“She should stay off the deep dish pizza for a while.” So commented Fox News anchor Chris Wallace about multi-platinum selling artist and new mother Kelly Clarkson. Reaction? The people were not having it.
Wallace issued a mea culpa on Sunday, admitting that he was out of line. “I sincerely apologize to Kelly Clarkson for my offensive comment,” he said. “I admire her remarkable talent and that should have been the focus of any discussion about her.” Well, okay then, kind sir.
The whole thing is infuriating for a host of reasons, but especially since it mimics the internal dialogue that millions of smart, accomplished, bona fide feminist women have with ourselves. We feel bad because we don’t think we’re thin enough or fit enough and then we feel even worse for getting caught up in that kind of thinking. “We should know better, right?” Our remarkable talents are what matter most, thank you very much. But that is not the message that is communicated—constantly, loudly, obnoxiously—in this culture.
When my daughter was born, I had recently finished writing a book about how to make peace with your body before and after baby. My co-author was already a parent at the time; I was the “expert” voice, having spent my entire adult life working in the field of eating disorders awareness and body image education. I had personal experience, too, as so many of us do. Struggling with eating disorders through high school and college, I spun frantically and fruitlessly on that hamster wheel of perfectionism. Thankfully, I got better. And along the way, I understood that while my illness was a complicated cocktail of contributing factors, the constant glorification of thinness around every corner and on every page and screen was not some superficial side note. It was a very big deal.
I had been in strong recovery for over a decade when I got pregnant. I was well-versed in the language of body positivity. I had studied and taught media literacy. I was an old pro. So I took my own advice and opted not to track the number on the scale. I never knew my pregnancy or post-pregnancy weight, which raised eyebrows when the question was asked, but ultimately led to much more meaningful conversations with the people who were asking.
I steeled myself in preparation for the verbal explosions from random people commenting on my body changes. “Whoa, have you got twins in there?” I scoffed—as I always do—at the “Baby or burrito?” and “Post-baby bikini reveal!” tabloid headlines.
But here’s the thing: steeling and scoffing are advisable protective strategies, no doubt about it. On the downside, they didn’t stop me from occasionally questioning whether I was eating “healthy” enough during my pregnancy or from craving positive comments about how “good” I looked after giving birth. I benefited immensely from my refusal to participate in the default conversations about baby weight gain and weight loss.
Unfortunately, there is no impenetrable armor against the Chris Wallaces of the world, who can take a public jab at Kelly Clarkson’s weight and in a matter of seconds remind us all (even the most experienced and educated experts among us) that no matter how hard we work to build confidence based on who we are, there is a very real cloud of appearance-based judgment hanging over us. It’s not in our heads. People are actually out there scrutinizing and hurling body insults at the women we admire.
Obviously, these people have major issues. But they also have national platforms. And their “jokes” have a far-reaching and sometimes outright dangerous impact.
It used to be that we needed to raise awareness about the existence of Photoshop. Now before/after photos are a women’s media staple, and according to a recent online poll conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association’s youth site, more than three quarters of respondents have digitally altered a photo of themselves before posting on social media. We might know in our rational, Women’s Studies 101 brains that the models don’t wake up looking so perfect. That’s certainly better than believing they do. But does it stop us from using Instagram filters and practicing the art of the selfie? Not so much.
There was a time when the message was about empowering women to get angry about how much time and energy we waste worrying about our looks, and how that worry adds up to huge profits for the cosmetic, diet, fitness, fashion, and beauty industries. Now women are getting angry at ourselves for knowing all the reasons why we should be angry and for not being able to magically stop the insecurity and self-doubt over our weight and appearance.
A woman like Kelly Clarkson should be able to enjoy her child and do her thing in peace knowing that her pizza consumption and the size of her ass have nothing to do with the fact that she is clearly kicking ass in many facets of her life. Mothers everywhere should feel free to do the same. It might feel like the work we’ve done to accept our bodies and set a better example for our children gets overshadowed by the voices creeping in to tell us that we should lose a few.
When those criticisms are coming from inside our own heads, it can feel even more discouraging. But let’s remember that we are moving in a direction where body shaming itself is publicly shamed and shut down. The more we say it out loud and make these comments off limits, the closer we’ll move towards believing it in those moments when we’re facing ourselves in the mirror.