventually photographed in the last shot of the day and that part was surprisingly fine-years of posing for headshots, newspapers, and Facebook photos kicked in and I needed the least direction of anyone in my group. As I took off the dress and heels and prepared to leave in my own long, flowing skirt, I couldn't decide if I was more pissed that I'd been made into some editor's idea of "High Fashion Feminist Barbie" or that I'd failed so miserably in executing the role at every possible turn. The next Gloria Steinem, huh? Yeah—without the beauty or the grace!
So I signed on to spend my life fighting against the beauty myth in all its insidious forms and what did I do? Fall hopelessly prey to it, and on my face too.
Even though that evil voice in my head—which is, not coincidentally, male and hisses like Hanibal Lecter— is telling me this makes me a bad feminist, it simply means that I, like most women and some men, can still succumb to society's false paradigm that beauty and worth are correlated. It reminded me how invaluable feminism's campaign for real beauty standards is because I never want another woman to feel the way I did during that shoot.
It was also a reminder that, even if people are calling me a role model, or perhaps especially so, I'm still very much in the process of birthing myself into the woman I want to be and stripping away the layers of myself that have been torn and scarred by sexism and oppression and personal pain. It's an excruciating process at times, but a necessary one.
In this case, I'm vowing to do some reading on feminism and body image—suggestions in the comments appreciated!—and feed and exercise my body in a manner so that it's healthier, if not smaller. I'm going to consciously banish that creepy, self-hating voice from my head and ask myself each time I want to succumb to its lull if I would say to a fellow woman such awful things.
After all, it wouldn't do the movement any good if I or anyone else waits to do radical social justice work until we're "feminist enough," unblemished, for public consumption. I don't believe my sisters will be put off by my scars and scrapes but instead will see them and be more able to see, accept, and heal their own.
Or, at the very least, they'll see my legs and skip the six-inch heels.
The author of this post can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.