I was mostly untouched by beauty standards until I had a daughter. We know it’s more than appearances, but having to force that upon her is a Herculean feat.
It’s the goal, right? The only thing that matters if you’re born with a vagina? Your smarts, your wit, your compassion – none of that is as important as the image you present to the world. This is why celebrities are airbrushed on the cover of glossy magazines and why every tabloid features at least one story about a female star who let herself go. It’s why Instagram feeds have been touted as a danger to young girls’ self-image, and why eating disorders are on the rise. As women, we’re taught from a young age to hate ourselves. We internalise this hatred, and before long it becomes so ingrained, we don’t even recognise it.
Never was I more aware of this obsession with appearance than when my daughter was born with a cleft lip and palate in 2013. To me of course, she was the most perfect poop machine ever created (despite the fact that she cried like she was being murdered for six months straight). To others though, it was harder to look past her difference. Their eyes were immediately drawn to the wide gash under her nose where her upper lip should have been. Her faulty genes screwed my baby girl over right from the start.
I was determined to teach her that she was worth more than her appearance. I knew that my actions (even before she knew what body image was) were going to form the very basis of her self-worth. From the very beginning, I refused to hide her under a blanket or shawl when we went out, and because of that, I encountered some really horrendous comments. When she was around four weeks old, she was wrapped up nice and snug in her pram, watching the world go by as I browsed the fruit and veg section of the supermarket for a piece of broccoli that didn’t look like it was on its last legs (even our food is body shamed, ever notice that?). A group of people walked by. I saw them glance in the pram, and then I heard a snigger.
“Holy shit. What’s wrong with it do you think?”
“Dunno. But if it was mine I wouldn’t be takin’ it out of the house.”
“Nah, me either, ay. It’s disgusting.”
I’m not sure if they thought they were being discrete or if they really just didn’t care, but I heard every word they said as they walked away, and I was struck dumb. Knowing how cruel the world could be, I’d imagined that moment a million times leading up to her birth, and I’d come up with all sorts of smart retorts for the horrible people who dared to judge my child on her looks alone. But the reality of the situation was very different. I stood there, saggy broccoli in hand, and fought back tears before grabbing the handle of the pram and fleeing, broccoli and all (Woolworths, I’m really sorry I stole your broccoli).
To me, she was the most perfect poop machine ever created. To others though, it was harder to look past her difference. Her faulty genes screwed my baby girl over right from the start.
A few months later, she underwent the first of many corrective surgeries to repair her cleft, and things became a little bit easier. Her difference didn’t draw such immediate attention, and we could finally say goodbye to the awkward sideways glances. Or so I thought. We were sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s surgery. She was pulling herself up on the chairs, when the young woman sitting next to us spoke up. I’d noticed her when we walked in, sitting there taking selfies, pulling duck faces at her phone, so caught up in her own world that she didn’t see how ridiculous she looked.
“What’s wrong with her?” She asked.
“Nothing,” I replied coolly.
“Does she, like, have Down’s Syndrome or something? Her nose looks weird.”
Her nose looks weird? Seriously? That’s seriously what you want to say to me, lady? With my head so full of rage I don’t remember what I said, no doubt something along the lines of “how about you mind your own f—ing business,” I moved out of the room and continued to wait in the hallway instead. But what hurt me the most in that moment wasn’t the idiotic comment from an uneducated moron. It was the fact that not a single person in the crowded waiting room stood up for my daughter. They all sat there, condoning by virtue of silence that it’s ok to comment on someone’s appearance.
When did we become so obsessed with body image that it was suddenly okay to comment so poorly on the appearance of an innocent baby? How did our society get this messed up?
I recently stumbled across a story about The Good Place actress, Jameela Jamil, and her campaign for body positivity. Using the Instagram handle @i_weigh, Jamil is tearing down the assumption that we are only as good as our makeup, and giving me hope that one day my daughter will be seen for her true worth, not the scars on her face.
The bio for the account reads:
Jamil admits that she didn’t mean to start a campaign, but once she shared her own experience with body shaming, the idea quickly snowballed. “A lot of women have been writing to me that they’d never even considered what was good about their lives until the iWeigh thing. They were so busy hating themselves for the way they look,” she told Bustle.
More than just hot air, Jamil practices what she preaches, and refuses to buy into the idea that a woman needs to base her self-worth on her appearance. Her Instagram account is full of self-deprecating photos, poking fun at a society that expects her to always put her best face forward. She is very open about her refusal to allow her photographs to be airbrushed, posting on Twitter recently, “We have to outlaw airbrushing in the US/UK. I always fight for no editing. It makes me feel bad about myself when an editor decides that my cellulite, stretch marks or squishy arms/thighs or ethnic nose were too shameful to be seen in public. It’s all a part of me, and I like it.” Jameela Jamil is exactly the sort of role model our daughters need.
Since launching her @i_weigh campaign in March, Jamil has amassed an impressive 203,000 followers and received thousands of posts from women across the globe who want to celebrate their worth outside of their external appearance. She admits that the stories these women share often bring her to tears. My own post is amongst them somewhere, and I confess to feeling a renewed sense of hope that one day, thanks to tireless campaigners like Jamil and her band of followers, my daughter will know that the sassy attitude she’s perfecting as a five-year-old is much more important than how she looks in the mirror.