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By Lily July
Maria Kang, you look fabulous. I fully commend you for the work you put into a goal that was important to you, and I congratulate you on your success. I admire you for your self-reflective journey, your honesty in your writing, and your acknowledgment that everyone is different. I looked pretty good before I got pregnant, but nothing like you. I also have an eight-month old baby, and a couple of older kids at home. I have to say, I certainly don’t look nearly as good as you do now!
What’s my excuse? I’m so glad you asked. Well, my excuses are my body, my situation, and my priorities.
Everybody is different, and everyone’s body is different.
When I cut my food intake, my milk supply drops. Feeding my baby is much more important to me than how I look.
When I do strenuous exercise, I get migraines and dizzy spells. They hurt. Being healthy is more important to me than how I look.
When I restrict my exercise to brisk daily walks, I don’t lose pounds, but I feel great. Feeling great is more important to me than how I look.
Everybody is different, and everyone’s situation is different.
When I do strenuous exercise, I need more sleep and I don’t have time to relax with my husband. Being intimate with my husband is more important to me than how I look.
When I go to the gym, I have to pay for daycare. Having money, especially when money is tight, is more important to me than how I look.
When I spend more time working out, I have less time to write and do research. Being productive is more important to me than how I look.
But that is just my body, and my situation, and I’m doing pretty well. For so many people, the situation is dire, commuting between work and a home they can afford, making sure the kids are safe and busy after school, and juggling to get food on the table. I can ditch the gym for a walk around the block, but many women live on streets that don’t have sidewalks, or are unsafe. I buy organic vegetables, but in so many stores, subsidized Doritos cost less than a piece of fruit; it is no wonder that people “choose” junk food over being hungry at the end of the meal.
I appreciate the message that being healthy is worth making a priority. But blaming the individual obscures the problem. People’s energies are stretched thin, and the system is working against their health, not for it. Is that just another excuse? Or is it an opportunity for bigger change?
But there is another message here that is downright dangerous: “looking good should be the highest priority, or at least near the top.” Women in particular are told over and again that our worth is based on how we look. We are supposed to spend time, money, and effort on being beautiful and attractive (presumably to men).
I discovered that looking good just isn’t as important as it is made out to be. Feeding my baby, being healthy, feeling great, being intimate with my husband, being productive, and having more time and money are all significantly more important than how I look.
So, the emphasis on looks is unfortunate, because it keeps women’s time and energy away from truly transformative projects. But this emphasis on looks is also dangerous because we are taught that our bodies are for other people to use. As the terrible statistics on violence against women show, men are learning this false message and using other people’s bodies–women’s bodies–for their own needs. And women are taking to heart the unhealthy flip side, which you describe all too well: if we don’t look good, then we aren’t worth anything. And that message simply isn’t true.
Yes, I know that “good-looking people” get more job offers, higher tips, better customer service, and more votes. That is to say, I know that people judge each other by whether they look good as per societal standards. Perhaps everyone mistakenly thinks that I will be healthier and more productive if I looked better. Such people must be forgetting that everybody’s body is different and everybody’s situation is different. It is true that if I looked better, I might certainly be more attractive, but that is no one’s business but my husband’s and mine, and we are doing great (see above).
It makes me sad when people judge me by how I look, but it makes me even more sad when people judge themselves.
Ms. Kang, you look great, but I won’t hold it against you. I infer from your writing that you are also an insightful mom; you are productive and kind. You have worked hard to be healthy and, best of all, you don’t judge yourself by how you look anymore. Thus, I aspire to be like you, to work hard like you, and to do great things like you do. I just don’t aspire to look like you.
Lily July is mom to a rambunctious 8-month old baby and three step kids. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy of science and a new-found interest in the philosophy of parenthood.