I’m back again this week with Sharon Haywood, writer, feminist, body image activist and friend.
If you have any body image issues (and, sadly, who doesn’t?) this post is a must-read. Sharon talks about the difficulties she had accepting her own body and how that ultimately led her to take action against the stereotypical media images that inundate us.
She felt compelled to speak out against a dangerously thin body ideal and has worked to increase women and men’s acceptance of how we look – in all our varying sizes, shapes and colors.
If you didn’t have a chance to listen to or read part 1 of our interview you can CLICK HERE to hear Sharon talk about acknowledging and accepting her fear when she decided to leave a secure job in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, travel internationally by herself, then settle down in Buenos Aires, Argentina and work as a free-lancer.
Cherry: A lot of your writing and activities focus on body image activism. Would you explain what that means and how it become a passion for you?
Sharon: In the simplest terms, body image activism is speaking out and acting out against a culture that teaches us to hate our own bodies. If you look around, you realize there are thousands upon thousands of media messages that we consume every week. Most of the time we’re not even conscious we’re being inculcated by media messages filled with stereotypes and a thin body ideal – often a dangerously thin body ideal. There are so many sexualized images of women and very little representation of women in powerful roles. Think about the things we see in sitcoms about women. Magazine images. We can’t escape media images that touch on body image.
I became hyper-conscious of the images I was consuming and how it was affecting my relationship with my own body.
To give you context, through my teen years and early to mid-twenties, I struggled with anorexia and bulimia. It was something I had to work to recover from and I was recovered before I started traveling. ( Twenty years later, Sharon remains recovered!)
By the time I arrived in Buenos Aires, I was really quite comfortable in my own skin. But after living in Buenos Aires for a while, I found myself slipping back into old negative thought patterns about how I looked; comparing myself a lot to other women.
Buenos Aires is a very aesthetically focused city. Some people call it a vain city. The way one looks is of the utmost importance here and plastic surgery is normalized. Teenagers get it. People through all the different age ranges get it – men and women alike. It’s very, very normalized and I began to consider getting botox. Not to say someone who wants to get botox shouldn’t get it, that’s their choice. But after working so hard to accept my body as it is and to be kind to it, I felt really conflicted about making that choice.
Why did I want to inject something into my face to change the way it looked?
I had a massive Aha moment when I recognized it was my environment that was taking me down this road. It scared me for myself but it scared me more on a global level, in terms of the country. I knew I had to do something.
An Activist Is Born
Sharon: The rate of eating disorders in Argentina is the second highest in the world. Girls are getting breast implants for their 15th birthday. Clothing comes in very, very small sizes so many girls will start dieting and end up developing eating disorders because they can’t find a pair of jeans to fit them. All of these things made me more aware of my environment and I realized if I’m affected and want to change my body, how is it affecting young girls?
I hated going shopping. I’m an average size woman, about an American size ten, yet I had to try on extra-large sizes (the largest ones) and I still couldn’t get things over my head or pull up jeans over my hips. I was crushed, despite my awareness of what was going on in the world and what I had personally gone through. I thought if this is the way I’m feeling after all the self-healing work I’d done, what is it doing to young women and women in general.
If I was going to live here I couldn’t just accept this. I felt compelled to do something. That was my first step into body image activism.
Ask any women in Buenos Aires who is a size 8 and up and they’ll tell you stories of how at least once, more often on a frequent basis, they walked into a store – haven’t even picked anything up off a rack – and a saleswoman will say “We don’t have your size”. So basically the message is don’t even bother trying.
A few years ago I was shopping for a non-traditional wedding dress and I was going to higher end shops in the fashion district. I’d take two steps into the shop and hear “No we don’t have anything for you. <Big sigh>
Cherry: I’m sitting here and slumping forward with my shoulders drooping just at the thought of someone saying that to me.
Sharon: It’s demoralizing. That’s why I founded a grass-roots movement, a NGO, called AnyBody Argentina, underneath the umbrella of Endangered Bodies based out of London. It’s an international movement with eight chapters fighting this toxic culture and focusing on the issues that are local to each chapter. I felt compelled to start a movement here because nobody else is doing it. We’re getting thanked regularly and our numbers are growing every day. Nobody else was talking about these issues. It’s about raising awareness and giving people tools to fight against media and cultural messages that are unhealthy.
Great lessons from Part 2 of Sharon Haywood’s interview and journey
1. Your body image is formed by your environment, including cultural stereotypes of beauty and media images and misrepresentation.
2. Increase your awareness of the unrealistic images you receive on a daily basis. For instance, the women you see in magazines (such as the model being photoshopped in the above video) are touched-up to have larger breasts, slimmer hips, perky noses and flawless skin. It’s crap. Not real. An “ideal” no one can achieve naturally. So quit trying. Self-acceptance is beautiful and appealing.
3. Think about the stories you tell yourself about how you look and where/when these stories started. How does that affect your self confidence and what you do in the world? Know that you can edit your story. Heck, you can re-write the whole damn thing. Remember Sharon struggled with anorexia and bulimia in her teens and early twenties. She now has a positive self-image and has been recovered for over twenty years.
5. Be a rebel. Join the resistance and love your body.