When I walked into the ladies only room at my new gym, there was only one other woman working out there. She was older, probably in her 60s. Not bouncing around one of the many lime green machines, not lifting weights, not using the non-slip rubber mats. No. She was, however, dancing along to some salsa fusion dance video playing on her phone.
My first reaction was shameful, I admit.
“What the hell is she doing? Doesn’t she know that she can do that at home? Why join a gym just to watch YouTube?”
My second reaction wasn’t any less shameful, unfortunately.
“I should film this and send it to the @oldpeopledoingthings meme account.”
But then, finally, my third reaction was more in line with the way I truly feel.
“Good for her!”
After lifting some weights and intermittently planking, it dawned on me. This was a safe space. Maybe her husband made fun of her for wiggling her hips in the living room, or her kids teased her for being too old for that millennial stuff. Whatever her reason, she felt safe dancing in that room…with me. And I had betrayed her.
Once I reflected for a few minutes I started tallying up all the times I had body shamed another woman. Even if I’d never said it out loud, the fact that my thoughts were less than savory was downright embarrassing.
In middle school, I remember thinking how weird the girls were who didn’t try to hide their boobs while changing in the locker room. Or how I thought the girl who had a giant belly button because of a traumatic birth was some kind of alien. Once my two girlfriends and I found out that a group of boys in our class had given us nicknames. I was the fat one, and my friends were the Diabetic one and the Ugly one. Even though I was upset about the attention to my weight, I didn’t dare confront the boys who’d slandered us. You know what I did to console myself? I thought, “well, at least I’m not the ugly one.” It didn’t matter that she was my best friend, or that I never thought she was ugly. What did matter, was what they thought.
Shortly after that I developed a slight eating disorder, managed to shed a few pounds, and grew my hair out. Still, life after middle school didn’t get much better. The judgments, they just became crueler. Again, I never said these things out loud unless I was gossiping with a close confidante. But the fact that they were thoughts, speaks volumes to the aesthetic pressure women face as involuntary participants of the patriarchy. When they tell us we aren’t beautiful without makeup, a size 2 waist, or a perfectly slanted nose, we believe them. We believe them so fervently that we not only judge ourselves by these standards, but we also judge the ones we love by them as well.
Unless we become aware of the spell we’re under, we’ll continue to degrade others that don’t meet these standards (which has more to do with the fact that we’re not comfortable with the way WE look, the way WE move, the way that dark shadows lurk under OUR eyes, not because we actually care about anyone else’s appearance.)
In my early 20s, a friend of mine had forgotten to log out of her MySpace account from my computer. It was there that I’d seen a draft of a message she’d written to our mutual male friend (someone who had recently expressed interest in the both of us.) In the message, she wrote something that I’ll never forget, “Nicole with her saggy boobs and stretch marks.”
My stomach sunk. This was someone that I had just let crash at my house after a night of partying, someone who I had just driven home and hugged when she got out of the car.
I stopped being her friend immediately. In fact, I’m not sure I ever talked to her again. But I never told anyone why. Just that we had had a falling out. I didn’t tell anyone because I believed those things she had written about me. I always knew my boobs weren’t like the ones I saw in movies. But I’d never been ashamed of them. Until then, I’d worn tops that exposed my cleavage preferring to believe that perhaps my marks weren’t really that noticeable anyway. Perhaps I never thought that much about it because my mom and sister had them too. My sister had even given hers a nickname, “tiger stripes.” While there are a ton of body positivity hashtags and accounts young girls can follow now, there wasn’t anything of the sort back then. And thus, you internalized any poison that came your way.
And so I let her words sink deep into my bones. In the years after, I always thought twice about wearing low cut tops or about what lovers must think when they saw them for the first time. Even today I have a hard time swimming naked at the lake or changing in front of friends. I have a friend who always flashes her boobs at festivals or parties. I’ve always secretly wished I could too, wished I didn’t worry about whether or not my “tiger stripes” might offend someone.
A few weeks ago, a few friends and I visited Marrakesh. The only thing that I’d requested during the trip was that we go to the Hamam, a public bathing/sauna experience. Because we were in a Muslim country, I’d assumed that we would have to wear swimsuits. Not only were we required to strip off our tops, the woman who bathed us eventually tugged off our bottoms as well, to get a better scrubbing I’m assuming. Prior to the trip, I knew that each one of my girlfriends had body hang-ups. How? Because they’d made comments in passing, working them into the conversation at a dinner party or as a self-deprecating joke in a group chat. In fact, if you asked me now, I could easily list off all the things that they don’t love about themselves. I’d have a harder time listing off the things they do.
Though I hated the way they spoke of their bodies, I never defended them. Instead, I judged them for not being able to rise above the standards placed on them by the patriarchy. I didn’t feel compassion, I felt anger.
It was only until we were stripped down to nothing in a dimly lit concrete bathhouse in Africa, that I felt like I saw them for the first time. All three of them were absolutely beautiful, flawless in their uniqueness, perfect exactly the way they are. I felt my perception of each of them soften, saw them as beautiful souls navigating a cruel world. In turn, I softened the perception I had of my own body. My stretch marks were not something to be ashamed of, no, they were a part of my journey, the journey towards loving myself and others more deeply, more fully, more compassionately.