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Body Image: Insight on Accepting Every Body

Robyn Henson Interviews four BIPOC-identifying women regarding their thoughts on how Eurocentric idealisms have impacted body structures that have affected all people, but mainly BIPOC women.

Written by
Robyn Henson

Artwork by
Diana Abouchacra

Eurocentric idealisms have impacted many women who have suffered from recreating the body weight and image created by the male gaze to the point where they gained insecurity with their natural-born bodies. Even I found myself questioning the shape of my breast, buttocks, hips, and primarily the fullness of my stomach. Honestly, the audacity to maintain Eurocentric idealisms for the perfect body has grown tired, old, and outdated. I decided to write a piece about it.

My decision to cultivate this piece was motivated by the desire to create something collaborative, to exalt experiences and knowledge from first-person points of view. This led me to interview four BIPOC-identifying women about their current perception of their own body images, later deepening into participants recollecting if their body images aligned with their pubescent thoughts of what their bodies would look like and if Eurocentric idealisms were an influence on their dream bodies. Questions were then asked about whether their bodies have ever felt accepted in America and how they believe body image is an impactful aspect of American culture. The interview concludes with notable modern movements that have probably changed how American society seeks to accept various body types. Are those body types revolutionizing what a healthy body can look like?

How we perceive our body image is just as important, if not more important, than how the world views our bodies. The Eurocentric body image cannot account for all genetic makeups or cultures. So, why have those standards been influenced for so long? I’ll let the ideas of each woman interviewed challenge that notion. The lens of beauty evolves as the masses begin to accept extended ways of living. Channeling a focus that the Eurocentricized body types are only an ideal perception that eradicates the motion to include all body types. Americans are known to exclude plus-sized bodies from the vision of health.

So, let’s talk about it.

How have you perceived your body image? And how has puberty heightened your awareness of your bodily changes over time?

Amy: Growing up, I always felt like I was anticipating a better version of my body. The body I was in never satisfied me; even while pubescent, I always felt like I needed bigger bosoms and a fatter butt. I felt if I had those things, I would finally feel beautiful and worthy of admiration. I currently view my body to be perfect the way that it is. My younger self would definitely love the body that I’m in now. While I do accept my body and think it is beautiful, I still have underlying feelings that certain things could be better, or I should be watching my weight, or else I will get to a size that I don’t feel suits me. I am always moderating how I eat and making sure I exercise. I do believe that has a lot to do with body image. I think deep down, if my body doesn’t have a certain look, it makes it harder for me to accept myself due to societal programming.

Nisse: As I started to grow and experience puberty, I began to feel uncomfortable in my own body. I found it hard to look at myself in the mirror. When I was younger, I was always considered the bigger girl. I would get reminded of this anywhere I went, whether it was from friends, family, and especially doctors. Puberty changed my body quickly. One minute I was overweight, then I became skinny for the first time in my life, and now I am back to being what I perceive as “big.” This is truly body dysmorphia. My body shape is not what I pictured I would look like at this age. I feel disconnected from my breast. I noticed as I gained weight, my breasts have gotten bigger and have begun to sag, but I am aware that the gaining of weight comes with this factor.

Ricky: People don’t usually believe me when I say I wasn’t this confident growing up. I would wear baggy clothes to hide my weight and dress masculine to avoid boys having an opinion on my appearance. I still tend to find myself wondering if I would be better off being slimmer and losing my stomach fat. On the other hand, I have gained self-confidence that works to cancel out those thoughts and heightens me to wear the things that pubescent Ricky would have never thought she would be able to wear, making me feel completely connected to my body.

Lola: I have always naturally had an hourglass shape, and I thank my African genes for that. Until others’ opinions penetrated my mind, I had always felt comfortable with how my body had grown since puberty. Before my first period started, I was around 100 pounds and thought I was too heavy because a fellow churchgoer said so. I used to dance, so that was a way to keep fit, but once I stopped dancing, I gained a little weight, and people were quick to make comments about it. My current body shape is not exactly how I pictured it. As a kid, it was easier to maintain a balanced weight with extracurricular activities, hobbies that would keep me fit, and less responsibilities. As an adult, my body is a product of my daily life. I am aware that I am responsible for maintaining my bodily health and am currently working towards being more active. I am completely aware of my body alerting me when it wants me to “get right.” With that being said, I absolutely feel connected to every part of my body, and I am thankful for the relationship that I personally have with my body. However, I think body image is greatly affected and influenced by clothing.

Do you feel Eurocentric idealisms of what a body should look like have been generalized as the expectations for all bodies?

Amy: Most definitely! European idealisms have so many people (women especially) believing that in order to be considered beautiful, you have to be thin or lean. Many believe that thinness is an indicator of health, and that is nothing more than European indoctrination. That could not be further from the truth. Everyone is not meant to be thin.

Nisse: Yes, definitely. America has told us that we have to look a certain way to be accepted in the media and in all places that show off thin-figured bodies. And possibly all [of us] suffer from mild symptoms of body dysmorphia in some way, despite the media influencing this as somewhat of a normality.

Ricky: I absolutely believe European idealisms have controlled the perception of what all bodies should look like. An example is the misdirected concept of how Body Mass Indexes (BMI) are applied to people.

Lola: European idealism of what a body should look like has definitely generalized the expectations for all bodies, but the expectation is much harsher on women than it is on men. Women are supposed to have long slim legs, nice round butts, perky breasts, be hairless everywhere except on their heads, eyebrows, and lashes, a heart-shaped face with a sharp jaw-line, round doe eyes, slim Roman nose, and full plump lips. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention how European idealisms of body image are rooted in admiration for the youth–so it is ideal for women, primarily, to look young for as long as possible.

How has America enforced Eurocentric standards of the ideal body image while denying the acceptance of fuller, plus-sized bodies?

Amy: For a long time, there was a tremendous lack of representation for people who were plus-sized, and if they were represented, they were always stereotyped. In entertainment, plus-sized people were constantly made the butt of the joke and dehumanized. During the early 2000s, when the media pushed ultra-thin, model-type bodies, many women [as a result] went through diet fads and eating disorders trying to achieve that body image. Whenever plus-sized people go to the doctors as they are feeling sick, doctors assume their weight is the issue and suggest they should downsize to improve their health. Plus-sized people who have health issues are not given the same consideration by health professionals, which is negligent and inhumane. They are also discriminated against while seeking job opportunities and are less likely to be hired. There are still many clothing stores and brands that fail to accommodate them by including a variety of sizes in their clothing sections. Since I, myself, am not plus-sized, I cannot grasp the full extent of the discrimination they face, but I can confidently say this society systemically ostracizes plus-sized people.

Nisse: We saw these standards of body types in the media, like TV and magazines, and were programmed to believe that if we were skinny, that meant we were healthy when in reality, that is not true. You can be skinny and have bad eating habits; you can be plus-sized and have better eating habits than others. Our bodies are different; some may have fast metabolisms, whereas some may have slower metabolisms, but the stigma that all plus-sized bodies are unhealthy is what America has pointed us to. And, OH! Since I was a child, ALL THE BODIES I HAVE ALWAYS SEEN in magazines were small, petite women that were mostly white. Back then, it was extremely hard even to become a plus-sized model. Plus-sized bodies were not looked at as beautiful. They were frowned upon and disapproved of by raging critics. Taking America’s Next Top Model for example, young women who were aspiring models were eliminated each week based on their body types, appearance, photos, and how a mixture of these components had been acceptable to the model-industry look. In later seasons, they’d shown young women who had entered PHASE ONE auditions of America’s Next Top Model. Those who were cut, predominantly African-American women, were bigger girls who were rejected for that reason.

Ricky: I have noticed, when going shopping there is a separate section for plus-sized clothing. Next, public transportation with individual seating prevents bigger people from sitting comfortably, if they are even able to sit. Structured seating is limited this way, and I think bench-style seating is a better option as it could be more cost-effective and inviting for bigger people. Seat-belt extenders also contribute to the limitations of seating arrangement. Instead of escorting an individual to add an additional seatbelt buckle, why not include this within the buckle to save bigger people the feeling of being self-conscious and public embarrassment?

Lola: America has always enforced Eurocentric standards as the ideal body type because America’s colonizers came from Europe. Most of the world’s colonizers originated from Europe, so it is not surprising that Eurocentric standards of the ideal body type would spread throughout the world. America forced these standards through advertisements marketed to both men and women and, most importantly, children. Even in how America casts its Hollywood stars in movies, TV shows, or brands their famous musicians, there is a certain cookie-cutter image that is close to or exactly like the Eurocentric standard of ideal body types.

"Overall, people need to become more open-minded and realize that we are all deserving of respect and feeling safe in the world."

Has Eurocentric idealisms of what body image should look like blocked the acceptance of ethnic body types and genetic structure?

Amy: Eurocentric idealisms of body image have definitely influenced the acceptance of ethnic body features. There was a time when being curvy—having a big butt, wide waist, big bosoms, and wide hips—meant that you were fat, even though these are normal traits for many ethnic women. In many other cultures, namely cultures of the diaspora, being thick, fat, and curvaceous is encouraged and celebrated. However, being plus-sized in this society meant being criticized, ostracized, and misrepresented, and being bigger automatically equated to being unhealthy. So, people who were already prejudiced against plus-sized people had a justification for ridiculing them.

Nisse: Yes, being a woman with curves has always been seen as plus-sized, which is weird because I do not feel that being curvy has anything to do with being big. The world has idolized skinny, leaner bodies to make viewers think their bodies are supposed to look that way. Glamorizing one initial body type makes no room for a variety of others that are accepted within a multitude of cultures.

Ricky: Yes, children of color are subjected to strict diets by their doctors and encouraged to be in programs that are designed to keep them “fit” but are later removed from these programs because girls of color have experienced the spreading of their hips quicker than their caucasian counterparts. This then defeats the purpose of creating a program designed to enhance fitness when genetic structures have not been considerate towards children of color.

Lola: Yes, absolutely. One person might say that, in recent times, the thought of blocked acceptance of ethnic body types and genetic structure would not be the case. Currently, we see a certain trend that is more accepting of ethnic body types. However, this trend is still tweaked to fit Eurocentric standards of the ideal body type. Ultimately, Eurocentric idealisms of body image have blocked the acceptance of ethnic body types and genetic structures into mainstream or popular culture.

Do you believe that natural bodies are more accepted in mainstream media? Why or why not?

Amy: It is hard to tell right now, as the most “ideal” or popular body type in the media is the BBL (Brazilian Butt Lift) body shape, which is being slim everywhere except your bosoms, hips, and butt. This indicates that ethnic bodies have become the focal point of desirability. Times have changed, and there is a much wider window of what is considered acceptable these days. This just means that BBLs are now the new black. There still seems to be a resistance to bodies that are not the perfect hourglass or coke-bottle shape. Social media is also causing people to become more self-conscious from seeing images of people with perfect BBL bodies on their feeds. That being said, it is only natural for people to compare their natural bodies to the bodies that are most popular on their social media algorithms, which as a result, has contributed to the increase of people seeking and receiving body surgeries and adjustments.

Nisse: I believe that this is 50/50. Natural bodies are more accepted in social media outlets, which has changed the outlook a bit. However, the other 50% of my thought process calls me to believe that although plus-sized bodies are now being included more often in mainstream media, there is still a subconscious comparison at play. Possibly emphasizing that those bodies are not like the other 50%.

Ricky: Natural bodies are only acceptable when those bodies are complemented by a socially acceptable face or of lighter skin-toned women. Mainstream media does not truly care about inclusion, instead seeking to meet some sort of quota requirement for diversity. If mainstream media honestly cared to emphasize natural bodies, [there would be] more discussions of saggy skin and dark intimate areas, such as in-between thighs or armpits. However, plus-sized bodies have come across mainstream media as a connection to desirability, sexualization, and fantasy by having plus-sized women with bigger breasts and buttocks to give less attention to the stomach.

Lola: Yes, I do believe natural bodies are now more accepted in mainstream media. As I mentioned before, the reason why all boils down to money. There will always be a level of beauty that success elitists don’t want the general public to attain so they can profit off of that gap–that insecurity. Eurocentric standards of body image aren’t really rooted in nature. Looking youthful forever is not natural. Skin only having one texture or color is not natural. The perfect upper and lower body is not natural for everyone. So while natural bodies are more accepted in mainstream media, they’ll never fully be accepted according to Eurocentric standards.

Do you think that Eurocentric body standards will be dismantled over time? How might dismantling Eurocentric body standards over time look?

Amy: I do think we are well in the process of dismantling Eurocentric body standards. I see many different cultures embracing thicker or plus-sized bodies. Dismantling Eurocentric body standards may look like making sizes XXS-XXXL staple sizes in most clothing stores. It may entail normal representation in entertainment and media. It also entails teaching small children that people come in all shapes and sizes and should be treated with respect regardless of appearance. While it is normal to see people of all shapes and sizes in real life, actual acceptance needs to be normalized. People think fat-shaming and being condescending to people they consider “too big” is doing them a favor. But being kind and accepting is what is healthiest for people. Overall, people need to become more open-minded and realize that we are all deserving of respect and feeling safe in the world.

Nisse: I do think, at some point, Eurocentric body types and standards will be dismantled. Currently, I feel the topic of body image is widely overlooked because of these fixed Eurocentric idealisms and standards. However, advertisements and social media expansion have [taken] steps towards changing the narrative of what bodies should look like and how bodies are showing up in the world around us. Dismantling body image stigmas can become healthier for all who struggle to maintain the ideal body image.

Ricky: As people wake up and realize that plus-sized people exist and, like everyone else, spend their money towards their appearance—clothes, shoes, and other beauty/appearance-enhancing products—Eurocentric body standards will diminish. Not out of genuine interest for all people but because, in this world of capitalism, money is the greatest motivator in the United States. So eventually, body standards could diminish and fade away with the intention of seeking compensation to accept what has not been ideal. Think of it as gaining membership access into a club that you had not been a member of because that club had not genuinely wanted you there in the first place, yet, would rather take your money as a way to increase its own revenue.

Lola: I would only answer yes because I believe anything is possible. That is just how grand my optimism is. It would take a lot to dismantle Eurocentric body standards over time because everyone affected would have to take part in dismantling it. There is power in numbers, people! I think dismantling Eurocentric body standards would look like every culture and region resorting back to their original beauty standards based on their climate, environment, and other important influences. Dismantling Eurocentric body image standards would be a rollercoaster because we still have people affected by it AND actively internalizing it. It seems like the cycle continues, but every cycle can be broken. A centralized standard would take its place, though. I wonder what it would be? Who knows.

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