By Joanna Williamson
Women in all places do not live at peace with their own bodies.
I just came back from Bogota Colombia, a beautiful country full of beautiful people ready to write a different story; one not marred by years of violence, drug lords and mountain dwelling guerrillas, but a new story full of incredible potential, hope and courage.
It was there where I taught on empowerment and how we as women can fully embrace it. But to be empowered means to realise what disempowers us in the first place. I read somewhere that we can experience disempowerment in three areas: towards ourselves, towards others and towards God. All these need to be unpacked separately. When chatting to women in Bogota we all came to realise that women experience disempowerment in all areas, but primarily their most persistent disempowerment is in relation to themselves and their bodies.
We can only live in the body. We cannot live without it. So understanding our life in the body, and learning to love our life in the body, is a crucial element in whether we will ultimately feel empowered or not.
I came across an image online of a little kitten looking into a mirror and seeing a big, full grown tiger. Cats definitely have a lot confidence, a sense of value and an awareness of personal space, as those of us who love them know too well.
For many of us women the situation is totally opposite; we are a lioness looking into a mirror and seeing a pathetic image we seldom approve of and value. We see all our imperfections, bumps, creases and discolorations, the things we would like to change, the things we dislike and feel ashamed of. Is the problem with us or is it with a mirror?
This ‘mirror mirror on the wall’ haunts us all. It drives us to despair, competition, constant comparison, purchasing things endlessly to make us feel a bit better, look a bit thinner. We can hardly imagine life without mirrors. Is it even possible? Once mirrors were a costly luxury, now we have many; pocket mirrors, bathroom mirrors, full size mirrors, every shop has a few good ones, and if it hasn’t there is a window display, or a mobile phone.
We are prisoners of mirrors. Because of the ever present critical reflection in mirrors we also begin to see ourselves from the outside almost, as a mirror image of how other people view us. We have a love/hate relationship with mirrors. We fear them, unless of course they are slimming and the light is just right. The ever-present merciless mirrors, the cultural norms, the insensitive comments from family members, comparisons with a slimmer sibling or more beautiful cousin, they all set us up for a life of harsh self scrutiny. Women are to be looked at in some cultures in more obvious ways than in others, and therefore women learn to have an observer, outside relationship with their bodies.
One of the mirrors is the culture, another mirror is our family background. Both can distort our image of ourselves and create deep seated wounds.
Every culture promotes a different form, shape and expression of a female body. In some cultures curvy bodies are a desirable norm, in some others a sign of laziness and ugliness. In some, sun-kissed skin is preferable and in some others bleached and white products sell like crazy. For those growing up as a minority in a given culture their image of the body is also complicated by cultural norms and racial preferences.
Coming from a culture that stares and judges in very obvious ways and does not hold back on comments, I have been carrying within me many wounds… teasing, taunting remarks by strangers, fathers, brothers, uncles …
It all has shaped my perception of my own body. As a result of comparisons and criticisms, I do not remember ever being comfortable with my own body. This one body that I have dragged all around the world, the body that has been and will be with me as long as I live. It frustrates me that even as an educated theologian and experienced leader I still lack a confidence and appreciation of my own body. Isn’t it time to make peace with my body?
My mum was petite, with sun-kissed skin; I am well-built, tall and pale. Probably one of the most hurtful things I heard as a child was, “you look like your father.” What girl wants to hear that?! What was meant as a compliment entered my heart with a force of a curse and put an invisible barrier between me and my dad for long years to come.
We must find honest ways to talk about our bodies. We must realise that one of the primary ways we disempower ourselves is through and in relation to our bodies. Here are three little steps to help us to become more empowered in relation to our bodies:
- Take time off from looking in a mirror; a whole day or week without its judgmental eye.
- Notice how you notice yourself. Are you your worst critic?
- Consider how much of what you do, wear and buy is actually because you are trying to fit in a certain norm.
My life is a life in progress, born of the struggle to continue to learn to love my own body. Now is the time to finally make peace with my body.