Body image is something which has plagued women for as long as our worth has been associated with how we looked, so forever basically, but in an age of social media where we count the likes we get on pictures of ourselves, our feeds are full of people’s ‘perfect’ lives and ‘perfect’ bodies, and all angles are exploited in order for someone’s waist to look as small as possible whilst also somehow making their bum look like Beyonce’s or Kim Kardashians. It’s no wonder that we’re all lacking a little bit in the way of body positivity, so for September Sex Education Week this year I have had a hunt through my bookshelves to find women who are, like all of us, lacking in confidence and over analysing every little thing, and also women who celebrate, or who are learning to celebrate, every part of them.
Girl Up, Laura Bates
Within the first few pages, Girl Up simultaneously made me cry and want to shout hell yeah! Throughout this book, Laura Bates is pressing a giant bullshit button (or sexist bullshit klaxon), calling time on the old adages; “worrying about our bodies is a trap. It’s a great big, ugly trick that keeps girls quiet and under-confident”. Everything she talks about I agree with but also know I am guilty of feeling the way the adverts want me to feel, I am guilty of wanting to lose weight and look different, I am guilty of feeling inadequate in my body, but I am also agreeing with her that I shouldn’t feel that way. I think this book more than any other shows the trap that I and many other women are in. We’re constantly trying to be more body positive and embrace every aspect but that doesn’t mean that we suddenly become invincible to the pressures from the outside world and our own minds.
Irie in White Teeth, Zadie Smith
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, is not about bodies, or indeed teeth. The story follows three families over the course of the 20th century and how their lives become intertwined with each other and the paths they follow as a result of various events.
One of the characters, Irie, is a 15-year-old girl growing up in the 90s in North London, trying to find her place in the world. She struggles with her weight, her identity as a mixed race woman, and with unrequited love. Much of Irie’s focus, during her chapter, is on how she can gain the attention of Millat; lose weight, relax her hair, subsequently burn it all off. As we get to know Irie more we realise that a lot of this has very little to do with Millat but with her own insecurities. She hates her curly hair, she wants “straight straight long black sleek flickable tossable shakeable touchable finger-through-able wind-blowable hair. With a fringe”. She sees weight loss adverts on the way home from school and fantasises over ‘Before’ and ‘After’ pictures, waiting “for her transformation from Jamaican hourglass heavy…to English Rose… a slender delicate thing”.
Irie’s chapter is both devastating and hugely relatable, I know that I have stood in front of a mirror or seen a photo and hated what was staring back at me. I know I have, as Irie does, placed my hand on my stomach reminding myself not to be bloated after lunch or whilst on my period; remember to suck in – this dress wasn’t made for big meals, thank goodness I wore a baggy top etc. I also know that since reading White Teeth, Irie has crept into my subconscious in a positive way. I saw my internal monologue written down and cried, and now when I remember, I try to fight back, I try to relax a little after lunch or dinner, and remind myself that it’s fine to be human.
Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou
This poem exudes confidence, it is a celebration of her and her body. Phenomenal Woman is a confident, sassy celebration of self that we should all try to embrace as much as we can. All I can say now is to listen to the woman herself and take a little bit of Angelou away with you today.
Is It Just Me?, Miranda Hart
Miranda Hart is best known for her sitcom Miranda but since then she has spoken out about a lot of personal issues on Instagram and in her book Is it Just Me?, an apt and relatable title that we’ve definitely all thought at some point or another. The fabulous thing about this book is, firstly, it’s not just you, we really are all in this together *cue music* but also the way she gets straight to the point, whilst also making you laugh; “most of us wouldn’t mind looking a bit more like him or her from Men’s Health or Grazia magazine, and a little bit less like, well, a sackful of ham”. The book is written as if in conversation with her younger self, and particularly for the chapter on bodies, it’s a good way of calling out the insecurities our younger selves have that as we get older we will hopefully move past.
She also calls out the fact that the idea of being “taken seriously as a woman” is to have glamorous hair, a designer handbag and a full face of makeup, and lists the pros and cons of being a tall woman (something I will never experience, being vertically challenged myself) including occasionally being mistaken for a man (pro: skip the long queue for the ladies, con: you’re more likely to have to help people lift heavy things).
Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies, Scarlett Curtis
Feminist Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies (FDWP) is a collection of essays by women on what feminism means to them, curated by Scarlett Curtis. It is a fantastic read and one I recommend to all of you (duh, that’s why it’s in this list). I love the variety of topics covered in this anthology, it is educational, eye-opening and extremely relatable. Body positivity isn’t really spoken about explicitly in the book, at least not in the way we imagine it. Dolly Alderton lists it in her essay ‘Dismantling and Destroying Internalised Misogyny: To-Do List’; “Remember that when you stand in front of the mirror naked and examine every opalescent stretchmark and knobbly toe and undulation of flesh of your body (every night) and feel a deep, sour hum of self-hatred, it’s probably not because you’re hideous”.
I think that body positivity is spoken about in broader terms, whether it is in the power of our bodies during childbirth, claiming ownership over our bodies as a result of the #MeToo movement, buying empowering pants or seeing representation in the media of people who look like you, FDWP offers up a whole variety of body positivity for you to enjoy and hopefully find at least one essay that speaks to you.
Evelyn in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg
Fried Green Tomatoes is one of my favourite books and quite possibly my favourite film. It is both incredibly poignant and funny. The story charts the lives of Idgie and Ruth and deals with issues such as racism, domestic violence, female friendship, grief and love. Set across two different timelines, we learn about Idgie and Ruth via the stories told by Ninny to Evelyn during Evelyn’s trips to the local nursing home. Whilst I could talk endlessly about Idgie and Ruth and the many other fantastic characters in this book, it is Evelyn’s journey that I want to focus on for this piece (but please do go and read/watch this, you won’t regret it).
Evelyn is a 1980s housewife struggling with the idea of growing older; her weight, the menopause, and her stale marriage. Every time we meet Evelyn she is trying a new crash diet, skipping meals or wrapping herself in clingfilm, however, over time as she learns more about Idgie and Ruth’s lives we begin to see changes in Evelyn. She becomes empowered by the tales she’s told, and is more confident and sure of herself and even creates an alter ego by the name of Towanda. Towanda gives her that extra boost when she needs it, for example, if someone steals her space and she needs to ram their car out the way to make room for her own – we’ve all been there. By the end of the book, she embraces herself for all that she is and starts making choices that benefit her and make her feel good about herself whilst still carrying Idgie, Ruth and Ninny with her.
Words and Images by Eleanor Manley for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online.