How much space do I deserve to occupy?
[Trigger Warnings: body shame, fatphobia, eating disorders]
At the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, held in April at Barnard College in New York City, Lily Myers performed a piece entitled “Shrinking Women”. A powerful look at the way women and girls are expected to be tiny, meek and quiet while men and boys are expected to be large, strong and boisterous, the poem discusses body politics in a way that is striking and necessary. Myers is candid in her discussion of caloric measurements and body size, using personal anecdotes to describe herself and the women she knows:
For me, this poem struck a cord that I didn’t expect when I hit ‘play’. I try hard not to think about my own issues with body image, issues that have been ingrained in me since I was a child. I’ve dealt with weight, weight control and other people’s perception of my weight my entire life. And thinking about all of that often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and awful, to the point that I can’t think about anything else. It doesn’t really matter what people say to me regarding my weight or my appearance — the two coincide in my head, and on bad days, cause self-esteem issues and anxiety that are incredibly hindering.
In college, the subject of bodies — fat bodies, thin bodies, whatever bodies — came up often. My women’s studies professors and my peers candidly discussed their issues with self image and we all discussed the phenomenon that Myers outlines in her poem: the phenomenon of “shrinking women”, of people so desperate to conform to a culture obsessed with a beauty myth of thinness (often disguised as a concern for health) that they put themselves into danger trying to accomplish what they believe is the perfect body.
We see bodies — particularly women’s bodies — objectified and critiqued on a regular basis. We see women shot down and run over by the opinions of men, because they are “other”, because they are “lesser”, because they do not have the right to occupy the same spaces as men. From childhood, girls and women are encouraged to fit into impossible body types thanks to an onslaught of images ranging from toys to fashion ads.
The latter is constantly under fire, most recently from actress Sophia Bush. Bush, best known for her role as Brooke Davis on “One Tree Hill”, has become something of a beacon for social justice in the last several years. She discusses her concerns with politics, culture and media on her Twitter account quite candidly; but while her intentions appear to be good, she often goes about presenting her arguments in very problematic ways.
Last week, an article appeared on MTL Blog that discussed Bush “declaring war” on the popular retail chain Urban Outfitters. The company has been called out for cultural appropriation and problematic marketing and sales in the past, so Bush’s “war” isn’t that surprising. Unfortunately, neither is the thing she’s declaring war against the chain for producing: a women’s v-neck t-shirt reading “Eat Less”.
Now, think about that. Urban Outfitters, a chain that rarely produces clothes big enough to fit women with any curves, let alone full chests or wide hips, is encouraging its shoppers to “eat less”. Why? To be “healthier”? To fit into their tiny clothes? (Even their extra larges are too small for many women, including myself — that’s something I used to think was wrong with me, but have since realized is actually a problem with Urban Outfitters.)
The phrase is incredibly disturbing, especially on a mass-produced t-shirt. It suggests that all women should “eat less”, which for those who suffer eating disorders or poor self-esteem already could send them spiraling down a very slippery slope. Even women who don’t suffer eds would be rocked by such a declaration on a t-shirt at such a popular retail chain. In an open letter to Urban Outfitters that Bush posted on her blog, she wrote:
“You should issue a public apology, and make a hefty donation to a women’s organization that supports those stricken with eating disorders. I am sickened that anyone, on any board, in your gigantic company would have voted ‘yes’ on such a thing, let alone enough of you to manufacture an item with such a hurtful message. It’s like handing a suicidal person a loaded gun. You should know better.”
While she isn’t off the mark, her claiming the t-shirt is akin to encouraging suicide seems extreme and even insensitive. So does the image accompanying MTL Blog‘s article on Bush, wherein she’s wearing a shirt that reads “0 is not a size”. Bush has always been an advocate for women and women’s bodies, encouraging healthy behaviors rather than obsessive ones, regardless of size or appearance. That’s great. It’s encouraging to see a woman with such a prominent voice among young people encouraging them not to give into societal pressure to be thin. But it’s not okay for Bush to consequently shame people who are thin, whether by genetics, choice, compulsion, or something else entirely.
The production of the “Eat Less” t-shirt follows a disturbing trend. As “thinspiration” or “thinspo” content has become increasingly popular, social media sites like Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram have instituted policies to prevent and erase it. If content promotes or is perceived as promoting eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, users are encouraged to report the content so that it can be removed.
Meanwhile, Urban Outfitters and other popular retail companies are encouraging their shoppers to continue “thinking thin”. Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries recently caused controversy by explaining that A&F clothes run small because they’re made for popular people — who would obviously never be ugly or fat. This week, Swedish blogger Emelie Eriksson shook up the Internet by juxtaposing actual American Apparel ad campaigns featuring women with photographs of men in the same poses. It’s apparent that even though some companies are desperately trying to curb a popular obsession with dangerous thinness and sexualization of unhealthy bodies, others are more interested in continuing to profit from those still following the trend.
It’s also apparent that more people need to take a stand against these chains for promoting these messages. Bush’s “war” isn’t uncalled for. Her personal statement to Urban Outfitters is problematic, as is her overall approach to the issue (body shaming in any form is not okay, ever), but her point still stands. As Myers talks about in “Shrinking Women”, women are consistently taught to occupy as little space as possible:
“My brother never thinks before he speaks. I have been taught to filter. ‘How could anyone have a relationship to food?’ he asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs. I want to say, ‘We come from difference, Jonas. You have been taught to grow out. I have been taught to grow in. You learn from our father how to commit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence. You used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much. I learned to absorb.’ … I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word ‘sorry’.”
The occupation of space is not only physical, but intellectual. Women are told to shut up and listen, to be small and quiet and subordinate. We apologize for taking up too much space and feel validated in doing so by things like t-shirts that read “Eat Less”. I do not fit into even an extra large at Urban Outfitters. I have been taught that the space I occupy is too much, and that education is reinforced by the fact that I cannot shop at the places pop culture tells me I should want to shop.
How much space do women deserve to occupy? The answer should be: as much or as little as we damn well please. Let’s make Urban Outfitters accommodate us, instead of shrinking to accommodate them.