My scale is gathering dust in the corner. Well, my long-ago ex’s scale. He had wanted me to have it. While we weighed each other in the balance and found one another wanting, apparently he didn’t want me to stop weighing myself.
It’s not a very thick layer of dust. The poor thing has only been cooling its heels for a few weeks now, the unexpected casualty of a dinner conversation with one of my oldest girl friends. We go way back. When you’re 30-year-old women who have known each other since age 12, you’ve seen each other through a lot: several breakups, bad fashion experimentations, multiple body weight fluctuations. You also listen to each other.
We were chowing down on vegan food, not because either of us were vegan, but because we were experimenting, as Millennial foodies do. (We did not, however, Instagram our meals, so perhaps we lost some Millennial cred there). I lamented, upon polishing off my “sausage” linguini, that I had finished it all. Frowning at my stomach, I said, “I need to lose three pounds,” realizing as soon as I said it how obnoxious I sounded. At that moment, you could have plopped me right into a scene out of Mean Girls or Clueless, and no one would have batted an eye.
My friend was incredulous. “Samantha,” she said, my full name a sure sign I was to be scolded, “Do you have a scale?”
“Get rid of it.”
Well, I couldn’t throw away a gift, after all, I told myself as I stared at it when I went home. But I did stop using it.
This past weekend, some girl friends and I went on a trip to kick off my 30th. We talked about all manner of things women talk about when they aren’t surrounded by men – among them, our bodies. Namely, how we’ve been obsessing over what to change about them.
But the conversation did not go as it had gone so many times before, in that familiar ritual that began as soon as were young enough to recognize that everyone compares themselves to one another in an endless benchmark battle that nobody ever seems to win. Someone else is always better, something else always needs to change.
As we unloaded a truly massive picnic, someone made a comment about the amount of food we were about to consume. But this time, as comments of self-scrutiny began to bubble up, the conversation turned to the concept of body positivity.
A phrase that wasn’t around when we were in our painfully pubescent teenage years, body positivity is a concept that essentially means you are working to embrace your body as it is, and to focus on the things you like about it, rather than on negative feelings about aspects you wish to change. It does not mean that you reject becoming healthier, but that striving for someone else’s concept of perfection isn’t the way to go about it.
The concept of body positivity is gaining steam, in my opinion, due in large part to its embrace by the Millennial Generation and Generation Z.
About two years ago, Aerie, a loungewear and lingerie company that markets to these age groups, became one of the first major brands to commit to this concept. Recognizing the influence advertising for undergarments can have on young women, particularly when all the models are size zeros and in perfect shape, the company changed course. First, they stopped air brushing in 2014. Then, the company began expanding its catalog of models. Go to the Aerie website to view products, and you’ll see women of every size, shape and color. You’ll even see some with armpit hair or skin conditions like vitiligo. It is a smorgasbord of representation.
As someone whose first job was working for a major mall-based lingerie chain made famous for its super models, I bought into it. So, apparently, did a lot of other Millennials and Gen Z-ers. In the first quarter of 2016, Aerie’s sales growth increased 25%, according to a news release on Business Wire. In the first quarter of 2017, sales grew another 38%.
I will never forget turning away women who just wanted to feel pretty in their most intimate moments because we could not accommodate their size. Sometimes, they yelled at me. And frankly, while it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t blame them. I hated those moments, not because of how it felt to be yelled at in the middle of a store by customers, but because of how I made women, in their willingly vulnerable act of going to a public place to purchase undergarments, feel humiliated by my brand’s inability to recognize their bodies.
I can only guess Aerie’s rapid growth is a response to its body positive advertising. For Millennials, it’s a radical change. We are a generation that grew up before Barbies came in all different sizes. Before actress Lena Dunham paraded her radically normal body type in the nude every chance she could get in her hit series “Girls.” Our early style and body icons were people like Britney Spears or the members of Destiny’s Child. Preppy, skinny girls pranced across our TV screens in all manner of shows, from “Saved By The Bell” to “Dawson’s Creek.” Even when the girls were cool and nerdy, like in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” they were still quite petite. Most of them, I should note, were also white.
The problem, by the way, extends to men too. I cannot tell you how many guys I knew in high school who wouldn’t take their T-shirts off at pool parties for fear of judgment. And who could blame them? When the girls you’re into are drooling over celebrities who look like Brad Pitt and Taye Diggs, what would you do?
So, when you grow up not seeing yourself represented in the mass media that the, well, masses, consume every day, what happens?
Do you have a friend who laments her “rolls?” Do you know anyone who has had elective plastic surgery for purely aesthetic reasons? Have you a friend who wishes his or her skin was lighter? Do you know a guy on a never-ending quest for any semblance of abs?
It’s not like body image is a new problem in American society. Since the days of yore when all we had to get the news of the day was newspapers (P.S., for the sake of my career longevity, why don’t we return to that?), people have been vying to live up to the society’s expectations, as depicted by the elite few given the most amount of attention in the media. But what is new is the widespread movement to counteract the problem.
As we stuffed our faces with cheese and crackers and wine and prosciutto, only to do it all over again two wineries down the road, my friends and I did not talk about our stomachs, our love handles, or our thighs. Instead, we shared aspirations, dating war stories, and recent successes. Imagine if all your conversations with yourself could go like that.