I am wrapping up my fourth semester of teaching in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Teaching this seminar on body image has solidifed for me a few things that I felt were true regarding body image and self-awareness before I started teaching. Item # 1 on that list: It’s never about you.
You have a mother who laments your weight all of the time- no matter your size. You can be at your thinnest and certainly, she feels, you could do better. You could be at your heaviest, and she definitely lets you know it (because, for whatever reason, she has convinced herself that there’s no way you noticed on your own). She says, “You would be so much happier if you just lost twenty pounds.” The translation? She would be so much happier if you just lost twenty pounds, but the truth is she won’t be. Until she’s happy within herself, she’ll never be happy.
Here’s the thing. When people choose to offer commentary about your appearance, it is never about you. It is about them, about the thing that paralyzes them, about the story they have told themselves, about the narrative they are choosing to live.
“How can this be true?” A thin, tall student asked me last semester, tears presssed into the corner of her eyes. “A guy I worked with last night told me that I was too skinny. That he could never find me attractive because of how skinny I am. How can that be about him?”
I turn to her, tenderly assessing her tears, hoping she’ll understand so that his words won’t wound her so badly anymore. Just as I can’t wish away weight, she can’t wish it onto her reedy frame.
“What are you too skinny for?” I ask her.
“For him to think I am beautiful,” she answers, wondering if I have gone mad and missed her earlier explanation.
“That’s right, honey. For HIS definition of beauty. For HIS understanding of things. He’s the one that has made it a rule to see beauty in just that one way. He is the one incapable of admiring anything outside of the beauty box of his understanding. He is the one that feels that beauty has to have such a narrow, unrealistic definition. Not you.”
Her mouth forms a sudden O. She gets it.
Each semester, this adage is tested. But always, we come back to the fact of it. When someone tells you that you are not enough because of your hair, your eyes, your weight, your height, she is judging you based on what she believes to be true, what she has prioritized, what insecurities she nurses.
It’s never about you. I promise. And I hope you’ll remember that.