Body Image: The Danger Of A Single Body Ideal

Recently, I came across a blog post by a personal trainer in which she explored one of my least favorite terms as applied to women's bodies -- the word "bulky."
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Recently, I came across a blog post by a personal trainer in which she explored one of my least favorite terms as applied to women's bodies -- the word "bulky." Any weight-training woman is familiar with this term, as it is often the first thing other women will say as their reason for refusing to lift weights. The idea is that lifting weights will lead to the development of big muscles, and the development of big muscles means a woman will no longer be beautiful and will instead be manly, unattractive, scary and doomed to a sex-free, love-free life.

The comments on the blog post illustrated this line of thought clearly, as woman after woman expressed dismay that she had taken up heavy lifting and was horrified to see that her body had developed muscles. Some even clearly articulated their belief that in doing so, they had crossed a very bright line in which women were meant to be weaker and protected by the men they loved.

The women had set out in pursuit of the slender, compact body most often displayed by female celebrities, and instead they found themselves becoming muscular. It didn't matter that they were also stronger and that they were most likely healthier, with tougher bones and a stronger heart. What mattered was that they were bigger.

As I read through those comments, I reflected on a TED talk given by writer Chimamanda Adichie (watch below) in which she spoke about the "danger of the single story." She described growing up in Nigeria and yet writing stories in which her blonde-haired, blue-eyed characters ate apples and played in snow. Every book she had read was written by British authors about British life, and as a result she hadn't realized it was possible to write books about her own life. She thought the only way to be worthy of literature was to be a foreigner.

I thought about her words and I realized that we as a culture had accepted the single story of the "ideal body" so thoroughly that no room remained for alternate definitions of female beauty. Take the comments on the aforementioned blog post. The "ideal female body" -- a slim figure with breasts that aren't too big and thighs that don't touch and a butt that isn't too flat and nothing that jiggles too much -- is desired with such single-mindedness that the non-cosmetic benefits of weight training are dismissed without a second thought.

I use the example of women and muscles because that is what I, as an athletic woman who lifts weights, am most familiar with. However, the story of the single ideal body manifests itself in breast augmentation and pumping parties, in gimmicky diets and weight-loss gadgets bought on installment plans, in firming creams and treatments meant to zap cellulite into non-existence. Fortunes are spent and made in pursuit of the "ideal body," and yet the only thing that has happened is that the ideal has become even more unattainable than ever before.

It's not hard to see how this happened, either. Look at our culture, at the bodies represented on television and in magazines and in movies and in advertising. Just as Adichie only thought she could write stories about white children in snowy climates, we as a culture have trouble envisioning a standard of beauty that is not tall, thin, able-bodied and European. Even when we do embrace someone who does not fit that standard, we tend to be very self-congratulatory about it, thus undoing whatever progress was gained by reducing that person into little more than a symbol of our open-mindedness.

I don't know about you, but I am tired of a world in which the only people who are considered beautiful have a specific body type, a specific kind of hair, a specific tone of skin, a specific shape of face. I find such a world inhumane and cruel, bordering on insane. Plus, as an aesthete who revels in beauty and sensation, I also find it dreadfully boring.

Consider the natural world, with all of its abundance of living things.Think about flowers. In my neighborhood in Florida, I can count the following: birds of paradise, hydrangea, plumeria, magnolia, jacaranda, orchids, Confederate jasmine, black-eyed Susans, coreopsis, spider lilies and dozens more whose names I don't know.

Few of us would look at all of these flowers and say that, for instance, orchids are the only beautiful ones. Sure, we might have a preference, but most of us would not take our preferences to mean that all other flowers are ugly, and that we ought to rip rosebushes and tulip bulbs out of the ground so they can be replaced with even more orchids.

Yet this is what we do with our bodies -- we say that all bodies that do not fit that single ideal are ugly, and that all bodies must fit that single ideal to be worthy of respect and care and affection. We say that if you cannot force yourself to fit that ideal, then you must hide yourself behind shapeless clothing and maybe even consider never leaving your house because you are too revolting to be seen.

How is it that we can so easily recognize beauty in all of its millions of manifestations in plants and animals, yet our definitions narrow radically when it comes to human beings? Why do we value diversity in all things but scorn it in ourselves?

It's clear to me that the expectation that our bodies must be a certain way to be feminine and beautiful is an artificial one, one that is informed almost entirely by the culture in which we are raised. The bad news is that it is a powerful expectation, filled with privileges for those who conform and punishment for those who do not.

The good news is that we can resist it. We can resist by refusing to hate our bodies for the way they look. We can resist by catching ourselves when we think harshly about other people's appearances. We can resist by refusing to judge other people based on their bodies. We can resist by calling out those who make those kinds of moral judgments about other people. We can resist by refusing to support media outlets who uphold such narrow beauty standards.

We need a radical redefinition of what it means to be beautiful in this society. We need to pry open the definition so it includes all bodies, whether they are tall or short or average or slender or fat or muscular or disabled. Enough with this idea that beauty must somehow be exclusionary, like it is this finite quality that loses its potency as more people gain access to it. Such a view of beauty is blind to the core, irreducible truth about us, which is that our existence is nothing short of a miracle.

We do not blight the world with our cellulite, nor do we somehow diminish it through our sagging flesh. The natural order is not upended by our muscles, nor does the universe gasp in horror when it sees our bellies. We are just as much a part of the brilliant multiplicity of the universe as the flowers and the birds and the stars in the sky. We are beautiful because we exist. We are beautiful because we are.

WATCH: Chimamanda Adichie On The Danger Of A Single Story

Caitlin Constantine is a writer, blogger, zinester and athlete from Clearwater, Fla. She writes about fitness and athletics from a feminist perspective at Fit and Feminist. Her writing has also appeared in Bitch and Creative Loafing.

This post originally appeared on Psych Central.

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