‘’When I finally recognized that my sense of self had been shattered, I knew that I had to do the difficult work of standing up and fighting back’’, Melissa told me, unfolding the piece of her personal story that pushed her to become a Body Image Activist a few years ago. How many millions of women and men resonate with this story? How many people can identify with stories of ‘shattered self-identity’ narratives? The statistics are horrifying.
In the US alone, 10 million men and 20 million women will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime and three out of four girls feel guilty, shameful, depressed after just three minutes of leafing a fashion magazine.
People have been losing years of their lives, for decades now, worrying (sometimes to death) about their size, their skin tone, their height… you name it, we worry about it. And where there is worrying there is an industry behind it to enhance and support and extend the drama. Maybe even create it—because they profit from it. From fashion, media, pharmaceutical and plastic surgery, to cosmetics, advertising, and so many other industries, they are all out to get us. And they have been very successful at it until now. And they will continue to profit from this. If we let them. They will not let us be. Unless we fight back. Unless we decide to raise our voice against it, change our choices, empower ourselves and others by any means possible.
It is encouraging and beautiful and empowering to see relevant campaigns being executed with amazing results around the world. Things are changing and change has to start from awareness and self-love. And if self-love has to walk hand-in-hand with rage at first, then so be it. Fight back.
Where are you right now Melissa, what do you see around you and which are the thoughts that prevail in your mind these days?
I’m home alone with my cat, who is sleeping peacefully next to me on the couch, and a hot cup of tea. Outside, it is still bright, but the sun will set soon enough. I’m thinking a lot about endings – which is a far departure from my usual thoughts about beginning and balance; I’m thinking about doors closing, rather than opening. I’m thinking that it feels good sometimes. I’m also thinking that the piece (okay, three pieces) of chocolate that I just had were immensely satisfying – and how sad it is that the simple act of eating can sometimes be revolutionary.
Which part of your inner voice pushed you into becoming a body image activist?
It was the part of my inner voice that betrayed me, honestly. When I finally recognized that my sense of self had been shattered, I knew that I had to do the difficult work of standing up and fighting back. I became a body image activist because that’s what I needed in my life – someone to remind me that my appearance was not my identity.
Why is body image an issue worth addressing strategically?
To start, body image is something that each of us has – whether positive, negative, or neutral – and that commonality in and of itself makes it important. But considering how much of body image can be constructed, rather than being innate, is what makes it necessary work. If, psychologically and socially, the default is for body image to be torn down, then we need body image activism to combat that. Our relationships with food and our perceptions of self are damaged and disordered culturally, and, because body image plays such a large role in other aspects of our lives, it needs to be addressed.
Have you ever had body image/self-esteem issues yourself? What have you learned while working on that?
Hasn’t everyone? I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone – much less a woman – who has lived life unscathed by narrow social definitions of beauty. My self-esteem throughout my life has been a rollercoaster – sometimes touching the sky and other times falling dangerously low – and I’ve now, in my adult life, found a balance. I’ve learned so much about myself, others, and society by viewing the world through a critical feminist lens and analyzing the messages that have been thrown at me for all of my life, most of which I’ve internalized in some capacity. And what I’ve learned is that because there is no objective truth, I’m allowed to question everything. And that permission to disregard systematically engrained lies is liberating.
Let's talk about fashion and beauty magazines . We have all been there.. and experienced that type of brainwashing, haven't we? How has society and especially women come out of that long going 'reading' experience? Have those magazines contributed in women being healthier and feeling better about themselves?
I’ll be honest: My gut reaction is to say no. What I want to say is that I think that things are getting worse. The more media exposure that we encounter that forces stricter beauty ideals on us, the worse off we become, I believe. But I also want to say this: I see things changing. I see people pushing back. I see people wanting more for themselves and for each other. Take, for instance, how many companies are now co-opting the language of body-positivity (a la “real women”) in order to sell products. Now, there is a lot of criticism to be had here, but the fact that it could work? Τhe fact that people are craving normalcy in media? That’s powerful. Our operating under a system of supply-and-demand is flawed. But if we are demanding body diversity, and it’s being supplied, I see that as a step in the right direction at least.
So can societies fight the misconceptions?
Sure. But I think that working to debunk myths happens more on an individual level than it does a societal level; after all, a lot of these misconceptions exist in order to keep the powerful in power. Society as a construct – and all of the institutions of power that make it up – isn’t going to fight against the lies that we’re being sold because it benefits from them. But I think that each of us, individually, can do our part to create a better tomorrow.
And how can each of us, change the inner voice into a positive, healthy self-steem inner voice?
By asking hard questions. By clarifying our own values. By separating out our authentic selves from our constructed ones. By seeing ourselves as whole, rather than in parts. By seeing ourselves holistically, rather than as bodies. By interrupting the stream of negative thoughts by using rational thinking. We have to see the problem first. And then we have to be brave enough to want to stop it.
How do you define beauty?
I think that defining beauty is exactly the problem. I could say something fluffy and pretty here about inner beauty or the power of rebellion, but then I’d still be leaving people out of the definition. Similarly, I don’t think it helps either to spread the message that everyone is beautiful, that everyone needs to be able to apply that marker to themselves – because then we’re back to square one: valuing beauty. Instead, I think that we need to destroy its worth altogether.
Which are the misconceptions challenged by the Marginalized project?
My collaborative effort with NEDA, The Marginalized Voices Project, seeks to break apart the misconception that eating disorders happen within very specific confines – to young, middle-class, white women who are straight and cisgender and seek out residential treatment – as well as the romanticization that can happen (accidentally or purposely) in eating disorder memoirs. Currently, the breadth of narrative literature on the topic is rather limiting and therefore gives a false sense of what eating disorders really look like. I’d like to try to broaden the scope.
How can we, media and educators, empower people and contribute to an awakening? Which are the most powerful messages and tools, according to your opinion?
I think that people’s minds are the most powerful tools that they have. Getting people to question their own thinking is some of the hardest work out there, but also some of the most effective. A lot of people try to take the easy way out – by throwing positive messages at people in the hopes that they counteract the negative – but it doesn’t work. We need to get inside of the brain and really turn around what people have come to accept as truth. We need to entirely alter people’s perceptions of reality – and that takes more than simple resources; that takes dedication.
*Some of Melissa's actions can be found on her website: http://www.melissafabello.com