Occasionally, someone will pipe up in a conversation about body image to request consideration of pride and vanity. Suggestions of praising one’s own body aloud – either into a mirror or in conversation with others – can seem not only challenging, but downright conceited to some. Lavishing adoration upon one’s physical form is so far from the norm that it can feel foreign, uncomfortable, even dirty and shameful. Body love and self-acceptance are important, but at what point do we veer over into body worship and self-absorption?
Personally, I’ve always worried about issues of humility, bragging, and self-importance. Probably because, back in middle school when I was bullied the most, those concerns ranked high on the list of potential accusations that girls hurled at one another. The question of “Who do you think you are?” was never an existential, philosophical one, but instead a disgusted jab at young women who – according to their enraged peers – dared think highly of themselves and show it. And I know that I am not alone in having experienced this self-esteem-related hazing. From a very early age, women are trained to avoid behaviors associated with pride and vanity, and also to actively suppress any expressions of positive self-regard and personal accomplishment. The occasional comment upon our goals and achievements might slip past unnoticed, but to openly praise our looks, bodies, health, or physical forms aloud to others is to risk scorn and ridicule.
In my own experience, words and actions are more likely to land badly when they involve or invoke comparison. If a friend has been lamenting how she feels about her inner thighs, and I respond by expressing pride in my own? That’s potentially hurtful and arguably unnecessary. But if I bring up my own inner thighs in the context of a larger conversation about bodies, or unrelated to other topics at hand, I am keeping the focus on my own feelings about my own body. From what I’ve seen boasting and bragging often seem to drag other people and their feelings into the mix. Simple expressions of pride are more isolated.
But it’s virtually impossible to gauge how others will react to your words and actions. You can keep you comments and actions focused on you, avoid comparison, phrase carefully, and have the absolute best of intentions and STILL hurt feelings or raise hackles. When you talk about yourself, some folks immediately relate your words to themselves and shuck off all context. So what do we do?
In my opinion, the best way to change this norm is to push against it. If we want other women to feel like they can express happiness about and pride in themselves, we’ve got to (occasionally) risk expressing those sentiments ourselves. Risk scorn, risk ridicule, risk looking prideful and vain to those who wish to see those traits in others. Whenever possible, opening conversational threads about the importance of body love and expression of pride will help, too: The instinct to scoff at expressions of self-love is strong and ingrained, so drawing attention to this instinct might help curb it.
Each woman must decide for herself what feels right. I may go much farther in my bold statements about my own beauty, strength, and grace than you and feel perfectly comfortable. Neither of us is wrong. But hopefully both of us are willing to risk a little bit of peer judgment so that the generations of women behind us might be able to express body pride while avoiding accusations of body vanity.
Photo courtesy Dey Alexander