She is a blogger who has lost over 170 lbs, and Shape contacted her to be featured in their "success stories" section. The photo she submitted, to go along with it, was of her in a bikini. Nothing unusual for Shape magazine, or many women's and fitness magazines, for that matter. Except that you can clearly see the excess skin on her gut. And they wanted to cover it up.
Read her story here, where she includes the back and forth emails between her and Shape magazine.
Now, there's been the predictably varied reactions to this story. For the most part, the comments and re-tweets and blog shares have been positive. Along the lines of "you go, girl!" and "you're so brave!" and "we're proud of you" and "your body is ah-MAY-zing!" There have been the calls-to-arms to share "real" bikini body photos, to celebrate all bodies. And there have been the "shame on Shape" reactions, too. Predictably positive.
But, because it's the Internet, there have been the brutally honest comments, too. Surprisingly respectful, but hard for someone like me to read, because other people are confirming what the voice in my head tells me: that a body like that is not beautiful, not amazing, and not something to subject the rest of the world to.
A sampling of Comments:
"Congratulations on your weight loss. I appreciate your principled stance, on the one hand, but frankly, you do not look amazing in a bikini. That's perfectly ok. Neither do I, so I don't wear one. I don't hate my body, I just don't expect everyone else to love it as I do"
"I think you need a shirt girlfriend. I'm not a larger person, but I know my limits and I wouldn't pose without a shirt for the simple fact that I (as most of the world's population who are not working/paid models) look better with clothes on. No one has to tell me either way if I look good or bad naked. It's just common sense."
"No one but a fellow 300 lb woman would understand that as much as I hate being so fat, and I dislike how I look fat, I was also TERRIFIED that if I went through all the trouble, pain, and want of losing the 170 some lbs I really should lose, that I would STILL LOOK TERRIBLE, with empty fat and skin all over. I was so frozen with that fear, I did nothing for years. I couldn't overcome it."
"As far as Shape is concerned, you shouldn't be concerned with their opinions at all. Remember that they are a publication that is trying to sell magazines, and they do so by trying to promote "perfection." Perfection is something nobody can reach, but these publications will continuously benefit from the average person flipping through their pages and saying "I can look like that!" And it's just not feasible."
"While I admire Brooke's story and the fact that she stood her ground, I will be honest: the picture was shocking and I felt a sense of despair when I saw it. I have 50 pounds to lose and knowing "the flap" is the only thing waiting for me on the other side, I am wondering if I'd rather be fat or work my butt off (pun intended) only to find I'm still ashamed of my body and embarrassed by it. Also, I have to say this: we are all getting this story in context from Brooke. I believe that 90% of the people posting here would turn away from the magazine with the picture above in it if they randomly saw it on the rack. We are visual FIRST. Once we read the story, of course we see her body differently. But how many would have actually paused long enough to read it?"
Normally, I'd blog with an activist hat on, getting all feminist about women's magazines and the bodies that are shown, and how media skews our images of ourselves. I'm not really interested in the debate about who's more right and who's more wrong, here. This is hitting me right where it hurts, and my response is personal and emotional.
It brings the core question to the surface: can you ever be lovable if you're not attractive to a partner, and can you truly be attractive to a partner when you have your clothes on? Weight loss success stories are very often covered up, fully clothed, and the issue of what a naked body looks like after massive weight loss is rarely addressed. I do a lot of reading about it, clearly, and it's not something that comes up often and is certainly not shown. The fantasy of skinny is perpetuated, and there are emotional consequences to living in that kind of denial.
The answer to body image issues is very often a bland platitude about learning to love yourself. Appreciating your body at any size. It's a lovely idea. It's something that Brooke seems to have managed for herself; at least, she vehemently defends her body as being amazing and beautiful, given all that it's gone through. I struggle with it, a LOT. I'm not likely to ever, ever wear either a bikini or a tank top, no matter what weight I get to. My arms and my stomach will never see the light of day, because of excess skin and stretch marks and cellulite and all the associated gross-ness of having once been morbidly obese. Without surgery, all the weight lifting and body sculpting in the world isn't going to change the skin issue. And that's a bitter pill to swallow.
It also makes it unbelievably hard to learn to love and appreciate your body, when you know that you have to cover it up, regardless of how far you've come. It's why I focus so much on what my body can do rather than what it looks like, because in my heart I know I am not brave enough to subject myself to that kind of scrutiny.
But it's not just about me learning to love myself, is it? The lack of these kinds of honest images affect everyone, not just the obese - former, or current. What about potential partners? Aren't we all basically being told what is attractive, and what is not? It's hard enough to find someone with whom you are compatible. I think that I'd have to find a man with incredible fortitude and emotional strength, for him to be able to see past the physical. He'd have to love who I am as a person - inside - so much, that he could find the outside attractive. How does one fall in love solely with the soul, enough to find an ugly body appealing? That's the dilemma that comes up with images like Brooke's. It's so much more than just a bikini.
Which is why it's important that images like Brooke's exist. Part of the reason some people find it unattractive, part of the reason it makes me uncomfortable to look at, is because it's so rare. I'm used to seeing hard bodies, tight skin, toned physiques. That's what is the norm, to me, because that's what I've been exposed to. The more you see of something, the more natural or normal it becomes.
I'm reminded of a short-lived medical drama (I think it was Chicago Hope), and an episode about a woman having an elective mastectomy. She wanted her breasts removed because of her risk level for breast cancer. Her husband was against it. The drama ensued. And the plastic surgeon doctor, who was portrayed as the egotistical, shallow, insensitive jerk who was on the husband's side (the husband who wanted his wife to keep her rack intact), he showed the husband photos of women who'd had mastectomies. The husband was repulsed. The other doctors were horrified, thinking the plastic surgeon was fueling the fire. But what he said still sticks in my memory: "I want you to look at it. This is what your wife will look like. Keep looking at it. Look at these pictures every day. Look at them until they are no longer repulsive. Then keep looking at them until you can find them attractive. Because this is what your wife is going to look like."
The more you look at something, the more you come to accept it as normal. The very fact that a picture like Brooke's can elicit such debate is exactly the reason why it needs to be out there. Because people like me, who already hate our bodies and have been sold on the idea that if we just lose enough weight, then, THEN! we can be attractive, we need to know that this is what we'll look like. And we need others to know, too.
There are enough pictures out there to motivate me to keep going, and most of them include six-pack abs and biceps without bat wings, and butts minus the cellulite. I'm going to keep Brooke's picture around. I'm going to look at it until it no longer makes me uncomfortable, and then I'm going to look at it until it becomes attractive, so that if I ever manage to reach the kind of success she has had, I might ... just might ... be able to see some beauty in myself, too.