Earlier this year, I discovered I have hips.
I’d cleaned up my diet, bought a fitbit, and started noticing positive changes with regard to my health and well-being. This, ironically, precipitated something of an identity crisis. Let me explain.
I survived my adolescence and early adulthood without having too much to say about bodies and their connection to personal identity. As an atypically tall human female with a healthy relationship with physical activity, I mostly missed the body acceptance struggles many young women experience. No popular category ever seemed to apply to me (petite, curvy, athletic, etc.) so I went about my life without thinking about body identity very much. Only once did “body type” specifically enter my consciousnesses when I happened to catch the Miss Teen USA pageant. Staring at a line of 50 young women with exactly the same body type (cut & paste 50 times with different hair and a different gown), I thought, “That’s really dumb” and moved on.
At least that’s what my conscious brain was doing.
|Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens|
My sub-conscious adolescent brain was reading dystopian science fiction and identifying with the post-apocalyptic heroines fighting for justice. In terms of body shape, think Rey from the most recent Star Wars film. Unbeknownst to me, I was also identifying with what I will call social identity tags (I am sure there is an academic term for this). In my mind, the “Rey” type was tough, competent, resilient, asexual, and single-purpose. Also, note the general lack of hips.
This body identity worked for me for a long time, even as reality challenged the tough, competent, resilient, asexual, and single-purpose parts on a regular basis. Then I discovered my hips. This isn’t as dumb as it sounds. If you plug my bust, waist, and hip measurements into all the (very scientific) online body type calculators, I come out exactly half-way between “hourglass” and “straight/athletic.” My hip and bust measurements are about the same and my waist measurement isn’t hugely different either. For a long time, it was easy to interpret this more toward the straight/athletic/Rey side. After improving my heath habits however, the interpretation shifted slightly but inexorably toward hipped reality.
This is where the crisis happened. Conscious brain thought, “Great! We’re feeling better. Women are supposed to have hips. No big deal.” Subconscious brain went, “AHHHHHHHHHHH. Hips = Curvy. Curvy = Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe = voluptuous. Voluptuous = Venus figurines. Am I supposed to embody a Venus figurine?! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!?! WHAT ARE WE!?!?!?!?!?!”
Cultural Tie-in: Many people had similar freak outs when Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games films. As written, the character follows the Rey model closely. At the time of casting, many fans felt very strongly that Ms. Lawrence was too full figured to play the role.
In a bid to moderate this reaction, conscious brain went in search of more nuanced body-type categories. This only revealed the absurd degree to which we try to categorize bodies. There’s the basic Apple, Pear, Hourglass, and Straight/Athletic/Boyish approach, but you can also call Pear Triangle and add Inverted Triangle to the mix (also known as Cone). All of these categories have social baggage of course. You might alternatively subscribe to the I, V, H, A, X, O, and 8 system. Or maybe you like the Ectomorph, Endomorph, and Exomorph approach instead? How about Barbie’s new definitive Tall, Petite, Full Figured, and Original varieties? At the height of this absurdity is the Trinny and Susannah 12 Body Types system. If you can match the 12 symbols to their supposed “real women” photos, you’re a better woman than me. Of course, no two sites offer the same fashion tips for any given body type.
At this point, I started to wonder why we have these categories at all. I understand that many women feel pressured to be stick thin and as a result find pride and acceptance in owning “curvy” or some other term. However, given the social identity tags that develop around these terms, I wonder whether we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Aren’t we missing the forest for the trees? Can’t we just be women without needing to embody a particular body trope?
In the weeks since my “hip crisis,” I’ve slowly been developing a more personal and healthy relationship with my body identity. Instead of subconsciously adopting social tags, I am intentionally focusing on how my body helps me reach my goals and what it needs from “conscious me” to continue doing so. Still, I’m left wondering whether women experience similar body crises on a regular basis, and if so, how we as women can construct a healthier dialog about bodies and identities in our society.
Note: Undoubtedly men face their own body identities, insecurities, and related social constructions, probably increasingly so. However, when I tried to explain my hip crisis to my male significant other, his utter incomprehension was almost humorous. If you’ve tried to have a similar conversation with your male acquaintances, I’d love to hear how it went.