Andrea La Marre in this blog post reflects upon her experiences of speaking in a community setting to a group of young people on the topic of bodies and body image.
I go to a lot of conferences. This summer I did the grueling three-conference circuit including QMiP, ISCHP, and POWs. Over the course of nine days, I spoke to some brilliant academics about my work, and learned a lot. I love going to conferences; oddly, I’ve come to love public speaking.
As much as I love conferences, however, I have been trying to break away from speaking only or primarily in academic settings. My focus is turning to ways to speak to people who I might never otherwise interact with.
Like, say… a group of Girl Guide Pathfinders.
A few weeks ago, I delivered a talk about growing up in a body-obsessed world to a group of community members. I had no idea that the audience would be mostly teenage girls, but I couldn’t have chosen a better crowd. It suddenly no longer mattered that my methods were verging on post-qualitative; my deep dives into Deleuze during the course of my dissertation seemed inconsequential in the face of a call to speak on a different level.
While I’m fairly new to the world of escaping academic-speak, I’m sure many of you are well familiar with this flip. With the need to distill messages that we’ve spent years crafting into elegant turns of theoretical phrase into digestible morsels. Not to dumb things down, but to make sure that our messages land.
So, what does one say to a group of teenagers who are, at this precise moment, growing up in a world that makes sure that many bodies don’t, and will never, fit? In a society that is racist, classist, ableist, ageist, and still—somehow, still—sexist?
I tried to make the message about more than aesthetic ideals, because the feeling of not fitting runs so much deeper than that. We don’t dislike our bodies only because we don’t think they are beautiful—though we often don’t. We dislike our bodies because we are also told they are not doing enough; that they are wrong and unwelcome. We are simultaneously made to feel like not enough and too much in this world. We are told that we need to continually strive for productivity. If we fail in our pursuit, we are not worthy citizens.
These messages seep in, and of course they land on our bodies. The world wants big things from us, while it simultaneously wants to keep us small. Reconciling those tensions is challenging when living in a world that keeps the surface level interest in the aesthetic value of bodies, the struggle for voice and representation materialize corporeally.
It felt important to me to talk about how systemic oppressions, like racism, classism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism all impact how we feel about our bodies with this group in particular because conversations about bodies with teens too often remain stuck at the level of media literacy debunking the thin ideal. And while debunking the thin ideal—and, increasingly, the fit ideal—is a worthy endeavor, media literacy is not immunity. I tried to highlight how even when we know we should not be swayed by the pull of aesthetic ideals, we may still feel crummy about ourselves at times.
Normalizing this experience is not about accepting the status quo—far from it. It is about recognizing that this sense of being ill at ease in one’s body does not stem only from not being a supermodel, but also from living in a world that constantly demands perfection and productivity, gives some people more than others, and then tells us it is our fault if we don’t succeed.
During this talk, it didn’t matter how I had analyzed my data; the teens didn’t care about methodological rigour or sample sizes. They cared about stories, and ways to move forward. One of the most poignant questions I was asked echoed a question I ask my participants in each interview: if you could go back and tell yourself something when you were struggling, what would you say?
I found this question really hard to answer; after all, who’s to say I’d have listened to the dorky grad student standing up at the front of the room? I chose a simple answer, which is much harder to feel: “You are enough, exactly as you are. You are not measured by how productive you are, how thin you are, or how health conscious. You are enough.”
I chose this not because I believe in some Polyanna-esque version of complete body peace or think that we can realize a society untethered from productivity discourses tomorrow, but because I believe it’s important that we start by believing that we are, truly, enough (and not too much). I chose it because whether or not I would have believed it is irrelevant. I chose it because I hope that it resonates with the audience—now, or 10 years from now. And I hope it is enough.