Sometimes I have to sit back and remind myself that I have it easy. As in, really easy. I’m young, middle class, white, able-bodied and cisgendered. I’m revoltingly privileged. Whenever I’m frustrated that no one is listening to me when I try to explain the simplest things about feminism, I take a deep breath and tell myself for the millionth time that I’ve really hit the jackpot with my circumstances and I should be grateful.
And then, there are other times when I can’t help it - I feel like shit because I’ve been made to feel like shit.
TW for talk of body shaming/policing and mentions of eating disorders.
The first time I can ever remember being criticised for my body by someone I didn’t know well, I can’t have been older than eight. My school was taking a trip to the beach for the end of year picnic. This was a Big Deal. We were allowed to swim (within the confines of the shark net), buy whatever we wanted from the kiosk, even go home early if our parents allowed it. It was meant to be the highlight of the year.
I was never a slim little girl. Years later I would discover surfing and swimming, which would make me more streamlined and toned - I even had problems later on with being underweight - but back then, I was a chunky little kid. Most of the other girls in my class were pretty small. Flat tummies, slender legs, petite shoulders. Of course, I never looked at them as better than me or the other, bigger girls my age. I didn’t have any kind of positive or negative association with fat or skinny yet - they were just words to describe how you looked.
I was wearing a one-piece swimming costume, one that covered my belly and butt but most definitely not my legs, which were all for display. They were pale and short and my thighs touched (they still do). They didn’t stay still when I ran. And I had never given them a second thought until that day, when I was running onto the sand after a swim and I saw two boys pointing and laughing at me. They were both my age. I’d never really talked to them over the whole year.
I stayed long enough to hear something about ‘thunder thighs’ and then I kept running, clamouring for my towel to wrap around my waist. I sat, away from my class, with my horrible, fat legs hidden from view for the rest of the day.
That has stuck in my mind for years and years. It still disgusts me to this day - the fact that boys as young as eight had already been coached to critique girl’s bodies as they wished, to insult and point and laugh and feel absolutely no remorse. I’d give anything to go back in time, smack them both around the ear and tell them that she’ll crush your heads between those thunder thighs, but I can’t. And so, I make it up to my eight year old self by taking a stand against body policing today.
It happens, all the time. Sometimes it’s well-meaning, but still rude. An aunt once pinched my forearm and exclaimed, “oh, my goodness! you’re positively anorexic compared to a few years ago. What happened to my chubby little niece? You look so good!”
I was mortified and furious. “I think I looked great when I was your ‘chubby little niece’, too,” I bit back. “Thinner does not mean better.”
I didn’t even get started on her use of ‘anorexic’ as a compliment because my mother kicked me under the table and then desperately started up awkward conversation as far, far away from the previous topic as possible. She was furious afterwards, no matter how many times I tried to explain why what my aunt said was horribly wrong. It was the first of many times where I felt like what I was saying was falling on deaf ears.
I’ve been told that surfing has made my legs look mannish, that I should ‘lose some weight’ because muscle doesn’t ‘suit me’, that my boobs aren’t big enough, that I should ‘do something about my face’, that I should shave my legs because I look like a lesbian (god forbid), that I need a flatter tummy before I’m ‘allowed’ to wear a bikini, that I shouldn’t wear that top because it’s tight and unflattering, that I should hide the scars and fin chops all over me because they’re unladylike.
Every time, I think of eight year old me, ashamed of her own legs - her legs that ran and kicked and carried her everywhere - and trying to cover them. And so every time, I bite back. I do not let anyone think they can get away with unwanted comments about my body. I put them in their place, because I will let no one - no one, whether it be a sister or an aunt or a random man on the street - make me ashamed of myself.