Legacies of Body Shaming

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, “Not for Ourselves Alone” is running a special series called 30 Days of Bodyshaming, designed to give a voice to the many different experiences of girls and women. This series will feature guest posts by professors, writers, a cartoonist, young girls, and mothers. Gut wrenching and honest, these stories are presented in an attempt to bring about a deeper understanding of the plight of girls and women as we make our way in world that, for us, is hostile at its best and violent at its worst.

by June Terpstra, Ph.D.

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With the courage to go where no woman wants to go, I dedicate this article to my daughters, granddaughters, and all women across color, class, and creed to embrace our beauty, brilliance, power and strength.  To break with the legacy of centuries of woman hating perpetuated through systems created by men and supported by women is a fundamental act of resistance and revolution for liberation from oppression.

Does this sound extreme and militant to you?  Perhaps you do not know the extent to which this legacy exists historically?   Consider the New Testament verses proclaiming: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” (I Corinthians 14:34-35)  Then there are the Old Testament verses  “Give me any plague, but the plague of the heart: and any wickedness, but the wickedness of a woman… The whoredom of a woman may be known in her haughty looks and eyelids. If thy daughter be shameless, keep her in straitly, lest she abuse herself through overmuch liberty.” (Eccles. 25, 26)  As a daughter of evangelical Christians I internalized these teachings while longing for and indulging myself with the very liberties that I still embrace for all and sundry.

The Jewish legacy of woman-hating can be found in the Jewish Daily Prayer Book which tells men to recite, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman.”  The Islamic texts were actually an historic improvement on the legacy of body shaming telling the reader, “I went to the Apostle of Allah (pbuh) and asked him: ‘What do you say (command) about our wives?’ He replied: ‘Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them.’ ” (Sunan Abu Dawud: Book 11, Number 2139) Islam actually improved the status of women at the time and they get fed, clothed and not beaten.

What about Western philosophy?  Did you know that Plato said, “It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls.” Aristotle taught his students that women are incomplete compared to men, and in a way they are an “unfinished men, women are weaker, physically and mentally, and should passively allow the man to dominate.”  Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, “…This habitual restraint produces a docility which woman requires all her life long, for she will always be in subjection to a man, or a man’s judgment, and she will never be free to set her own opinion above his. Once it is demonstrated that men and women neither are nor, and should not be, constituted the same, either in character or in temperament, it follows that they should not have the same education.”  This is just the tip of the iceberg in the historical hysterical supremacist Western male tradition of woman hating.

The arts have really packed a punch in the subjugation of women game as poet Jules LaForgue said, ‘NO, WOMAN is not our brother; through indolence and deceit we have made of her a being apart, unknown, having no weapon other than her sex, which not only means constant warfare but unfair warfare – adoring or hating, but never a straight friend, a being in a legion with esprit de corps and freemasonry – the defiant gestures of the eternal little slave.’  Fast forward to the lyrics of pop music, “Oh baby, can’t live without you, you are my destiny, anything you want all you have to do is say, every step you take” or rap music lyrics whose lines are never really blurred and call all manly men of any color to “smack that”.  The hits literally keep on coming.

I inherited this legacy of woman hating simultaneously learning to reject my body in church and school while cultivating some of it’s power in the dance of the arts, literature, and music which manifested in relationships on a continuum of the benevolent patriarchy of my father, friends and lovers to the ugly abuse of Christian school teachers and the betrayals of cheating husbands.  Perhaps more insidious was the shaming I learned from my mother and her sisters.  Consistently vocal behind the scenes about their weight be they fat or thin, loving and hating food, protesting any photos taken, hyper-judgmental about appearance, always wanting to please, never confrontational, and seriously convinced that women’s bodies were vessels of sin leading men astray how else could it be that no matter how hard I tried some of this hideous legacy has been passed on to my daughters and grand-daughters.

The struggle continues.  Every single day I aim to disinherit myself from this legacy for me, my daughters, grand-daughters and women every where as it plays itself out in even more horrible ways based on class, creed and color.  I long for liberation from the too often cruel voice in my head and my rebellious addiction to food as love.  It is definitely better on some days than others as I want to be as strong and courageous in this battle as I am when dissenting in the streets and teaching in the classroom.  The daily work to refuse to shame, blame and hate my body my self is still tops on my list of direct actions for liberation and revolution.




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    Juliet C. Bond

    Juliet C. Bond is a writer and professor at Columbia College in Chicago. Her first book, "Sam’s Sister," was published in 2005, and has sold over 50,000 copies. She went on to collaborate with Newberry winner Joyce Sidman to publish the stage adaptation of "This is Just to Say." Juliet’s shorter works can be found in "The Prairie Wind," at storystudiochicago.com and citymusecountrymuse.com. Juliet serves as the Welcome Coordinator for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Illinois, and has had the pleasure of working under the tutelage of award winning authors including; Jane Yolen, Jane Hamilton, Laurie Lawlor and Audrey Niffinegger. She chose the name for this space as an homage to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony whose hard work on gender equality serve as daily motivation to continue fighting for girls and women everywhere.

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