I first read this book probably not that long after it was published, when I still thought changing my body — specifically, getting thin — would change my life. A few years after that, I began to realize that attempting to force my body to conform with social norms was a ridiculously low aspiration for me. The central insight of this book — that “looking good doesn’t solve the problem of feeling bad about your looks” — changed my perspective and started me seeking both self-acceptance and personal transformation, which I still work at every day.
In the years since my own struggle started, women and girls are under increasingly ferocious pressure to conform to a relatively narrow standard of beauty and behavior, and to do so by altering more and more of our physical characteristics. The pressure is so ubiquitous and extreme it is even documented in mainstream media. At the same time, women who feel unable or unwilling to conform to that standard have been explicitly told, or come to believe in more subtle ways, that they must therefore be men. Though that kind of body hating may take a different form than most of what Freedman addresses in Bodylove, I believe part of our problem is that we give in to forces that want to divide us. We feel superior to women who wear makeup, or those who don’t. We think we are better than women who “let themselves go,” or we deplore the “superficiality” of women who spend more time and money on their appearance than we do. We are condescending towards women who seek male attention, or towards those “fat hairy dykes” who “can’t get a man.”
The truth is that these divisions are the two sides of the same coin. There is no way for a woman’s appearance to be acceptable in patriarchy. A woman who wears visible makeup will be called a slut, just as often as a big-bottomed woman in sweatpants will be ridiculed on People of Walmart, or a woman who’s more comfortable with short hair and casual clothing will be “sirred” or called a dyke. A woman who conforms to femininity dictates may receive unwelcome attention from males, while a woman who does not may have difficulty finding the intimate relationships she wants. From a feminist theoretical perspective, it’s important to critique how these dynamics work to keep women down. However, from a movement-building, solidarity perspective, we need each other. Understanding what drives each of us to make the choices she does, for her survival, brings us together, even when we disagree. As Lee Evans says, “the ability to perceive how things, events, people and power are connected and relate to each other is at the very core of our political skills.” The radical in radical feminism comes from the Latin word “radix” which means “root” — so what’s at the root of all these things that seem so different?
The things I like most about Bodylove are that Freedman addresses, to some extent, the social pressures that shape body image, and she provides practical activities that we can use to address our distress. I also like the fact that she conducted a survey and provides that information to the reader.
However, Bodylove is not a radical feminist text. For that reason, I’m going to be reading it with a critical eye and providing notes for each chapter from a radical feminist standpoint. I hope you will do that as well, without letting the critiques negate whatever help it may be to you and other women.
I’m not an expert, just someone with a bit of personal experience and a platform. I hope you have people in your life you can discuss these issues with, and especially if you are feeling extraordinarily distressed, please find someone you can trust to talk to, and don’t give up until you feel better.
Read the book here:
Bodylove series posts
Introducing the Bodylove Series
Bodylove Chapter 1