A whole lot of learning begins with unlearning.
That’s what I’ve been doing for the past year or so. Learning about body positivity by unlearning what I’ve been taught about bodies and their worth.
That is why I don’t comment on other’s bodies. I have personally experienced the pain of having my body commented on and know these comments assign value and can be loaded with hidden messages and judgements about what society dictates is an acceptable body.
And yet, I haven’t gotten as far with body positivity as I’d like. My brain still latches on to on some pretty meaningless superficial information.
For example, when I first greet a friend or colleague, my go-to comments are almost always about the way they look – “I love that sweater” or “those jeans are so cool” or “wow, your hair looks fantastic.”
Now this is ridiculous. If I say I’m body positive and yet I make comments about appearance, I’m a hypocrite. Why are my comments so shallow when I know that who a person is on the inside is more important than their looks? I’m aware that appearance-related remarks reinforce the notion that looking good is more important than the qualities that person has.
So why do I comment on appearance?
Am I not assigning value by complimenting someone on their clothing or hair or accessories? It’s a deep-rooted automatic and unconscious reaction. One that I need to unlearn.
I know that my behavior is culturally and societally informed. I have learned to equate appearance with worthiness and despite all the unlearning I’ve done, I still subconsciously force this idea on my own appearance. And so my residual insecurities about my appearance along with internalized biases lead me to continue to focus on the cover rather than the book – both for myself and others.
My brain has me constantly comparing everything against some kind of acceptable standard. And this is doing harm. To myself and to others.
Thinking about my own process in this way helps me to understand why some people in my life react so negatively when I tell them I’m thinking about shaving my head. They may have an attachment to hair as part of their identity. They may have story about who a person is with a shaved head. They too are valuing appearance more than a person’s qualities, likely unconsciously.
A couple of years ago a friend asked me to stop describing her as “cute.” For my friend, a thin, skinny white cis woman, being labelled as “cute” diminishes her value as an independent, intelligent woman. Instead of feeling as though she is respected for those core qualities, when she is called “cute,” she feels insignificant and one-dimensional.
Interestingly I felt like I was giving my friend a compliment by calling her “cute” because I have learned to value that quality. In fact, I think some part of me wants to be seen that way, too. But by focusing on her appearance, I was projecting my insecurities and desires on her and causing her discomfort.
I’ve done a lot of work on my own body image over the years. When I was living with anorexia and my exercise addiction, my obsession with appearance had an incredibly negative impact on my mental health. Letting go of that obsession was a step in the direction of truly and unconditionally accepting myself. And yet I still have work to do on that based on the realization that my insecurities and busy brain still judge and compare without my even knowing it.
What I’m highlighting here – for myself and for you, reader – is that when we comment on appearance we take away from what really matters: who the person truly is, appearance aside. Even though personal style may be used expressively or to reflect a mood, what we look like is just a façade, not who we really are.
What if we took appearance out of our comments and became more thoughtful about how we address people? The issue is not what others look like. The problem is us and our obsessive fascination with looks.
If we open our minds, beauty can be found in so many more meaningful ways than just appearance. What about the inherently unique attractiveness that comes from a person’s personality or values or contributions they make to the world?
“You’re really good at what you do”
“You have the greatest ability to bring people together”
“You have such insightful observations”
“You are so patient and caring”
These are the qualities I want prioritize in my interactions with others. Appearance is regulated by all sorts of factors and I want to challenge my instincts and assumptions and really see and champion other’s virtues instead of looks. Will you join me? -JH