Generations of Body Battles: How I'm Learning to Be a Peacemaker

By Melanie Klein--My body is a battleground. I have spent most of my life waging a war on it. I have vivid girlhood memories of my worth being measured by my waist size and numbers on a scale. I was taught that I must “suffer to be beautiful.”

This troubled relationship with body and self continued into middle school, as I hid my budding curves; into high school, when I combined starvation, purging, and over exercising; and well into adulthood, including during my pregnancy and postpartum experience.

But I am not alone—and sadly, this body hatred is nothing new. I am part of a lineage of women who declared war on themselves, from my great-great grandmother who donned the organ-crushing corset, to my great-grandmother who internalized the Victorian feminine ideal of daintiness and measured each bite meticulously; to my grandmother who cinched her waist with girdles and ate diet pills for lunch; and down to my mother who embodied the emaciated silhouette of the 1970s and aerobicized her way into the 1980s and early 1990s with her food-and-exercise diary tucked in her purse.

This is not just my legacy. This is an experience shared by countless girls and women, beginning at earlier and earlier ages and affecting them well into their later years. This legacy of low self-esteem and self-objectification–punctuated by disordered eating, continuous exercise and abusive fat talk--keeps us stuck in an unhealthy cycle that holds us back and prevents us from being truly empowered. As bell hooks states, these practices are “self-hatred in action. Female self-love begins with self-acceptance.”

Okay, so how do we get to that self-acceptance? As the number of girls and women engaged in these destructive habits increases exponentially, the good news is that campaigns such as Operation Beautiful, Fat Talk Free Week and the NOW Foundation’s LoveYour Body Day are rising up to combat the onslaught of voices undermining our personal and collective self-esteem.

Campaigns like these give us great opportunities to take action for change. I have also found that self-affirming rituals such as banishing self-criticism and honoring my body through reverence and celebration to be rewarding and transformative. In fact, I have felt the most beautiful and whole when I have silenced the critic in my own head, limited my level of media exposure and engaged in loving practices such as yoga that allow me to cultivate respect for my body as opposed to deepening my disdain and disappointment.

Your mother gave birth to you--her body was the vehicle for creating, carrying and birthing a miraculous new life, your life. While we may not always see ourselves as miraculous, stop and ask yourself this question: why not?  When did your body, a source of wonder and magic in childhood, stop being the source of the miracle that is you?  Ask yourself why self-loathing is heaped on generation after generation of women, whose bodies should garner respect and gratitude. Can you switch the conversation in your head? Can you identify two things that you appreciate and respect about your body? Maybe even five? Can you identify one new thing every day?

Respect is the connective strand that binds Carmen Siering's 20 ways to love your body post. If we can learn to respect our bodies, perhaps we can learn to love our bodies over time, and eventually turn that self-love into personal liberation.

Originally posted at Ms. Magazine. Revised for Proud2BeMe.

cmysko's picture


Diana G's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article. It brings back a lot of memories of my mom. It is true a lot of gilr's are expected to look a certain way. Including myslef, I have alwasys been chubby and my mom has an issues with that and she tell's me that I should lose weight and so on. Yet, I tell her that I feel comfortable and that I love the way I look. I've notice that this upset's her but I dont understand if she's a small girl but she still wants to be smaller and she used to take diet pills and do all these crazy diets. I have learn to teach my mom and younger sister to love themselves the way they look and are. That they dont have to look like society wants them to. If you feel pretty and love the way you are just stay that way.
NikkiO42's picture

@Diana - I think it's wonderful that you can keep a realistic and positive perspective despite people you care about making those comments to you. That's something to be proud of and hopefully can inspire other members to feel comfortable about their bodies. Since we're surrounded with words and images telling us how we need to change, it's hard to find the good in yourself and the fact that you do is incredible. I absolutely love hearing people talk about loving themselves.
UrielG's picture

MEDIA, what are you doing to us?!?! Many parents will always be effected by the outside world to try and look better, "suffer for beauty". As a result, when the child sees this, he/she will be influenced and encouraged by his parents, which already been brainwashed by the media and current culture beliefs that skinny=beauty, happy, valuable. I wish parents will be less influenced by the media and what it expresses, and focus more on their child's needs. The need to be accepted, and not judged for having a few extra pounds. Because that will be the reason for that child to be insecure about him/her self. Parents could give their children a world of happiness regardless of what the outer world, media, and school tell them, as long as they accept their children unconditionally without any sort of criticism.
Samanta K's picture

It's amazing how our mothers, probably without knowing it, (just wanting "the best" for us), put us up for failure when it comes to loving our own bodies. My mother turned 49 this year. She has an exceptional figure for a woman her age. Thin, petite, with long lean,legs. She diets a lot. Most of the time unsuccessfully (YoYo-dieting) and unhealthy. It's depressing for me to think, that in 20 years from now, I will still obsess about the way I look, even though I am "old"... Constantly comparing myself and competing with other women, sometimes even with my own mother! I do not want to be defined by looks alone. I would like to become the kind of person who brings more to the table. Whose value lies elsewhere, without being called "ugly" by our modern society, with its unrealistic beauty standards. I think it is important for women to find new ways of developing self love and a positive outlook when it comes to ones own body!
ashoomer's picture

Avital S.: I think it is so sad that, yes, we litteraly wage war against our bodies. Yet we should protect our bodies and keep them safe because they are vehicles for creating. Women's bodies bring new life, we must protect them not hate on them. For me this point really drives this idea of loving your body home. There is something bigger out there other than the way our bodies look. I think people really need to see this more and appreciate the incredible things our bodies can do.
Doreen C's picture

It is very unfortunate that women do not learn from their past mistakes. History tends to be repeated, and we are all victims of allowing it to continue to repeat. Putting a stop to history should begin somewhere. Weight, size, and the way we look have a great impact on us--and this is due to the media. Almost every girl (4/5) has disordered eating, We are constantly thinking about weight. Throughout the day, many women think about food, weight, the fear of food, and feel guilty when they eat. We should begin to focus on what is healthy rather than the number on the scale. The media constructs images of beauty, and it cultivates into our head beginning at a young age. History needs to change instead of repeating itself.
Lam Yan Yee's picture

I think every girls suffer in their face or body type. Many girls always dislike their body type. and they tried to keep fit. some girls may have eating disorder because of on diet. I do agree the author that people should respect their body. The god and our parents gave us our body. We should not do something to hurt our health.
Molly's picture

Lam Yan Yee, Thanks for your comment. I agree that we should definitely respect and care for our bodies. I know that for myself being healthy is what allows me to accomplish the things I want in my life. It is pretty amazing everything our body is capable of if we nourish it properly.
Rosemary A's picture

This article really does highlight the unfortunate ideologies which are implanted within our societies mind. Its really sad how this problem can be rooted back to many past generations, as you said you're great-great grandmother was following these "beauty" practices as well. Nowadays the media is continuously making the problem worse with displaying smaller models by the day and the many other advertisements they are producing. Its a great move that people have stood up and created those campaigns to make society aware of what really does matter in life and hopefully we'll be able to continue these movements until we will learn to love their bodies and appreciate what we have rather than continuously feeding into what the media is putting out there.
Rosemary A's picture

This article really does highlight the unfortunate ideologies which are implanted within our societies mind. Its really sad how this problem can be rooted back to many past generations, as you said you're great-great grandmother was following these "beauty" practices as well. Nowadays the media is continuously making the problem worse with displaying smaller models by the day and the many other advertisements they are producing. Its a great move that people have stood up and created those campaigns to make society aware of what really does matter in life and hopefully we'll be able to continue these movements until we will learn to love their bodies and appreciate what we have rather than continuously feeding into what the media is putting out there.
Irving M's picture

This article highlights the consequences of the socially constructed perception of beauty. The destructive habits a number of people, not just females, put themselves through in order to achieve the ideological traits of beauty or attractiveness. Self-acceptance is one of the virtues everyone should be willing to battle their negative feelings for attainment, because if we accept ourselves for who we are or what we are the boost in self-love, self-esteem, and our general confidence will be boosted at tremendous levels. And people have places to go to for support, campaigns to participate in where they can meet and create these much needed support groups. We should respect and care for our bodies enough in order to accomplish whatever tasks we want to complete, this includes the all-important principle of being a healthy human being, and not focus on attempting to reach that ideological perfect body.
Salina G's picture

When I was young, I was told, not asked by my grandmother and great-grandmother, to finish everything on my plate. it could have been two burritos, a fat slice of lasagna, or three tamales. If I didn't consume it all, I was told that I was too skinny and that I needed to feed my body more. Transitioning into middle school, my grandfather, on the other hand, secretly told me not to consume so much food because I would then look like my "big aunts". He would ask me, when my grandmother wasn't around if I wanted to wobble around like they did. I love my grandfather to death and although I know now he could have worded it in a different way, at the time, I was perplexed of how one side of my family, the Hispanic side, piled more food onto my plate, while the other, the Japanese side, told me I better not eat all that at once. Each culture, by nature is different. We have different beliefs, desires, attitudes, ideas, and ways of living. Eating a healthy nutritional diet is very important, starving and/or overeating is not. Whether you are bigger, smaller, taller, shorter, thinner, and/or thicker than others, as long as you are providing your body with the right amount of nutritional daily values your body needs with at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, love yourself, be good to yourself and be proud of who you are.
Jose R. Lopez's picture

As I was reading this blog I realized that the “ideal” body type is in fact a fictitious body created by the media. The reason I’m saying this is because as I remember women I have found attractive throughout my life, the majority didn’t even come close to meeting this “ideal” body type, and the fact that they weren’t tall, skinny, and sexy didn’t have an impact on my attraction towards them (i.e. I didn’t care that they didn’t look like models).
Angelica E's picture

As a young girl I always wanted to look like the girls on TV not like super models, but girls like Mary Kate and Ashley and Hillary Duff. I looked up to them in every way. I wanted to have their body shape and hair. It’s sad that at such a young age I wanted to look different. This post mentions how girls at younger and younger ages are beginning to care a lot more about their body image. During the weekend I spent some time with one of my little cousins that I normally see each at least twice a month. She is only 9 years old and she is so tinny that she still wears pre-school size clothes. I was in my room with her when she looks in the mirror and says "I'm just so fat." I could honestly not believe that she had just said that. I quickly questioned her. She said "i just need to lose some weight" It is very unfortunate that girls so young feel this way. I am not sure why my cousin called herself fat I do not know if it’s because she sees girls look in the mirrors and that call themselves fat or because she truly feels as she is fat. I think this is a huge problem; because by her just thinking she is fat can affect her self-esteem.
michellea's picture

I am proud to say that my sorority participates in Fat Talk Free Week every year. We are very diverse women of all shapes and sizes and it's not only frustrating but infuriating to have to constantly be compared to the typical blonde, size 0 sorority girl. My mom has always been very self conscious about her body. She is 44 years old and looks great but for some reason goes on episodes of strict diet and exercise. I remember first witnessing her ritual when I was about 5 years old so it's no wonder that I've had my own body image issues to deal with. I've always felt insecure about my body and pinpointed things I hated and wanted to change. Reading articles like this are so inspiring to me and really encourage me to be more self accepting because I have been my own enemy my whole life. I always find myself preaching to my friends, who are beautiful, healthy women, about how to be more accepting of themselves and it's time I take my own advice. I am going to switch the negative chatter in my head off and focus on the positive things about myself. After all, if I'm not accepting of my body, why should other people be.
CynthiaM's picture

Growing up, I never heard my mom complain about her weight or figure. BUT she did mention a couple of times that after I was born, she blew up. I know she meant this harmlessly, but sometimes I couldn’t help but feel responsible for my mom’s weight gain. She was a size 4 or 6, even after giving birth to my older sister, and she is now a size 14 or 16. I’ve noticed how her weight has fluctuated up and down, but has stayed around the same size. She does reminisce about the days when she was in shape and wore crop shirts, but now she embraces her fuller body. She finds clothing she is comfortable in and eats what she wants. I feel that I’m more self-conscious than she is, and I’ve sometimes told her to watch what she eats; I do this more for her health though. My older sister on the other hand experienced the worst body image issues, and couldn’t help but to critique not only herself, but my mother and me as well. From my mother, I have learned to embrace my body and love myself, but from my sister I’ve learned that I am fat. As a result, I feel stuck in the middle with my body image and self-esteem. There are times when I feel okay with myself, and there are also times where I don’t even want to look at myself. Our families really influence us, even in the way we see ourselves. I want to better my self-perception in order for my future children to see that I love myself so to make it easier for them to love themselves.
Natalie P's picture

I’m not sure where I heard this first, but when I am really struggling with my body I try to remind myself that, “My body does not define me.” It is really hard to internalize this, and live by it, but it is a really important statement. As mentioned in this blog, and in bell hooks book Communion, we come from a lineage of women who have struggled to accept themselves and their bodies. Sadly, I don’t think many of the women who came before us, have been able to resolve this issue with themselves. The criticisms of mothers, grandmothers, etc. are not isolated incidents. It has been pointed out that the female body-hatred, the poor self-esteem, the prevalence of eating disorders, is systemic, and is a statement about our society’s expectations and idealizations. Years ago I blamed my mom for the body and food issues my sister and I deal/dealt with, but I am aware now that she acquired those from her mom and the media influences of her time. I read Carmen Siering’s post on the 20 ways to love our bodies and I really connected with #1 , “Think of your body as the vehicle to your dreams. Honor it. Respect it. Fuel it.” I think this needs to be a declaration repeated over and over if we are to believe it for ourselves and be able to pass it on to our young girls.
ehendrie's picture

“I am part of a lineage of women who declared war on themselves, from my great-great grandmother who donned the organ-crushing corset, to my great-grandmother who internalized the Victorian feminine ideal of daintiness and measured each bite meticulously; to my grandmother who cinched her waist with girdles and ate diet pills for lunch” This portion really kind of made me think of how body image has changed over the past century, and how switching from an agrarian to an urban setting changes things, and –if I can get all Marxist on you—how the ideals of the bourgeoisie impress themselves onto the rest of society. See, my grandmother, Mary—who’s still alive and kicking at 90—was born in the hills of Kentucky, as was her mother. And while there are no pictures of Mary’s mother (and not many of Mary before her teenage years), there are some of my Grandpa Steve’s mother from the turn of the century. She was a big, strong, brick outhouse of a woman who kinda looked like Johnny Cash in drag. She didn’t have time to powder her face and lace a corset—she had cows to milk and crops to harvest and five kids to look after. My grandmother didn’t have diet pills for lunch, she had whatever was left over from the previous night’s supper before she killed her own chicken and made dumplings with it. As poor women, they had real-life stuff to worry about before they even thought of ‘beauty’. It kind of sucks that the bourgeoisie ideal has trickled down so far that now even poor women are not exempt.
csunclass's picture

This article was so well-written in the sense that I was able to so closely relate. I have always been heavier than average, but not fat. Growing up I was always told that I was “beautiful” but that I should lose weight to really maximize my “beauty.” I had this idea that my face was pretty and my body was not. As I got older and realized that society really does care what you look like and will treat you based on what you look like, I soon became depressed. I could never look good enough. No matter how many pounds I would lose or what size pants I could fit in, it wasn’t a small enough number. I remember I was actually pretty slim. Over the past 10 years and all of the cards life has dealt me, I have gained many, many pounds. I cope with life’s problems through eating. I am so disappointed because I look back at pictures of all the times I thought I was “fat” and think to myself, “if only I realized how beautiful I face and my body.”
nicoled's picture

It is definitely true that female’s self criticism and obsession with their looks has been passed from generation to generation, which just means that this is a problem that is not going anywhere. When I have children, their generation will probably have the same problems. Since it doesn’t look like media is getting any better at portraying women respectfully, women themselves need to learn to not take into account the images they see every day, and compare themselves to others. I have been comparing myself to other women for so long now that it seems almost impossible to stop. I think I started comparing myself to others when I entered middle school. This was the time where looks and popularity were the most important things. This is when we entered our “awkward stage” so it is not surprising that we became uncomfortable without bodies, but why I continued to feel uncomfortable with my body even after this stage, has not really crossed my mind until now. I think the media and just the obsession with female’s looks is the reason I always find something wrong with my body or looks. I wonder if this obsession would go still go from generation to generation if we were NOT living in a patriarchy. Men are definitely more comfortable with their bodies than women are, and this might be because they already have more power over us in society, and confidence might come along with power. Whatever the reason is, women including myself need to learn how to love their bodies, because self loathing behavior is unhealthy and can lead to further problems.
Karen Acevedo's picture

I agree, I think females should find positive qualities about their bodies and embrace them. I know there are some good qualities that every woman has. We have to find happiness and love ourselves. When we worry too much about our bodies it just makes us depressed. To enhanced our beauty we just have to live a healthy life style, by not trying to compare our body to others but accepting our own.
ani.shaidzhanyan's picture

Great job professor Klein!I feel like you were writing about my, especially the first part explaining the things you did to have the "best looking body". It is sad what women go through to be wanted. Of course I do believe that there are some men out there that want to look their best for their partners, but not as much as women do. I mean I don't remember a single day in my life, that I have not thought about losing weight. Every time I stand on the scale, even one pound frustrates me. I do not even realize how much that one pounds effects on my self-esteem or even my mood. I find myself being angry and rude to the people that I love. However I find myself catching during those times. I try to read motivating books, articles or comments from others, to make me feel better. As I read through the last paragraph of this article, I started answering to the questions that are addressed. Maybe I am really not that bad.
mmzsabs's picture

Body image has always been an issue for women and it still is reaching exponential lengths. More and more girls have eating disorders and develop body dysmorphic disorder such as myself. I have had it for years and had no idea until I researched it and realized I had all the symptoms and they were consist everyday of my life. I still have it and am struggling with it but through yoga and attempting to eliminate the words "ugly" and "fat" from the conversations I have with myself in my head I'm already starting to see small improvements. I have not eliminated the negative talk completely as it is difficult because it has been apart of my life for years but I am reducing it everyday until at once point it will be nonexistent.
elyzabeth's picture

I have learned to love myself, but yet I am still continuing in learning, and I will admit it feels good. I may not have the perfect body image but I sure do feel better than before. I am no longer in war with my body, and I am no longer suffering for beauty. I also grew up thinking that a real woman is skinny but I now know that it’s just a falsehood. My younger sister who is 16 is in that age where she is supposed to be in war with her body. However I don’t see her doing so. I love how she is chunky and doesn’t go on a diet and claims that she doesn’t care if people have call her names. She tells me she likes the way she is, and especially she enjoys all the food that is provided to her. But yet, I fear for her health in developing any type of disease that can jeopardize her life, and that’s why I tend to advise her to have a healthy well balanced diet. Other than that I am proud of her in always being her.
Alexander A's picture

This was another great article to read. This article talks about the ideal body for a woman. I feel that that ideal body for I woman is frankly unrealistic. This ideal body come from the media. These aspects of the ideal woman affect the lives of many people. Woman try to to strive to leak like that ideal woman. By doing so it force woman to be somebody who they are not and they are striving for something that is not real. Woman should not force them selves to look like that because it is unhealthy and will never make someone truly happy. Beauty like money does not get you happiness.
JoseB's picture

This article relates to one of the videos we saw in class on Killing us Softly. I believe body image, the psychological representation that you have of your own body, can contribute to the development of these disorders. The media displays that beauty knows no pain which increasingly contributes to the development of eating disorders and/or going to extremes. But also in order for women to find flaws they compare themselves to an ideal. These ideals are indeed a flaw because the ideal beauty is not real. I believe it is good for there to be campaigns that encourage self-respect and love. These types of programs can also educate about the influence the media has on them and e man things that we are introduced to in our women studies course.
Danny S's picture

This article talks about the body image that a women is suppose to look like and how to accept to love yourselve and your body even if your not thin and petite. In my opinion i feel as if the ideal body image for a woman is attainable with hard work and struggle but is simply just unrealistic and hard to attain. Because This ideal image of body type of being thin and petite comes from the media for us to believe that that is what women are suppose to look like but is just unrealastic and unattainable for some. And unfortunately this message does exsit in our society and affects the lives of many people who also beleieve the hype and how they are suppose to look because of the media's messages. I believe that woman should stop forcing themselves to try to look like the media's ideal image of what a women should look like because it could be unhealthy and and dangerous to your health. My best advise is to just love yourselve no matter how much you weight is and what your body looks like.
JasmineGh's picture

The way to attain self liberation is through accepting one's own body. Body image is a body penetrated through the media that should be the standard of beauty. However, none of these images are realistic images of beauty. If we learn to love our bodies for the perfection they truly are, we would be the happiest we could ever be. Life is a true blessing, and hating one's own body creates self suffering. Every body is perfect, and the bodies in the media, they can be a construct of self hatred and extreme dieting and exercise.
Zury C.'s picture

I find it really important and necessary for us to read articles such as this one. Our cultural climate includes the constant critique of our bodies to assure that we are bound to this unrealistic beauty image. It is unrealistic in that the images we see are altered at all times, never reflecting the images of real women. This means that because we can never attain this ideal, we will feel unfulfilled and angry at ourselves for not being perfect. We will look at our bodies and ourselves with disdain and self hate which is detrimental to both our physical and mental health. Most importantly, as hooks and Melanie point out, it does not pave the way to self- love which is necessary to reach self- accepting as well as to set a foundation for other relationships. If we cannot learn to love ourselves then there is no way that we can truly love others- and that is a scary thought. We need to learn to be self-loving and self-accepting in order to be self-actualized. The constant images and messages we're bombarded with on a daily basis will only feed our self-hate. It is teaching us to feel this way about ourselves to keep patriarchy and sexist thinking alive. If we were to be more comfortable in the skin we're in and be self-actualized, we'd get rid of this thinking; we'd truly be empowered.
KaylaAr's picture

This article really relates to me on a personal level. For the past years I have never really loved my body. I always thought I was a little too fat, or too short, never seeing the beauty in me. I have dealt with different ways trying different diet methods. After taking introductory women studies class and reading this article, I have realized that I am not the only one facing this issue. That this issue has been going on forever and all women somewhat faces it. There is nothing wrong with our bodies; there is something wrong with our culture. I have also came to the realization that I am beautiful and that my body is a miracle. I think it very important, as a group for women to really address this issue of self hate we all face. We must have the conversation and not ignore it like before.
AmberWinter's picture

We as humans judge everything! It is not until we have something so abstract and unattainable that we can compare against ourselves. We are told beautiful is skinny with big breasts/butt but that is only one type of beautiful. It is very difficult in today’s society to not judge ourselves against these flawless beautiful images. Everyone including myself wants to be accepted as beautiful but reaching societies expectations are very very difficult if not impossible to obtain. The media makes people believe that we have to go to dangerous lengths from surgeries to disordered eating. This is very true I believe that every girls body is a battleground in one way or another. No matter what size we are as women society makes us believe that we are still fat. Girls are beginning to worry about their weight at record breaking ages which will cause their generation to have many girls who are self conscious with increasing numbers of image related issues.
mayak's picture

This is all so incredibly true! I grew up, as most girls have, worrying about my weight and doing anything in the world to try and be thin. From just eating less to exercising to not eating at all, I was willing to go to extremes to lose every ounce that I would put on. Only recently have I starting to accept my boy and treat it well, and it's made a world of difference! We need to perpetuate this self love, leave no girl behind!


How many times per week do you see ads for "bikini bodies"?

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