I cannot believe it took me 34 years to recognize this.
I grew up in the same culture as the rest of you — women’s worth lies in their desirability, their desirability lies in their looks, and most specifically, their body. That’s the message that was sent. Over and over, repeatedly, sometimes loud and clear and sometimes subtle and insidious. In the same way it’s obvious that a partner punching you in the face is abuse but gaslighting can slip by unnoticed; we call bullshit on someone flat-out saying in a TV show “She’s not pretty because she’s not a size __ (insert whatever size fucked with your head most).” But the damage of never seeing a plus-size character whose storyline revolved around something other than her weight often isn’t realized until many years later.
Growing up, I knew no one on TV or in the movies looked like me. I knew anyone who wasn’t ’90s “heroin chic” thin was portrayed as the fat sidekick, and in any book I read (which was a lot), there was talk of disordered eating (read some of nutritionist Haley Goodrich’s work here about how diets are all a form of disordered eating in varying degrees). It didn’t matter what I looked like or how large or small I actually was — I didn’t look like them. And they mattered, because men were choosing them.
I have a hormonal condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a history of disordered eating (thank you ’90s culture, where 90% of girls came out with an eating disorder of some kind), a family history of “thick thighs saving lives,” and multiple other reasons I could list for why I will never be thin — and all listing these things does is continue to try to qualify my worth. I’m fucking over it. I’m worthy — just because I am.
But hey, here’s a fucking clue — I’m desirable, too. No, not to everyone. (Is anyone desirable to everyone? Uh, no.) I’m not everyone’s type, for multiple reasons, just like everyone else, but I am some people’s type.
And you are too. But I bet you don’t see that in the media, do you?
I started to figure this out a couple years ago, as my oldest started reading Babysitters’ Club books and watching old episodes of Full House — books I’d read and a show I watched religiously as a child. Not only are there no characters who aren’t gorgeous by Hollywood standards, for any character who doesn’t meet that standard, their storyline is about their appearance. About a diet, about being rejected because of their appearance, about being teased, about how much better their lives would be if they weren’t who they were, if they could just change themselves.
Here’s the thing — bringing awareness to how hard society is on anyone who doesn’t fit these ridiculous, nonsense standard of beauty? Great. But that’s not what this is.
Last year, I asked friends on Facebook for ideas on what new TV shows I could introduce my children to that had any body positive messages at all, especially a character who might not be in a small body for them to look up to. There were not a lot of responses. One show my children have enjoyed is Annedroids on Amazon Prime. The focus is on science and friendship, and there is one character who is not in a very small body. She’s funny and smart and super cute. She has dark curly hair and a bubbly personality, and if you’re reading this and you know me personally, you might see why I think she’s such an appealing character. My daughters do this thing when they watch TV shows, because sisters two years apart will apparently fight over anything — they pick which character they “are” while they watch the show.
They never pick her.
They are six and eight, and they’ve already heard the message about what supposedly is and isn’t beautiful loud and clear.
A lot of us right now (thank you COVID-19), are finding new Netflix shows to watch. While everyone else is getting into trash TV like Tiger King and Love is Blind, I’m getting into trash TV that’s ten years old. I just finished up Mad Men and now I’m into a show called Younger — something friends have recommended to me as “mindless, funny, and full of good-looking men” (yep, society and women are guilty of objectifying men too, you guys. No spoilers, don’t be that guy!). My friends are right — the show is funny, a good way for me to check out, and I am not sad about this character. The premise is that a 40-year-old divorcee living in New York City lies about her age in order to get an editing job, and she starts dating a 26-year-old tattoo artist while living this sort of double life. She has an 18-year-old daughter and is discovering who she is again, and kissing a lot of men along the way.
One might see why this show appeals to me.
If you’ve been divorced, or know someone who has been divorced, or can put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a minute — your self-esteem plummets. (Turns out, low self-esteem may have actually been what lead me into a toxic marriage in the first place, but that’s a an essay for another day.) You want to know you’re still desirable (was I ever in the first place?! is a terrible question I kept asking myself), you’re not sure who you are anymore or if you ever knew, you want to date but you don’t want to date, you’re excited and you’re terrified, you’re hurting and you’re free, and pretty soon you find yourself in New York City lying about your age to get a job in publishing and rediscovering your sexuality.
Okay, maybe not all of us. But I can almost guarantee all of us struggle with some insecurity one way or another, and if you’re a woman, especially one who has grown and birthed and nourished children with your body, there’s a good chance those insecurities are about your body. (Yes, men have them too, I can already hear the male commenters “Men are insecure, too!” Yes, we know, man behind the keyboard, this post is not for you. Don’t worry, there are a bajillion other ones that are). This character has no body insecurities that are addressed. She can pass for a 26-year-old who has never had children, if that gives you a clue. Of course, this is no different than what I would expect from a TV show. On CW, no less. (Judge away, readers. You’re watching Tiger King in your spare time right now.)
Two extras/characters with very small roles have appeared in bodies that look closer to mine. The first was a character who was listening to her friends complain about all the sex and affairs happening literally in their offices and she states that she’s “DTF (google it)” and wishes it would happen for her. The other one was a young woman in a bar who rudely stole the main character’s date’s chair while she “had to sit down” as the rest of her small bodied friends stood around her and talked.
Those are the two not-small-bodied characters I have seen in this show. And literally, it took me until this week, at 34, to realize how massively fucked up this is.
This is not going to be one of those essays that wraps up nicely with a bow on top: “Here’s our solution!” I don’t have it. I’m pissed, and one of the beauties of the internet is that I get to write about how pissed I am. But what I will say is that we — artists, writers, human beings — have Got. To. Do. Better.
For our sons and daughters, yes. But for fuck’s sake — for us, too.