The “F” Word

So what does feminism have to do with issues of body image and eating disorders anyway?  Try everything. 

The following dialogue from the movie “Little Miss Sunshine”, in which Olive, a seven-year old aspiring beauty queen asks her grandpa a question, illustrates part of the problem:

“Grandpa, am I pretty?”

“You are the most beautiful girl in the world.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“No!  I’m madly in love with you, and it’s not because of your brains or your personality.”

Too often girls and women in particular are still given the message that the most valuable parts of them are on the outside and that their worth is somehow quantifiable and inversely proportional to their body size.  Brains and personality are left out of the equation.  It’s not hard to see why when things go wrong, so many of us turn to our bodies and to body projects as a way of coping – in hopes of somehow finding a solution.  This always fails though since the solution to our problems isn’t found by turning inward in this way and taking up less space – ironically, the hope for a solution is more easily realized when we are able to look outside, and take up more space; when we stop, as Brene Brown says in her TED Talk on shame, “working very hard to engineer staying small”. 

Years ago, I was working in a kindergarten class when one girl came up to me at snack time and said “I’m so lucky because I get to sit beside Kara today” – apparently Kara was the popular girl, and so sitting beside her was a big deal.  My response to her: “Well, Kara’s so lucky because she gets to sit beside you.”  I remember this moment because it gave me an opportunity to interrupt this girl’s idea that she was the only one benefitting from her interaction with this other student – that perhaps she had as much value as the girl whom she was so excited to sit next to. 

Part of feminism for me is about flipping the script so that young girls can see their own value, and understand that this value doesn’t hinge on anything outside of themselves.  But it’s also about working to create a world where this is actually true – where girls will have access to equal opportunities, so that they will be just as likely as boys to aim for President or CEO, or to raise their hand and speak in class.  Or to engage in the radical action of eating until they’re full, or to feel safe walking down the street at night and also safe and comfortable in their own skin. 

And just a note that this feminism is not only about women, because as Margaret Mead said, “Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man.”  Not only because boys and men have eating disorders too (although the majority of people with eating disorders are still female), but because at the end of the day, freeing girls to be themselves instead of some walking stereotype also frees boys to do the same. 

So, to finish, let’s bring brains and personality back into the equation – let’s show Olive and girls like her that it’s okay to be themselves, whoever that may be.  Let’s teach them to trust their own power and not to apologize for their strengths.  If we’re going to get there and to create a world where everyone is free to be themselves and to take up space in their own unique ways, then I think we need feminism as a vehicle along the way.

Janice Kelly is a research writer at Kids Help Phone. She also has an MA in women's studies from York University.