The ‘Real Woman’ Myth

Like many women, I have had a tumultuous relationship with my body image and I often put myself at the mercy of others approval. I have dated a man who whipped an expensive-smelling tart from under my nose, only to place it in front of himself. His shirt buttons straining, he explained that he “didn’t want me to lose my beautiful cheekbones.” Another one in an industry that demanded thinness presented me with a squashed supermarket cake. His eyes gleaming with a long-repressed lust he whispered the unspeakable things he wanted me to do with the chocolate icing-once I gained a stone or two. For a time, I was disturbingly eager to contort myself so I fit the ideals of others, but it proved to be an ultimately fruitless, exhausting exercise. Hindsight is a glorious thing.
For context, I have never been waif thin or overweight by any medical definition. I go to the gym several times a week, for my mental well-being as much as my physical, and I feel better when I eat healthily. Some may think that by being decidedly normal in every way excuses me from the ‘size’ debate that rages across digital platforms daily, but that isn’t the case. For a time, I struggled to fit into a feminist blogosphere were womanhood was defined by extreme waistlines.

Even as someone who has accepted my body, my heart sinks every time I see a clickbait articles that scream the likes of ‘Bikini Bodies: who is wearing it right’ or ‘What men REALLY want in a woman.’ (I thought most would be happy with a partner who is compatible emotionally, intellectually, and morally, with some hot sex thrown in for good measure, but apparently it’s way less complicated than all that). The article is usually weighted to champion one end of the size debate, which leads to hundreds of impassioned comments. The most barbed of these are often penned by other women as they try and uphold their beauty standards of what ‘a real woman’ looks like.

Let’s consider that phrase for a moment, ‘a real woman.’ It’s odd to put those two words together in relation to something as transient and easily manipulated as aesthetics. Last time I checked, we were all ‘real women’ made from flesh and blood, each equipped with our own minds. If an Art History major has taught me anything, it’s that ‘beauty’ is an organic concept that flourishes and dies rapidly, so to reduce a woman’s ‘realness’ to her measurements not only defies logic, it detracts from far more important signifiers of what it is to ‘be a woman’.

Of late, the blogosphere has been trying to combat this notion of a prescribed ‘real woman’ by championing the body acceptance movement, a bandwagon that the media have been quick to jump on. Campaigns such as Doves quest for ‘Real Beauty’ are full of good intent, but are not without their own ostracising beauty standards. In the case of Dove, we are told that beauty is something that transcends dress size, ethnicity and age. Brilliant stuff. However these woman are susceptible to a media-friendly version of ‘realness.’ The larger women have generous breasts and bottoms, but relatively smaller waists, or barely another roll or muffin top in sight. Stretch marks or unsightly scars are a no-go, and any wrinkles are kept elegantly minimal. These beauty myths not only continue to pit women against each other, it also undermines the very definition of body acceptance. Instead, all it exposes is hypocrisy. Body acceptance should mean exactly that: acceptance of all bodies as beautiful. But from where I am standing, the semantics doesn’t match up with the practice.

It’s sad that in 2015 during the third wave of feminism (an epoch that champions the rights of the individual) that the female form remains such a hotly contested issue.  What is even more disturbing is the level of attention that the media gives this fundamentally insipid debate all in their quest for easy clicks and viral stardom. There are so much more pressing issues being faced by women around the world. Women are being stripped of their individualism, their basic human rights, and their bodily autonomy. Women are being abused, oppressed and held back economically, socially and sexually on a daily basis.  By being our own worst enemies and pitting ourselves against each other’s dress sizes in the name of feminism, we are defeating and distracting from its fundamental purpose. Freedom and equality is imperative, not only between the sexes, but between each other as well.

Amelia Richards writes that “women need to create our own beauty standards that allow for more room for individuality.” We need to put this ‘live and let live’ mentality into practice. Because ultimately beauty standards are so subjective, that no-one will ever definitively win. So you might as well accept yourself as the banging individual you are. Because fuck what everyone else thinks. You are the only person who lives in your own skin. But others must be allowed the same right.

“Just as the beauty myth did not really care what women looked like as long as women felt ugly, we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful”– Naomi Wolfe.

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