Yesterday I saw something disturbing on Facebook. It was a collage of pictures of extremely skinny body parts, each one accompanied by a question like, "Would you rather have visible hip bones or a slice of cake?" (Insert WTF/rage face here.) Memes like that are nothing but pernicious weapons designed to make girls hate themselves; the the sickest thing is that it was no doubt created by a girl who wants to spread her own low self-esteem like a virus.
I wonder if I would realize how dangerous such messages are if I hadn't been a self-hating teenager myself. I didn't hate myself personality-wise, but I hated my body like crazy. I measured my weight and compared it to arbitrary numbers I'd heard, like, "a skinny girl shouldn't weigh over X number of pounds." I went hungry, got stomach-aches in school, was crankier than all hell at home, and I craved sugar constantly. I created an evil cycle in which I already hated my body, but I kept looking for more reasons to hate it, like I was afraid that if I didn't hate myself, I would become fat. (But wasn't I already "fat"?)
All of this ended one day during my junior year of high school when, during a routine check-up, my doctor asked my mother if she wanted to commit me to an eating disorder clinic. (Yes, it was that serious.) Luckily, she said no, but the fear of losing my free will jolted me out of my insanity. Ten years later, I have a very different attitude towards food, exercise, weight, and how I look. Now I eat when I'm hungry, I exercise for mental health as much as physical health, I gauge my weight based on how I feel in my clothes, and I choose clothing that is flattering to my body type so that I'm not setting myself up to fail. A-line dresses look great on a pear shape like mine, but you won't catch me near that rack of skinny jeans. Finally, I don't remember the last time I weighed myself. I happen to have a tattoo on my back that reads, "The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance." But in the the case of the number on the scale, keeping myself ignorant is one of the best choices I've ever made.
UPDATE (7/6/17): It's cute how I thought I could avoid the skinny jeans. I caved -- of course -- but I miss the days when boot-cut jeans were cool.
The book I'm working on right now is about women living in an environment where they aren't subject to the advertising and criticism that women get in our world. They aren't defined primarily by how they look. I would love to live in such a world. Only I don't, and writing about a place that's free of a misogynistic paradigm while I'm living in one myself is tricky. How do women compliment each other in this fictional world? Do they praise themselves for strength or kindness or intelligence? Do they still recognize and appreciate physical beauty? If so, how is their definition of "beautiful" different from ours?
As I write my characters, I catch myself wanting to describe most of them as physically beautiful in one way or another. In doing so, I would conform to 98% of young adult books on the market. Every heroine is beautiful, usually in some unique way, often in ways she doesn't realize until a boy tells her so, and even then she struggles to believe it because a pretty girl who doesn't know she's pretty is the safest bet for a guy. Despite my clear disdain for this cycle, I worry that readers won't like my characters if my writing deviates too much from the norm.
Romance is an even bigger problem in my fictional world. The way I understand evolution, men value physical beauty in women because beauty used to be an indicator health, and guys needed a healthy woman to bear their babies. For women, physical attractiveness wasn't as important. If they were going to be pregnant all the time (we're talking about a pre-birth control world here), they needed a man who was strong and skillful enough to bring them food and protect them from danger. While I think we've moved beyond this paradigm in some ways, it still exists in the idea of classical romance. (Hi there, Beauty & the Beast.)
If I decide to have my main character fall in love with a boy, can they be romantic with each other without resorting to the "girl pretty" "boy strong" tropes that people relied on back when we lived in caves? These questions make my brain feel like an elephant on ice skates.
While I contemplate writing about a world that's so fundamentally different from ours that readers may not be able to appreciate it, I'm going to go make dinner. And I'm making chocolate cake for dessert just to spite that awful collage from Facebook.