Strong Bodies, Beautiful Bodies, Plastic Bodies?

In the new year, the self-improvement industry kicks into high gear. This year, I am going to be thinner and take better care of my skin. I will be irresistible. My best me ever. At least, that is the mantra so many women are repeating this January and not dissimilar to the lines I use to use to motivate myself in my twenties. This is not what I want for my daughters.

My focus has always been on my body as the site of athletic activity, the foundation that makes me strong. Of course, having others I find attractive find me attractive is a pleasure, but not a goal in and of itself. It should be the happy side-effect of  improving my health, body and mind.

On the one hand, my subject position is problematic. I am trim and small in stature, so saying that you shouldn’t focus on weight loss sounds hypocritical. It might look easy from the outside. But the truth is, over many years, I have eaten well and work out regularly. I can’t say enough about yoga in every way. All that to say that when you adopt a healthy lifestyle, you stop counting calories and speaking the language of deprivation and opt for a kind of discipline that doesn’t feel like discipline at all. (Perhaps this is a Kantian freedom to limit the self. :) )

I recently read an article on a feminist blog about weight loss as an acceptable feminist endeavor, if the purpose is to create a stronger body. Wow, do we really have to justify weight loss?! Of  course being our strongest, healthiest self is desirable and nothing to apologize for.  In that same blog, a reader left a comment that she can afford to have plastic surgery, so why not?

Well, outside of any variety of situations that are for medical purposes or reconstructive surgery of some kind, here’s why. Because at the end of the day, you’ll end up looking like Jenny McCarthy, who looks ageless, but not in that mysterious, desirable way, but in that Barbie kind of way. Eeek. Is this what we want for our daughters?

This semester I’m going to be teaching Irigary and Iris Marion Young in the context of plastic surgery. So I am beginning to think through the various angles, like on the one hand the notion that of course a woman has the right to alter her body however she sees fit. At the same time, at what point do we resist (first we have to recognize) the desire to conform to social “norms” of feminine beauty that aren’t mine to begin with? At what point does getting a boob job tell young girls that they don’t measure up and won’t be happy because they won’t be desired if they don’t have a certain body type? What message does my comportment send other women and girls about how I think about myself, how my body moves through space, my place as a gendered body in the world?

I’m not troubled when a kid dyes her hair blue. She wants to tell the world she is special. She wants others to see on the outside what she is working to be on the inside. Maybe at some point she won’t need blue hair, or maybe it’ll just become part of her.

I am troubled by thirty and forty-somethings who don’t teach young women about their bodies, or even simple steps towards confidence and self-esteem like how to buy a bra that fits. Instead, this type of woman is focused on putting herself out there as a sexual object. She is teaching the girls around her that they should be putting their energy in that direction, that that’s what femininity is. Her girls are likely to reject their femininity altogether or to struggle to define their femininity for themselves (which is the most important point–this is what we, the generation before, should enable, self-actualization!).

I can see her now, two boobs pointed at me like canons. I’m not exaggerating (I wish I were). Why do women use their bodies as weapons aimed at other women? What if I’m not playing?

Programs like Girls on the Run, or a similar self-esteem/positive body image program for girls which uses yoga as the vehicle (run by an amazing yogini in my town) are doing their part. It never hurts to refocus our energies toward being stronger and healthier. I am convinced that learning to see our bodies as an asset, as the foundation from which we move through the world, will change the way women move through space (now, so often, so tentatively) and the way they take up their place in the world.

That is what I want for my daughters. What do you want for yours? What role do sports for girls play in all this?



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  1. philopsycho says:

    I’m not sure. I had my kids in soccer for a couple of years when they were young, but none of them took to it. My favorite memories is of my daughter being around 5 years old, holding hands and chatting with the a girl on the opposite team during a game! =D That was pretty typical for her, too. Some of the mothers rolled their eyes, but I was proud to have child who was so liked, so sociable. Even now that she is playing the flute beautifully, having dropped out of soccer try outs due to a veteran player being really mean to her during practices, she isn’t competitive at all. Her only competition is herself. She has a private tutor from the high school who pushes her enough to make her practice, and she wants to impress her band instructor. But I don’t think she’s inclined to be athletic right now. I’m not sure athletics are for every girl.

    I did gymnastics as a child, then flag corps for a year in high school (hated it, but there was a lot of upper body movement involved), and then have dabbled in both overexercise as part of an eating disorder and in recovery, running/walking for stress relief and health.

    Neither of us is wired for team sports and the competitiveness of it all. And I’m not sure that team sports are good for everyone, but I am open to trying yoga with her. Maybe it would be a good idea to give it a shot. Maybe one of us will take to it.

    • Wanda says:

      Yoga is ideal, because it teaches you to be in your body and in space in a confident yet non-competitive manner. Everybody can do yoga. When I tried it some years ago, I was shocked to discover it is not at all what I thought it was. Find a good yoga instructor, and let me know what you think if you give it a try.

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