I occasionally find myself in conversation, talking about what I do for work, with a person who disagrees that
“society teaches girls and women that their worth is based on their appearance.”
Recently a dear male friend said “what kind of asshole is teaching that??” thinking I meant parents were telling little girls directly “honey you are only worthy of love and happiness if you’re thin and pretty,” which (thankfully) is not usually how it happens.
These kinds of conversations are confusing for me, because it’s so self-evident and obvious that girls and women are conditioned this way. After all, undoing that conditioning is my job. But for someone who has never been on the receiving end of this conditioning, talking about it can sound completely crazy.
Often the person who disagrees is a man, but occasionally it’s not. Sometimes it’s a person with children, who feels defensive about their parenting. Every once in a while it’s a person who says “anyone who looks at a fashion magazine and feels bad about themselves is an idiot,” as if anyone struggling with body image must simply lack intelligence.
Anyway. Normally I like to talk about statistics and studies, both because I find that shit interesting, and because I think it makes for more compelling arguments about social patterns. But having recently had this conversation, I thought… maybe I should present my own personal story in response, as I can personally trace my own body image issues to a life-long pattern of people reacting to me in very specific ways.
It’s important to note here that lots of people reacting to me in very specific ways is socialization.
Socialization isn’t the same thing as parenting, and it’s not the same thing as reading magazines and wishing we looked like movie stars. It’s the whole kit and caboodle, the entire cumulative effect of how we learn what is and isn’t accepted, expected, celebrated, frowned upon, and punished for people like us, in our society.
So here’s my story— how I came to both believe and viscerally feel that the most interesting, valuable, and important thing about me was how I looked. How I came to believe that people loved me, liked me, and chose to spend time with me because I was thin and pretty, and that my value and worth were synonymous of my fuckability.
My story goes far beyond one article’s worth of moments and memories of course, but I think it paints an effective picture of how “being conditioned” to believe such things about ourselves happens in thousands of tiny, ordinary, unconscious moments. No matter how the kid is raised. No matter what the kids is exposed to. We’re social animals wired to understand ourselves through our role in our “tribe,” and these moments catch up with us.
As a pretty, thin, conventionally attractive, able-bodied white girl, I have a very long history of experiences of boys and men being kind, loving, attentive, warm, helpful, and respectful toward me… until they expected access to my body or sexuality in return, and turned cold, mean, or distant if/when I didn’t give it.
Starting at 7 years old, I spent the day completely lit up by the warm and sparkly attention of an older boy… a boy who went on to sexually abuse me later that night. His attention had seemed so pure, so wonderful, such a gift. I realized that day that warm and sparkly attention came at a cost, a secret price tag. The only reason I could gain access to the attention, warmth, and kindness I craved was because people liked how I looked, and wanted access to my body.
In thousands and thousands of small moments over the next few decades, this same thing played out daily.
Strangers were constantly kind to me, warm and lovely and sweet, until they made a move.
Nearly every male friend I had, from elementary school onward, showered me in this intense blast of warm attention. They made me feel funny, and cool, and likeable. They made me feel respected, and accepted, and like I belonged.
Eventually though, whether a few days or a few years later, every single one of these friendships fell apart. Some fell apart because the boy confessed he was sexually or romantically interested in me, and when I said I wasn’t, his behavior and demeanor would change dramatically. In place of warmth and respect, he would become cold and distant, or even nasty and hurtful.
Others fell apart because after some coercion/persuasion, I would give in and try to give him some of what he wanted. I didn’t want to lead anyone on, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, and I had enjoyed the attention and friendship, so I figured… maybe fair was fair. This was the price-tag, right?
Every time, no matter how it turned out, the message was reinforced: people liked me and were kind to me because of my fuckability. The most important and interesting thing about me was my fuckability. Once I denied them access to my fuckability, they all disappeared.
Tens of thousands of small moments: vibing with someone wonderful, then disappointed when I realized what they wanted. Tens of thousands of moments in which it was reinforced to me that nobody wanted to be my friend, pay attention to me, or treat me with respect if I wasn’t going to give them access to my body. All that warmth and curiosity instantly gone from their face, replaced with anything from anger to complete disinterest once I turned them down.
It was exactly the same as the way a catcaller turns from “hey sexy, lookin good!” to “fuck you, ugly bitch!” when I didn’t smile at them. Exactly the same as my boss hitting on me after I got hired, and realizing the only reason I got the job was so that he could. Exactly the same as co-workers and classmates giving me compliments about my work that I later realized were just excuses to get closer, so they could take their shot.
Always exactly the same. Any attention, kindness, or respect I got was due to my fuckability, my appearance, my body. Whenever it seemed to be about something deeper, it was a ruse.
Every time I thought to myself that I should have known better, that I shouldn’t have been so naive, so stupid, such a tease. I often beat myself up for not being able to connect with women as well as I seemed to be able to connect with men, because maybe then I could meet people who actually liked me for me.
Looking back, I can see why I struggled though.
Boys and men were constantly turning this shower of super intense warmth upon me, this ultra gooey wonderful halo of interest and regard. They made me feel fascinating, and cool. They poured out compliments about how funny, smart, creative, and talented I was. Girls didn’t do anything even close to that.
In comparison to the glow of male attention I got, it seemed like girls just didn’t like me, weren’t interested in me, and didn’t think highly of me at all. Of course I found it hard to connect with them. Of course I found it “easier” to make friends with boys and men. Boys and men were invested in making it easy for me.
I internalized, simply and reasonably, that my body was the most important, valuable, and worthy thing about me. That being fuckable was the best and most powerful thing I had to offer, and that I had to do everything in my power to maintain it. That my human needs for visibility, love, intimacy, connection, and belonging all hinged on how attractive people found me.
Not to mention the fact that the only women I saw being visible, celebrated, adored, and respected in our culture also happened to be the most thin, pretty, and fuckable ones. (Think: celebrities.)
Men were CEOs and presidents and politicians and tech leaders and producers and scientists and writers. They were celebrated for all kinds of internal qualities like intelligence, innovation, humor, leadership, adventurousness, and mastery no matter how they looked. If women were celebrated for internal qualities, it was for things like discipline and self-control, both of which could be “proven” by the shape and size of their bodies.
My story is extremely common for people in my intersection of race, gender, body size, and conformity to beauty standards. People in other intersections are socialized to learn different things about their worth and their body.
The point is that we are all being socialized constantly, learning who we are and where our value comes from, even if nobody says the damn thing outright. Nobody ever once told me “you’re only worthy of love, attention, respect, and connection if you’re thin and hot,” but I learned it anyway.
This is socialization, and it’s real. This is why talking about intersections of identity is so important: because we are socialized based on those intersections, which can make one person’s story sound crazy to a person in a different intersection.
From now on however, if someone else says they learned something this way, I suggest just simply believing them.
And if you, like me, learned that your worth was based on your fuckability, or your ability to be pretty, thin, or perfect… please know that we can unlearn this conditioning too.