I am definitely gearing up to talk about body positivity here, but before I get started, let me just say that more important than all of us feeling good about our bodies, is all of us having the freedoms and rights to be treated equitably in our bodies. It is vital and important that we all unlearn the hate we may have for ourselves, but it is more necessary that institutional oppression centered around the body be fought against and deconstructed until none of us are denied respect, rights, or services based on what we look like or what we’re able to do.
But back to our own personal relationships with our bodies, an idea that has become greatly talked about in the age of watered down body positivity.
My relationship with my body is something I have taken very seriously since the first moment I realized I had one (a body that is). I think I was relatively late to realizing that I had a body that exists outside of my experience of it. Or maybe I was really early? I’ve not run into a lot of people who had a similar experience to mine. I think most people fall into one or the other categories of “have always known I had a body outside myself” or “will never experience this feeling because there are no societal pressures on my body and/or I’m oblivious”.
Let me explain a little more. Obviously, I have always known I had a body, I just didn’t always think about the fact that others see and form opinions about me based on my body and how it looks. This fact just plain-old passed me by until the first day of grade 8, when sitting at my desk with my shorts on, thighs stuck to my plastic chair due to the humidity of a Northern Ontario September day, it suddenly hit me that other people could see me! They might even be thinking about me! They were maybe watching me try to peel my legs off the chair and move them to a different, less sticky spot. I was absolutely flabbergasted by this realization. I wish I could tell you why a relatively smart kid took until the age of 13 to figure out that other people saw her and thought about her, but I can’t.
All I know is that at that moment, with the teacher droning on in the background, sweat accumulating between my legs and the ugly maroon chair, I had my first moment of self-doubt about what other people might be thinking of me. Then seconds later, I had my first thought of who the hell cares (except, not hell because I wouldn’t have used a bad word, even in my head). This sparked a decade of working actively to remind myself that my body was my own and anyone else’s thoughts on it were unnecessary and unwanted (unless they were compliments, those are welcome). I waged war on my own feelings of inadequacy, and it was an easy battle tbh. I was a confident kid, who felt that caring about how others perceived me was a waste of time. Now, I can recognize that a lot of that ease came from privilege. I was an able bodied, thin, white girl. There weren’t exactly a lot of road blocks on the way to feeling good about myself. I may not be an identical match to magazine celebrities, but I’m not a lot different either. I could also just never find enough energy to care that much about my body. That, plus my work to deliberately not care anytime I felt differently, have resulted in a pretty easy road to feeling generally okay about myself at any given time.
I’m was very lucky and I felt that, until this privilege became a road block to understanding how other people felt about their bodies. Specifically, when my 8-year-old sister started talking about whether she was fat or not (she was not fat).
(I will get to the part about eyebrows eventually, I promise)
I was just devastated the first time she said something to me about her appearance. She was 8! I was crushed that no matter how good I felt about myself, I couldn’t bottle that and give it to everyone, I couldn’t even give it to the people I loved most in the world, to the child I love who looked at me and said “I can’t go into the store with you because I look fat in these pants”.
That’s part of what made me realize that the way I feel has to be reflected in the language I use to discuss bodies. It has to inspire my own inquiry into how others feel about theirs. It has to drive my actions in how I treat those with bodies different, or the same, as my own.
That brings me to eyebrows. There are lots and lots of things that I feel neutral about with my body (the ideal way to think about your body imo). My eyebrows are not one of them. Since I was a small child, barely more than a babe, I have had a total unibrow. Not even a sleek, fresh one (there are probably really sculpted, every-hair-in-place ones?). I have an absolutely wild, out of control single eyebrow that spans my face. In all my, “we should all be comfortable in our bodies” attitude, I didn’t feel that bad about having one thing I regularly changed. Plucking my eyebrows seemed super fine and normal.
Until my sister started being upset about hers.
Overall, she has a much more fraught relationship to her body than I do. She has long thought about the way she looks to others, starting at age 8 and just going from there (maybe even for longer than that, 8 is just when she started telling those thoughts to us). There has never been a lot of ways that I can relate to her on these issues. I’m 12 years older than her, and her half sister. We’re separated by age, experience, personality, and just our general, physical look. She looks so much like her mom, and I look so much like mine, and there are big differences between us.
So when she first said “My eyebrows look wild and not normal” I was like, ah ha! Finally, it was a thing we could relate about! I too, had wild eyebrows and cared about them a lot. So I said, “hey! Me too!”
“No you don’t,” she said “Just look at them, yours look nice and mine look bad”
Ah, she caught me. Mine did look nice.
“But mine used to look like yours,” I said “They looked like yours for my whole childhood, they’d still look like yours if I didn’t pluck them”
“You don’t get it,” she said.
It didn’t matter to her that mine used to look bad. She was a kid, the only thing that mattered was right now. And I just couldn’t stand that she felt so bad about hers. Here was our one relatable issue, where me, with all my fun, positive vibes should have been able to be like “nah, don’t even worry about it, I’m the same and I don’t” and I couldn’t, because she was right and we weren’t the same, and I did worry about it.
So I stopped plucking my eyebrows.
I figured, if my relationship with my body is supposedly so great, then I should be able to withstand having wild eyebrows. If this is what it takes to relate to my sister on this 1 (one!) issue that we share, then I’m going to do it. And boy, has it almost killed me.
Like whew, I would love to pluck my eyebrows. I miss not looking like Frida Kahlo lent her eyebrows to a small, Canadian woman. But so be it. When I first told my sister that I was going to stop, she was pretty nonchalant and doubtful, like “Cool, Becca, what does it have to do with me”. But when we started to look the same, even in that little way, she was happy. When we talked about our eyebrows, she felt like I got her.
I still have trouble with my eyebrows. They’ve grown in particularly wonky with the changes that have come with years of plucking. They are less “unibrow” and more “sparse odd hairs between two brows because you plucked them so much not all the hairs will grow back”. But they still make her happy. Anytime I think about changing them now, I have to think “is it worth not relating to my sister? Is it worth telling her that I think I don’t look good, so she must not look good either?”
Sometimes, I get the impression that contemporary body positivity would have us believe that the ultimate goal is doing what’s best for us and what’s best for how we feel about ourselves. Will it make you feel good to pluck your eyebrows? Then do it! And to a certain extent, I agree. But also, change will never occur, and no one will ever feel comfortable doing things differently, if there aren’t people who go outside the norm. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like, things that we’re not comfortable with, so the people coming after us will feel comfortable doing it.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the way my eyebrows are now. I don’t know if anything that I’m doing will make my sister happy with hers. I don’t really know if this matters in the grand scheme of things. But for now, I’m keeping my wild eyebrows. Just in case.