Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Self-Loathing: The Body Politics of Summer

by: Maggie Carr


It’s May, the temperature’s already topped out at eighty degrees, and my sensible snow boots are in storage.  Like it or not, shorts season—and all its attendant body-shaming and self-hating—is nearly here.

Seasonal body panic isn’t a new phenomenon; it comes from having spent most of my adult life in a state of deep enmity with my body.  I’d convinced myself that despite scientific evidence to the contrary, my thick thighs, belly paunch, and stubbornly protruding breasts were the result of a lack of self-discipline.  I wouldn’t eat anything but carrot sticks for weeks before prom, and in college, I’d detag myself in Facebook pictures in which my friends looked skinnier than me.  Some might call it body dysmorphia; I call it a consequence of growing up female-bodied in America.  Potato, potahto.

Whatever you choose to call it, I spent over a decade of my life kvetching and crying over a perfectly good, if not Photoshop-perfect, body.  That’s disappointing.  But with adulthood came experiences that forced me to reconsider: watching people I love become limited by failing physical health, surprising myself by becoming a decent distance runner, and basking in the no-bullshit, love-yourself evangelism of some fantastic yoga teachers.  I’ve learned to appreciate (and dare I say, love) the functional body I’m lucky enough to inhabit.

And yet, faced with the prospect of appearing publicly in a bathing suit, I’m hitting the gym with the urgency of a recently beheaded chicken.  I’ve thrown myself into three months of personal training sessions, bought the Weight Watchers iPhone app, and am halfway through the friendliest-looking pack of cleanse supplements available at Whole Foods.  I am Zumba-ing until I can Zumba no more.  It’s a war, my friends, and I am going to win it.

I hate that I call it a war.  It makes the rest of the year, so hard-won, feel like détente.

Even if you’ve made peace with your body, you’re constantly called upon to re-evaluate that peace—in malls, on playgrounds, on the front cover of every magazine, all day, every day.  But how can I be enraged by Us Weekly’s inevitable list of the Ten Worst Celebrity Beach Bodies and yet be willing to spend so much of my limited time and money to get my own flesh ready for public display?  How do I hate the game without hating the player?

I’ve discovered that the problem is deeper and more multi-faceted than simply buying into the unattainable specimen of physical perfection that a bunch of white guys in suits have engineered to sell shit.  Perfection isn’t possible.  I can deal with that.  I can know and love myself on a personal level; I can do my own seeing, in other words.  But all that love and meticulous care means nothing against the counterforce of being seen, and not only seen, but constantly—and very personally—called out on it.

At the risk of becoming IOW’s Token Hypersensitive Catcall Girl, I’ll just straight-up say it: I dread showing my skin because I know I’ll receive unwelcome, uninvited commentary on it from people who don’t have any idea who I am and what it took for me to be mentally able to show that skin.

When I wear shorts, I exist as a human being, not as a pair of semi-cellulitic thighs.  I know this.  I know it deeply.  And yet I can’t concentrate on anything else when I’m wearing warm-weather gear, because those thighs are the center of the goddamn universe for every other red-blooded male on the block.  It’s like living as a funhouse mirror.

It’s times like these when I become furious at that plus-size-Glamour-model, “love the skin you’re in” bullshit.  How on earth should I be expected to have a positive self-image when my body isn’t mine, when the diet industry and the fitness industry and the fashion industry—not to mention that gaggle of construction workers across the street from my apartment—are all fighting for its control?

I haven’t yet learned to say fuck it and strut down the street in a skirt that lets my thighs fly free.  I don’t know if I ever will.

So I’m going to keep on with my fanatic exercise, with lifting heavy weights and running hard and maybe seeing a slight difference in the musculature of my upper arms, because it’s the only time in the summer when I feel like I have complete ownership of my body.  When my heart is pumping out of my chest, I’m reminded of my power as a person.  I am reminding myself why I love this particular amalgam of skin and muscle and blood and bone—why I love its multitudinous functions and its mysterious powers of self-regeneration.

The powers that be can catcall, can hound our cellulite and our bathing suit choices, can shame a fat woman for wearing whatever she damn well pleases.  But the muscle that lies underneath, the beating heart, the lungs that swell—nobody can lay a goddamn finger on it.

Maggie Carr is a feminist, actor, and sometimes writer living in Brooklyn, NY.  She received her BA in English and American Studies at Boston College, where she was awarded the Janet James Essay Prize in Women’s Studies for her senior thesis on the performativity of storytelling in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.  Her interests—both in research and life—include pop music, cheesy musical theatre and vinyasa yoga.  She tweets sporadically at @racecarr.

One response to “Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Self-Loathing: The Body Politics of Summer

  1. Pingback: In Our Words In Review: Body Positivity « In Our Words·

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