Content warning: body image
I love bodies. This has not always been true, but I love bodies and count my own among the bodies I love. So when I first heard of Tess Munster and #effyourbeautystandards, I giggled with delight. The body-positive parts of the internet celebrated her recent modeling contract as a step forward in ending fat shame. But the rest of the internet doubled down on the shaming, of course, in the form of concern trolling. A plus-sized model will glorify unhealthy lifestyles! they typed between hand-wrings. But the amount of body fat a woman has isn’t an indicator of her health. And the modeling industry is rife with young women and girls who are encouraged to lose weight at any cost; are they not glorifying unhealthy lifestyles?
A friend of mine sent me links to a few articles about Carmen Dell’Orefice. At 83, she is the oldest working supermodel in an industry obsessed with youth. She is breaking age barriers, but she reinforces the narrow standards of thinness, beauty, and whiteness. And while it may be a step in the right direction as far as age in concerned, the message seems clear to me: to be accepted one must age gracefully and it helps to look younger than you actually are.
I’m not asking you to compare the two women pictured below. I am asking you to think about what our culture deems newsworthy: Carmen Dell’Orefice (age 83) made the news for still being beautiful at an old age. My Grammy (age 93) was one half of the Longest Married Couple in the state of North Dakota when my grandfather died in April. She’s shrinking in height, she has wrinkles, she wears orthopedic shoes. I don’t care about any of that. Her impact on the world may not make the news, but it is evident when you meet my cousins, who all work in their own way to make the world better.
Alternative modeling aims to break free of the standard definitions of beauty, often featuring models who are trans*, have disabilities, or are tattooed/pierced. But even as they stretch our concept of beauty in one area, they often reinforce another set of beauty norms (link NSFW for exposed breast): hairless femininity, facial symmetry, youthfulness.
All this reminds me that we spend a considerable amount of time talking about how women look. After my grammy (pictured above) had her second mastectomy, I asked her if she had ever considered reconstructive surgery. She told me she was too old to be vain. It was not a dig at women who opt for less-invasive lumpectomies or for breast reconstruction; it was just a statement that in her late 70s, she had too much to do to spend time with the consuming process of reconstructing her chest. That’s not to say she wasn’t self-conscious; she was visibly uncomfortable for a long while after that second breast was gone. But she adjusted. And she kept busy.
My students have different sized bodies that can do different things. And we don’t engage in body talk in my class, unless it’s to talk about what our bodies can do. Yesterday, we talked about running. TLK said he can run the fastest in the whole elementary. I told him about my friend Greg who runs marathons even though he doesn’t “look like a runner.” We talked about speed and endurance, and strong legs, strong hearts, and having fun. Elsa reminded me I needed to fix her walker because she broke it (again!) running in P.E. TLK asked when I would be able to skate again. I told him soon, and he said that was good. He said I seem happy when I can skate.
But even all that is focused on our bodies. And even though I love bodies, I am more than my body. And so are my students. They are more than cute, pretty, active, strong, and fast. They are also curious, empathetic, kind, bright, clever, and hilarious. They are Full of Awesome.
Body shaming is dangerous. Having a wide variety of bodies represented by modeling will normalize a wide variety of body types. I’d rather live in a culture that isn’t obsessed with body type and appearance, but since I do, I want to see diverse representations of people of size, people of color, people with disabilities, people that break down the gender binary. And I want to see it celebrated, not shoved into a niche corner of the interwebs. Instead of creating new molds, let’s just break ’em, eh?