While reading Sarah Grogan’s article (Grogan, Sarah. “Age, social class, ethnicity and sexuality.” Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children, 2nd ed., pp. 136–191) about beauty ideals in relation to age, social class, ethnicity and sexuality, I could not help but over-identify with almost every statistic listed. From the waist-hip-ratio (Singh 1993) to the fetishizing of a slender figure with large breasts (Mazur 1986) I rolled my eyes at least twice per page at how society pressures us to conform to beauty ‘norms’ that are rapidly changing. I cannot remember a time in my life where I’ve felt that my stomach was small enough to be considered attractive aside from when I’ve been dieting, putting my body through strenuous exercise, making myself vomit and sucking it in for photographs. A huge part of being a ballerina is having a long, slender figure that accentuates muscular arms and legs for performance purposes. Being a dancer for ten years of my childhood not only gave me physical aches and pains in young adulthood, but it also wrecked my self-esteem to have a male dancer’s mom tell me that my ‘tight clothing made it difficult for her son to focus in class’ after development. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have Asian and European genes that allow me to eat practically whatever I want without gaining much weight, but I also am young enough that my metabolism hasn’t necessarily slowed down much. Even though I do have what the media considers to be an ideal body type, (average-to-tall height, a low waist-to-hip ratio, white skin and relatively large breasts for my size), I have still faced discrimination from bigger men and women because of those factors. The lessons that I’ve been taught about my body have been incredibly heteronormative; past partners have said that I have the perfect body and would love for me to bear their children. After some men have seen my mom’s youthful appearance, they’ve also commented that I have a bright future thanks to her genes- suggesting that looking 20 at 40 will benefit me more than any education, skills or abilities ever could. Experiences listed are said with great shame, as I have come to realize that my body type and appearance has, in fact, been a major determining factor in how serious people take me.
I distinctly remember being teased for my flat chest and ‘Buddha belly’ by classmates and family members alike before going through the gruesome process that puberty is for a young woman in America. The lessons taught to African American women and British Afro-Caribbean communities of worshipping thicker builds and considering them sensual (Cachelin et. Al 1998) reminded me of how many African and African American men that I’ve met who told me how I could ‘afford to gain a few pounds,’ ‘would be sexy if I was thicker,’ and ‘would be marriage material if my ass matched my tits.’ As I’ve gotten older, I’ve certainly considered my sexuality to lean more toward pansexuality than heterosexuality, so the race of my partner was not an important factor during dating. White men and women, Hispanic men and Asian men have commented on my thinness as being attractive and ‘model-like’ as opposed to African and African American dissatisfaction about my lack of thickness. We learn what is societally accepted and shunned through media consumption, commentary from friends and family and even the way that strangers look at us. Recent media has been glamorizing more voluptuous builds with the prevalence of plus size models. Noteworthy and disappointing, most of the plus sized models that I’ve witnessed simply look healthy to me; many of them are nowhere near overweight OR their appearance has been adjusted so that only their breasts and butts are big, but their faces and stomachs are still relatively thin.
Even the parts about men’s desires to have fuller chests and muscular appearances resonated with me after witnessing the males in my life go to horrendous lengths to ‘bulk up’ while remaining slim in certain areas of their bodies. This is counter-balanced by an acceptance of other traits (Bordo 2003) like their personalities, property holding and humor. I cannot speak from personal experience as I am not a male, gay male, Hispanic or African American woman, but I can confirm that I’ve witnessed almost every phenomenon related to body image discussed in this article. Because of society’s ever-changing standards of beauty, it’s easy to confirm that we’ve created a culture of dissatisfaction in what genes we are born with and how our physical traits will be perceived by society. According to each race’s preferred ideals, there hasn’t ever been and there never will be a perfect man, woman or non-binary person because each person has a list of conflicting expectations. Lessons taught to me in childhood about perfection have changed as I grew up from being around people of such diverse backgrounds, but the one that has stuck out to me most has been that I need to change my body/physical appearance to garner acceptance from a man that I’ll bear children with in the future.
Mikalah Lake is a student at Old Dominion University pursuing a B.S. in Women’s Studies with a minor in Psychology. Causes that are particularly important to her are women’s rights, environmental awareness, leadership, civic duty, and mental health awareness. After completing her B.S. degree, her dream is to pursue a Master of Public Health Education degree at Eastern Virginia Medical School.