Body Love, Pride, and Vanity

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.

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Originally posted 2013-01-31 06:05:47.

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  • I so agree about the humiliating part – that’s something we women are very skilful at! And during the years this has been a big problem for myself as well. Now that I think of it it’s quite funny even: I’ve been more worried about what other women think of me than what men do. Today I try to make sure that I don’t criticize other women in a humiliating way.

    And to feel better about myself I’ve tried to adopt a stubborn mindset towards humiliating criticism from others: “Go on, say whatever you please. See if I care!”

  • Isobel

    I recently came to a realization that has helped me navigate the self-respect / vanity thing: when a woman loves herself, it doesn’t necessarily mean she thinks she’s better than anyone else. It simply means she thinks she’s as worthy of respect as anyone else. Really showing this in words and actions can be positive for all parties involved.

  • Anne

    This is a really tricky subject isn’t it? I mean, generally we want women to love their bodies, just quietly. When we encounter someone who is comfortable enough to talk about it we feel put out. I think we often view beauty and success as finite qualities; as if your having nice legs somehow takes away from the niceness of mine. I try to take the advice if a picture in my bathroom: quiet the inner critic.

    The sad truth is that our bodies are on loan. Your beautiful firm body may stay with you until you go toes up, it may not. Enjoy it while you can appreciate it.

  • I just try to stay away from saying anything at all about other women´s appearance. Any suggestion (even solicited) to a cut that would be more flattering has an implicit critique about a certain bodypart, whether it be upper arms or knees or whatever. According to my personal aesthetical ideal, of course, and most of us have one.

    In the last few years I have tried to look at other women and think of their way of dressing not as wrong or right, but as an expression of their particular aesthetic. If they have one, and care about such things. And if they don´t, I think I must respect that and not even in my thoughts “make them over”. Whatever I think of them will probably be felt by them. And anyway, it´s a waste of time and energy.

    I´m not sure I think we need to be proud of our bodies, exactly. We need to love ourselves and care for ourselves and respect ourselves. And be loving, caring and respectful of others. We should fight the unhealthy focus on bodies and talk more about pretty, happy clothes and health.

  • Lark

    One reason I hesitate to endorse the whole “self praise” thing: not only do we tend to praise in ourselves primarily those things that society also praises, but that praise is amplified by pre-existing discourse. So if I say “gee, I have really nice hair”, not only am I praising myself for something that society already requires of women (not only is “nice hair” required, but the hair thinning and loss experienced by some older or ill women is actively mocked and reviled) but when someone hears me say that I have really nice hair, it’s not purely “her choice” to compare herself to me; she’s received years of social conditioning to do so. And what’s more, if she hears me praise myself and feels inadequate, it’s very likely that she is “inadequate” in the sense that her hair is viewed negatively by others, so my self-praise is just one more reminder of her social situation, something she may well want to try to forget so that she can get on with her day.

    I was once in the elevator at work and this woman my own age, a total stranger to me, go on and said to me, sadly, “oh, you have such great thick hair”. Her own hair was much thinner. Now, that wasn’t an especially great remark for her to make to a total stranger, but I assume that she made the remark precisely because her own bad feelings about her hair were so pervasive that she couldn’t hold back from saying it. I couldn’t help having thick hair, but I would have felt pretty crummy if I’d been actively reminding her that I had something she lacked and whose lack was painful to her.

    Also, honestly, as a fat person, I don’t especially want to listen to thin women go on about how great their bodies are. I hear that all the time anyway, I used to suffer acutely because of it, and I don’t like the suggestion that if I could just “get my head right” I’d be able to shut out the millions of messages from society and “love myself” while still cheering on my friends whose bodies already receive praise from society as my friends self-praise in front of me.

    I find myself wondering, though, how race plays into this. On the one hand, I’d feel really disturbed to hear a white woman self-praise for some of the attributes of whiteness – praising her straight, swingy naturally blonde hair, for example. But because the bodies of women of color are so often viewed so negatively (or as public property), I feel very different when I read a tumblr, for example, where African-American women post self-praise shots, since I see that situated in a really different discourse.

    From another angle, though, I think the belief that women are not supposed to self-praise relates to how women are not supposed to know themselves – consider the trope of the woman who is very beautiful but it’s cute and innocent because she doesn’t think she’s beautiful. A young woman who thinks she’s weird-looking while really being gorgeous – that’s a standard movie narrative. (You seldom see the movie narrative of “heroine thinks she’s weird-looking because she has qualities that society hates and she accurately realized that she’s being put down”.) Women are supposed to be simultaneously sexy and alluring and also unaware of that fact, or at least pretend to be unaware of it, because women are not supposed to have power and know themselves.

    Although when I was younger, I was really torn about all of this – because I knew I was fat and plain and badly dressed (no money for clothes, no one to show me how to do hair or make-up and no money for those things either), and so other girls who could be proud of their looks and style….well, those were just more girls who had social power that was forever off limits to me.

    • J.B.

      Yes, everything you said! I was trying to figure out how to say this myself, and you said it so much more articulately. I have a slender build, I know it fits exactly into what society deems an “acceptable” figure, and I would NEVER in a million years go around praising my thinness even though I guess I feel good about my figure (because society tells me I should). It is a little weird to praise what society is already praising. What is the point of pointing out my societally sanctioned attributes to other people? We all know they are there, we all know society approves.

      Back in the days when I was more ashamed of myself (teen years), it felt empowering to say to myself “I am not as ugly as I feel because I have X, Y, and Z.” (though I generally said that to myself). Maybe it is useful when you are trying to pull yourself out of self-loathing. But when you are already full of confidence, I don’t know if I see the point. I am less uncomfortable with just sort of general praise, because it evokes less comparison: “I am feeling/looking pretty fabulous today!” because it evokes no specific comparison, and we can invite our fellow women to join us in the party of feeling fabulous. I remember watching my sister do this a lot with her best friend, a lot of “we are so fabulous today!” and it was really cute and affirming.

      But still, I feel like if I was hanging out with a friend who I KNEW felt less attractive than me, she doesn’t benefit from hearing me praise myself. Maybe it would be great if we were all at a place where we had such self-appreciation that that didn’t make us feel bad, but that isn’t the reality, and I think we need to exercise a little compassion for people who are working on learning to appreciate themselves.

    • I agree with this, however bring up “You just never know.” The thin gal might be complimenting her body because it is an exercise for her to find self love after battling an eating disorder. This is what I try to teach women “Don’t take my self love personally. It’s not about you, it’s about me having a relationship with myself.”

      We humans have been loving our hair and adorning our bodies for ages. The standards have changed and will continue to change. Avoiding self love in front of others continues a pattern of shame in our form. I think it’s important to be sensitive to others, but not take their joys personally. Remember, only YOU can make you feel a certain way, and this is something that we as a modern society should continue to face.

    • Laura

      Lark, just wanted to chime in to say that your comments are so smart and thought-provoking, and I like your writing style.

  • SamiJ

    I tend to think of my body as a bone/meat cage that carries around my brain.
    But, while it is somehow ok for my sister to give me clothes that don’t fit her (too small), my offerings of clothes that don’t fit me (too big) is not so welcome. We don’t talk about it.

    • AB

      Interesting. I trade clothes with my mom fairly often. She gets what is too small for me and I get what is too big for her. I have even asked, when I know she is going through her closet, for her to save me the stuff that is too large for her.

  • Mary

    To be honest I have participated in those types of conversations in the past because I thought I had to only to be shut down. I don’t consider myself any great beauty but I have found that if whatever “flaw” I mention is not blatant enough for others to see then no one is shy about telling me exactly why I am wrong and using their own body as an example, which needless to say makes me extremely uncomfortable.

    So I have my own version of what you suggest: When I’m with a group of women and everyone starts in on what they dislike about their bodies…I say nothing.(Because I like my body for the most part and I don’t really want to listen to others insult themselves.) When they make it into a “game” of trying to one up each other I politely laugh…but mostly at the ridiculousness of the conversation. I often find the conversation dies a bit quicker when at least one person refuses to participate.

  • Tara

    I suppose I don’t see the need for self body praise…unless there is a part of your body you actively worked for and you want to brag a little about your efforts/success. If it’s something you didn’t work for (i.e., thick hair, pretty eyes, etc.), why do you need to call attention to your good fortune? I don’t feel the need to put down or praise my own body. I do what I can to make myself look good and call it a day.

  • Maggie

    I love the discussions here: what insightful readers and commenters! I guess I would wonder how we are thinking of “self-praise”… I don’t know what the post was specifically referring to ie “I love my hair” or “I ran a marathon” or “I don’t hate my thighs”. I have a friend who often tells her friends “you look so hot!” when we are dressed up! This is pretty universal on her part, if people are at all dressed up, encompasses all her friends and it reminds me of how rarely such compliments are offered in a way which are not connected to something more specific. It would be different to hear “that dress makes you look so thin” or anything of the sort. She is capturing and reflecting back energy projected by friends dressed for a night on the town and “hot” or “sexy” mean whatever we want it to mean. But getting back to the point at hand, like Mary, I do not participate in conversations about body flaws (and at age 54, I do not seem to hang with people for whom this is a common topic though you would be surprised) and since I have daughters I never ever make negative comments about any body any where. Not in magazines or on TV or in real life. I have never made a negative comment about my own body in front of them (except lamenting when something is broken and in a cast, OK, I probably got testy) nor had them notice if I was trying to lose weight or did lose weight or anything else. Talking about their bodies is trickier since such territory is fraught with minefields: I routinely tell them they are beautiful and routinely counter anything negative they say (my fingers are short, my tummy is too big, etc.). I am quite taken by Lark’s comments: what is the path to talking about something one had nothing to do with ie build, hair, eye color in contrast to accomplishment ie what you can DO with your body. Very thoughtful commentary here today. I will be watching for more!

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  • LaChina

    I believe positive self talk in private is essential, but bragging is rude and insensitive in most forms. Confidence = great. Complimenting another woman also great. One other thing that really bugs me is unsolicited beauty advice, I think that’s an indirect brag, and insulting.

  • So true! I recently moved & lost a bunch of volume due to some healthy lifestyle changes (I actually weight the same but I look quite different). For the first time in my life I wasn´t fighting to be skinnier, I was just living. I went back to visit friends & found that it was incredibly hard to get to a conversation beyond “ohmigod you´re so skinny”/”how did you do it?” and talk about the fact that I was proud of the fact that for the first time my eating wasn´t disordered and look, I got healthier/skinnier as a secondary result. Meshell´s comment is spot on: “The thin gal might be complimenting her body because it is an exercise for her to find self love after battling an eating disorder.” Talking about the self praise was hard, trying to get others to separate it from their own experiences was even harder.

  • Karma

    Although I like the general intention behind self-compliments, it seems there’s a lot of risk in putting them out there. In doing so, you may risk relationships because a lot of women have a natural tendency to react negatively to them. And this isn’t because these compliments are infrequently done. It’s because such compliments can easily irritate or alienate….simply because sounding prideful always sounds sort of ugly and self-absorbed. No matter what the intention.

    Plus if you state something you like about yourself that is generally revered, you might find if the other woman doesn’t have that quality, she might be thinking you think her quality is less attractive. That only serves to create questions and a potentially weird dynamic. It may make the woman wonder ‘why are you telling me this?’

    Instead of stating what I like about myself around others, I give compliments to other women. I think that serves the purpose of bonding over a positive expression, and it’s inclusive. It doesn’t risk exclusivity, as long as it isn’t done in a context that could alienate (such as a woman who gets unintentionally excluded from compliments in a group).

    I think this is best done not in front of many women, because then the woman can experience the compliment in a more personal way. But a supportive environment can become even better if the compliment is given in front of caring friends…either way it’s done, it can be a wonderful way to encourage others and help women see the good about them that others can see. I’d rather keep what I like about myself to myself, and let other women know regardless of what I look like, I see beauty in them too.