When I first saw H&M's new advertisements featuring a size 12 model in a bikini, I was disgusted.
I was absolutely appalled — at myself, revolted by my first thought (and this is not easy to admit): "Ewww, she's too fat to be in a bikini in an advertisement." As I scrolled through the images, I found myself critiquing her body, analyzing and assessing her like I would a piece of meat at the grocery store.
And I did this at lightning speed, in mere seconds!
I simply could not believe it.
I could not believe those were the first thoughts that entered my mind. I didn't ask for those thoughts, and that isn't even what I believe!
My "real" feelings
What I believe is that she is a stunningly beautiful woman who has every right to proudly sport a bikini in an advertisement or anywhere else (of course, who doesn't have that right?). What I think is that she's about 10 times sexier than the emaciated pixies in Victoria's Secret ads, and the truth is I'd give just about anything to have a body even resembling hers, and I find her refreshing and lovely as a healthy representation of "woman."
And though I realize how ridiculous it is that a company featuring an average-sized female model in an advertisement is national news, I still want to hug H&M for using a “regular” model in the "regular" (not "plus-sized") section of clothing.
Broken beliefs, broken society
But I started thinking: Am I a terrible person for having that initial reaction? Or was that a conditioned response, reflective of a broken society?
Well, because people (and I'm using that term loosely) like Mike Jeffries exist, I'm pretty confident those thoughts were implanted in my brain without my approval by a seriously whacked society. (Or unattractive, almost-elderly white dudes with the intelligence of flag poles. You decide.)
Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, explained that their stores only carry women's sizes up to size 10 because they only want “good-looking people": "Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that."
So people above a size 10 are neither cool nor good-looking. OK, thanks for clearing that up.
The tool goes on: “In every school, there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids… candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
OK, so fat people are so uncool, so not good-looking, they aren't even worthy of your clothing. (My, my, you really are a tool, Mr. Jeffries. I mean, have you seen yourself? My goodness, talk about unattractive.)
He explicitly states that this message is targeted to young people. Implicitly he reveals that Abercrombie & Fitch is playing on the insecurities of teenagers as they try to find their way in the world. He's targeting our teenagers in their most vulnerable, formative years.
The origins of broken beliefs
Well, now, things are becoming a little clearer: I was once a teenager. I didn't grow up in a vacuum. I grew up in a world of Mike Jeffries. I grew up in the world of Abercrombie & Fitch models screaming at me from eight-foot high images: "I am perfect. I am sexy and hot and I am a size zero."
You are not. You are a size eight. You are not sexy or hot.
The same voice still enters my head when I see those Victoria's Secret models: "You aren't good enough. You'll never look like that."
They are perfect. They are the "cool, good-looking" ones. They are the "cool kids."
You, you don't belong.
And it's the voice that made me criticize Jennie Runk, the gorgeous “plus-sized” model who isn't “plus-sized” at all. It's the voice that isn't mine.
And it's the voice that's making its way into the minds of my children, right now, and yours.
As women, as mothers, we absolutely MUST ask ourselves those really hard questions: What ideas exist in my head that I didn't put there? How is the societal construction of "cool" or "pretty" or "sexy" making its way into my daily behavior?
If you're brave enough to look, the answers may surprise you.
A few months ago, I put on a dress getting ready for work. My first-grade son sat on my bed, watching me as I examined myself in the mirror, scowling, twirling back and forth. As I pulled the dress over my head I muttered, “Man, I look terrible. I'm so fat.”
And he looked at me dead in the eyes and said “Mama, you sure aren't very nice to yourself.”
I froze as I realized he only saw his mama, perfect and gorgeous and whole. I was the one who couldn't see myself clearly. I was the one holding myself up to examination like a piece of meat in the grocery store: too much flesh here, not enough there. Broken. Wrong.
I was the one with tainted eyes and I didn't even know it. Unintentionally, I was passing those eyes on to my children.
I didn't ask for those eyes or those thoughts, but they've made their way into me anyway.
Now it's my job to see them make their way out.