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How Praising Women’s Bodies May Be Holding Women Back

We’ve discussed body shaming, but its opposite might be dangerous, too.
Photo Credit: The Kitcheners

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners

Just recently, I was walking around the gym track with a friend, lost in my own thoughts of, Everyone smells, and, What the hell does that machine do? when, suddenly, my gym pal pulled me out of my mind-wanderings by pointing out a piece of equipment that looked like some sort of medieval torture method.

“That one’s really hard,” she said. “I saw this girl doing it the other day, and of course she had the perfect set of abs. I just wanted to say, ‘Teach me your ways!’” With a lighthearted and smooth delivery, my friend went on about how often she finds herself focusing on certain girls’ bodies as motivation. “Like that girl! See how her butt is so perky? Wouldn’t that be nice?”

I spent the remainder of our quasi-workout session pondering my friend’s comments.

The way she described these women, I couldn’t help but envision them as floating body parts. I felt that through her descriptions and veneration, my pal had committed the most common paradox of all time: She had elevated these regular human beings to untouchable fitness goddesses, while also unintentionally reducing them to a toned set of legs or a perfect pair of breasts. It made me consider how often this sort of talk occurs among women.

To be sure, I’m guilty of this kind of thought process, too. Yet, I’m also a huge advocate for encouraging men to view women as a whole. Isn’t that a bit hypocritical? Am I part of the problem?

Last week, I took a yoga class, and I didn’t catch the instructor’s inspiring closing message because I was too focused on her arms. I couldn’t tell you what color her eyes were, or even her name, but I definitely knew that she was stronger than I am. When I look in the mirror, I zone in on the one thing I don’t like. I stare at it until it consumes my reflection, while women whose features I consider most desirable run circles around my head like a pack of wolves.

Only in recent years did I begin considering how often women objectify one another, focusing on every aspect of our bodies and everyone else’s. We could all benefit from less worship of the physical aspects of other women, celebrities, and even ourselves. Because physical admiration is often casual, even humorous (“OK, can I have your legs?! Honestly!” *laughter*), and seemingly a positive thing—the complete opposite of body shaming!—we often miss that it can be psychologically detrimental. We can’t expect others—especially men—to develop a habit of viewing the whole picture if we keep neglecting to do so ourselves.

Photo Credit: Jen Trahan

Photo Credit: Jen Trahan

I’ll never forget the day I admitted to a mentor that I’ve always observed other women’s bodies and picked out parts that I would kill for. Without blinking, she said, “So they have flat stomachs. What does that say about them?”

I considered her query. Well, it says they’re fit. It says they work out and take care of themselves, probably. It says they’re pretty. I gave her my answers sheepishly, to which she shook her head and demanded more.

“But what does it say about them as a person?”

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been as profound as it seemed, but in a second, my habits became painfully clear as I realized what she meant. How ridiculous I was, always beginning and ending my assessments with physical characteristics. It was exactly the sort of thing I feared others would do to me—the thing that made me want to scream at the world every time I put on a bikini. I know I have this flaw and that flaw, but if you talk to me, you will see that I have a great big heart! I know all the words to most Vanilla Ice songs! I love my mom! I’m a really great friend, and I’m humble and humorous and kind! I’m more than what meets the eye!

Aren’t we all?

There are a number of questions we may want to ask ourselves next time we find ourselves committing this minor crimequestions that have helped me take a trip back down to reality when I find myself yearning for other women’s body parts.

01. What am I competing for? Women should build each other up rather than tear each other down­—that’s not a new goal. But it also applies whenever we find ourselves coveting another’s features. Even though we’re not body shaming, we’re offering the subliminal suggestion that we are in competition with one another for something, whether it’s the attention of men or the jealousy of other women. We aren’t cave people competing for the ultimate mate for survival—there’s more to offer in each of us.

02. What does self-improvement entail for me? It’s normal and natural to want to better ourselves, and improving upon existing habits (such as eating, exercising, etc.) is one of a million ways to do that. However, if you find that a certain degree of self-loathing or a constant need to be as attractive as everyone around you is what motivates you, then you may need to reestablish your ideals.

03. How would I want someone to view me? Of course, it would be nice if the people in our lives were consistently praising us for our looks. I’ve always imagined that receiving a constant flow of compliments in regards to my body would give me a great deal of confidence, and perhaps that would be true for some time. But it’s also important to realize the value in who you are aside from your physical attributes. When you get to know people, you learn so much about who they are beyond what you see at first glance. You encounter a whirlwind of passions, tendencies, ideas, and quirks. Imagine a world where we view every stranger as a heart worth getting to know rather than a figure worth trying to attain.

04. How do I want men to view women? Whether it’s a son, brother, or husband, there is likely a man in your life who is observant and aware of how you are with your fellow female species. Give them the opportunity to learn from you, and work on making comments that demonstrate the way they ought to view the opposite sex. It could be as simple as suppressing the urge to comment at a restaurant that your waitress’s attire seems risqué and instead pointing out her excellent work ethic, acknowledging her friendly mannerisms, or not saying anything at all.