June 12, 2014
It’s “beach body” season, in case you haven’t noticed by the aggressive marketing campaigns, bombarding us with reminders that it’s our job to look good in a bikini. All of our bodies are under constant scrutiny, whether we’re Jane or John Doe, Rob Kardashian, opera singer Tara Erraught, or Miss Indiana Mekayla Diehl.
It’s easy enough to bemoan the judgments running rampant online and off, but what can we actually do to counteract those negative messages and feel good—even great—about our bodies? Enter Hanne Blank, a cultural historian-activist-writer, who’s been writing about issues of size for over 15 years in books like sexuality handbook Big Big Love and The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise. She's a former university professor who gives talks like "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fat and Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)" and says her ongoing interest in the subject is based on "a lifetime of experience. I grew up as a fat woman in a culture that despises fat women just because it can."
Now she’s trying something new: a serial e-book called 52 Weeks to Your Best Body Ever, which she’s funding with an Indiegogo campaign, where for a dollar a week, starting in August, you’ll get “a dose of body-loving perspective, insight, strategy, experiments, Zen, and badassery to help you revel in the amazing skin you’re in.” What does that mean exactly? Short essays, with exercises to try at home, but with an inclusive attitude rather than one-size-fits-all mentality. She'll address movement, nutrition, sexuality, body-shaming, and dealing with other people's unsolicited opinions. But instead of a step-by-step plan, Blank will leave it up to readers as to how to implement the specifics. "It's been my experience that there's something physical out there for nearly everyone that will click in some deeply personal way, but it can take a lot of support and encouragement to go out there and find it." As opposed to much of the existing glut of diet books out there, which Blank says, "presume that you don't know what is good for you and you must be told what to do like a child," she'll instead ask readers "to experiment and take notes" because "your own information is the best information you can get in terms of how something affects your own body." In other words, much like self-help books, 52 Weeks will point you in the right direction, but won't do all the work for you.
Blank uses the phrase “radical acceptance” in her description, and it turns out, it’s a pretty simple concept (“All bodies are inherently good. Your body makes you possible, and that right there makes it good”), as well as an inclusive one.
“The fact is that the person whose body you covet, the person where you tell yourself ‘I would be happy forever if I just had a body like so-and-so,’ may well hate his or her own body and feel like it is utterly unacceptable and unlovable,” she told me. “I would be a rich woman if I had a dollar for everyone who’s ever surprised me by telling me about their body-based self-loathing.”
By posting one chapter at a time, Blank will have room to delve into topics that go beyond body image. “I’ve talked to a huge number of people about their body issues and it’s become plain to me that dealing with fat/weight/size was only one stream of what was going on with why people were being treated badly in relation to their bodies,” she said. “Bodies get judged and stigmatized for so many reasons and so many characteristics: how they’re shaped, height, skin color, dis/ability, age, gender conformity, visible signs of ethnicity, beauty or lack thereof, and lots more. More than one of those things can be going on at one time with any given person and their body. It’s not just the bodies, either, but how people behave that gets stigmatized: what and how we eat, how we dress ourselves, how we move through the world, etc.”
And while backers have the option of receiving the entire work as a single e-book in July of next year, Blank has deliberately chosen to offer weekly chapters to best facilitate action. “I know from experience that changing the way you think about and work with your body and body image takes time. It’s easy to read a whole book in a few days, and maybe it sinks in and maybe it doesn’t. Sometimes these ideas really need some time to percolate in the brain before they start to work on us.”
One major shift from the general tone of media related to body image, whether the traditional urges to lose weight and get fit or even feminist work, is that 52 Weeks isn’t solely targeted to women. “Body-acceptance is not a gendered thing. Women do not have a monopoly on this category of problem. Men also have problems accepting and respecting and liking their bodies, as do people of a variety of other genders. Being alienated from your body, or disliking your body, or feeling that your body makes you less worthy in some way, is simply not limited by gender,” said Blank. “For instance, people who aren’t women don’t face quite the same pressures women face about their weight, on the whole, but they do face huge pressure about whether their bodies conform to gender expectations, and physical ability, and how bodies are shaped. What do you do if you’re a guy with hips? How do you work with that as you move through the world and learn to take pleasure in what you’ve got?”
Feminist theorists have been trying to get to the root of the pressure to be thin even before Susie Orbach’s groundbreaking 1978 book Fat Is a Feminist Issue. Is it possible to write about having “your best body” without betraying your ideologies? According to Blank, 52 Weeks is a feminist project because “I believe that any project that makes all people, regardless of their sex, more powerful in themselves is fundamentally a feminist project because it’s about equal access to empowerment and improvement. I also feel strongly that exposing the ways in which body-based prejudice affects people of all sexes and genders is a feminist action, because it means that ‘body image and self-esteem’ can’t be so easily shoved off into the pink-pastel girl-problems ghetto.”
She also offers readers a private online forum to discuss such things as your progress with the book, and what having your “best” body means in reality. “One of the reasons that body-related prejudice is so painful is that each of us tends to assume that it really is us, personally, and our own personal individual bodies, that are the problem and that we’re alone with it,” Blank explained. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Being able to talk through your experiences and your thoughts makes a world of difference.”
Blank is aware that even for feminists, body-image issues can loom large. How do we know when we’re striving to change our bodies for ourselves vs. to please others, whether they be friends, family, lovers or the culture at large? “To me,” Blank said, “the question I ask, for people who are intentionally trying to change their bodies or appearance—and this goes for everyone—is whom does this thing you are doing with/to your body serve and how?” This isn’t just a rhetorical question for her, but one of vital importance. “When we stop evaluating bodies based on whether or not they are acceptable to someone else’s standards, the cisgender, heterosexual white male gaze that furnishes the yardstick for so much of how we judge and value bodies in this culture is disqualified. It just stops being the yardstick.” Brava to that!