Sunday, September 24, 2017

Body Shaming: More Than Our Bodies

Published: November 16, 2015
Misty Copeland, photo by Nisian Hughes
Misty Copeland, photo by Nisian Hughes

Body shaming is an “urban dictionary” term used to describe behavior that critiques, generalizes, demeans or otherwise shames women who do not fit society’s pre-determined mold of what a woman “looks like”. However, it is simply “new millennial misogyny”. Misogyny, a term dating back to the 18th century, is a type of sexism. In its most extreme form, misogyny is an expressed hatred of women most often exhibited through violent acts as well as the total oppression of women in a society. In moderate application, it is manifested in gender wage discrimination. And in less noticeable ways, expressed through the belittling of women, and the sexual objectification of women. It is this less noticeable form, which is most common because it is perpetrated through music and media. From the time we are born, we are given images through movies, print ads, commercials and music videos which program us to a “standard” of what women are supposed to look like.

One might think that women who are accomplished professionals in their chosen field would be immune to body shaming. But, unfortunately this is not the case. One of the most recent women to share her struggles with it was newly crowned Prima Ballerina, Misty Copeland. Misty made history this past August when she became the first African American ballerina to be made the premier lead dancer with the American Ballet Theatre since it opened in 1937. The title is a rare honour, traditionally reserved for only the most exceptional dancers. In her autobiography, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Misty is very candid about the struggles she lived with her entire career because of how she looked. Besides being told she couldn’t be a ballerina simply because she was African-American, those in the industry further explained to her that she didn't have the classic shape of a ballerina. What she was actually being told was that she didn't look the same. She didn't fit the pre-determined mold. The image we have of ballerinas is one of very thin, very pale, fragile fairies who flit across the stage with ease.

However, Misty is athletic and voluptuous with a brown complexion. The art of ballet has been highly criticized in the dance world because of its non-existent female choreographers. 19th century ballet began crafting women as passive and fragile. And although women created ballet, there are a plethora of women ballet teachers and dancers, the industry is more or less owned by men. And it is they who decide what “a woman” should look like. Fortunately, Misty was finally able to shatter the view of what a prima ballerina looks like.

Ronda Roussey, the first woman MMA fighter to sign with the UFC and current undefeated champion, recently addressed the issue of being called “too masculine.” In a recent interview with Glamour Magazine, Rousey said, “I want to see the standards that women hold themselves to change. In terms of looks, I feel like we’re given an impossible standard to live up to. It should be more diverse….” The UFC is also a male dominated industry, whose President once swore that a woman would never be in the UFC. Yet, despite all of Rousey’s record shattering accomplishments, she still has to contend with body shaming and being told by society that her body is too muscular. Misogyny in this form, fetishizes women’s bodies and reduces them to sexual objects. In the media, misogyny turns women into commodities used to sell magazines and hamburgers on television. When women are fetishized, it strips them of their individual identity. Their accomplishments and contributions to society do not matter as much as what they look like.

Serena Williams, professional tennis champion and arguably the best female athlete in the world has had to battle criticisms about her physique nearly the entire span of her 16-year career. This past July, Williams won her 21st major competition putting her just one win away from completing a Women’s Singles Grand Slam (the last woman won in 1988). But none of that seems to matter because while the main subject should be pride in her accomplishments, sports broadcasters, news media and even social media have focused obsessively on the muscular shape of her body as a negative. Perhaps the most scrutiny Serena faces comes through social media. For example, after her win, author J.K Rowling tweeted a message congratulating Williams. One man felt compelled to tweet back at J.K. Rowling saying, “Serena is built like a man.”  Defenders of Williams have been quick to call out this form of misogyny against Williams as being cloaked in racism as well.

Whether we are talking about champion athletes like Serena Williams or Presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton - who the former host of the Daily Show referred to as a “boner killer” - when women are in powerful positions, society often attempts to reduce them to the sum total of their body parts. And when a woman's physique or demeanor is strong, instead of fragile (as women are traditionally supposed to be), the determination is that these women are not feminine enough. But the question is, “feminine enough for whom?” And with the advent of social media, anyone with the ability to use their index finger can post their opinions on women's bodies all over the world via Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Women are complete and total human beings. They do not fit “a mold.” Therefore, women must continue to confront misogyny in all of its forms, to ensure that women are allowed to rise to the tops of their fields and become all that they were born to be.