Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The body acceptance movement is fundamentally flawed

Selfie sticks: a whole new level of narcissism
My husband and I were wandering around Victoria BC’s inner harbour awaiting the departure of our whale watching tour (which, incidentally, delivered with a spectacular sighting of cavorting killer whales) when we spotted a couple with a smart phone on a stick. They were dutifully following behind the stick, oblivious of others and the surroundings as they took photos of themselves. 

While I don’t know if the manner in which they were using their selfie stick is common, the entire selfie craze suggests that we are pretty darn pleased with ourselves. However, there is ample evidence to the contrary.  We have a hard time accepting ourselves, and our physical appearance is a particular source of angst. 

Body acceptance movement: struggling to accept our bodies 
The body acceptance movement is a case in point. Variously known as “fat acceptance”, “body love”, and “ending fat shame”, the body acceptance movement is gaining traction.  Women of all shapes and sizes are beginning to react negatively to advertising campaigns that restrict beauty to the ideals of the runway. (A 2014 Victoria’s Secret campaign drew the wrath of at least 27,000 people who successfully petitioned the lingerie company to change its ads.) 

Some magazines are bucking the skinny cover model trend. Vogue Italia led the way a few years ago when three plus size models made the cover. This year, Tess Halliday and Erica Jean Schnek made headlines when their photos appeared on the covers of People and Women’s Running respectively, and ignited debate about obesity, health and fitness.

Although the body acceptance movement is primarily associated with obesity in women, plus size women are not alone in the struggle to accept their bodies. Skinny or fat, young or old, and all points in between, women and men are constantly confronted with impossible and unrealistic ideals of beauty and vitality that encourage self-dissatisfaction. Children, too, are exposed to these ideals from an early age and internalize messages that conflate self-worth and physical appearance.

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who was very loving and kind. She was also beautiful in my eyes and stood out from the crowd. She was on the tall side for her generation, did her core routine twice daily, dressed well and wore heels until the day she died. People were drawn to her and described her as attractive and gracious, but when she looked in the mirror, all she saw were her wrinkles, and I remember her lamenting “these darn wrinkles”.  

From an early age, I internalized a message about wrinkles, aging and beauty with which I still sometimes struggle. Some days when I look in the mirror my own darn wrinkles really get under my skin. Other times, when I am more inwardly and spiritually content, the wrinkles are inconsequential, playing second fiddle to a deeper, more profound me. 

Body acceptance movement is flawed
The body acceptance movement, despite its good intentions, is flawed. Its mantra to embrace your curves puts the cart before the horse.  Beauty is more than skin deep. So whether it’s wrinkles or weight, dissatisfaction with our body reflects some sort of inner unhappiness that is rooted in relationships and experiences that shape us from the inside out. 

No matter how much we profess to love our curves, so-called “body positivity” on its own is insufficient to change our interior narrative.   To “embrace” fatness or thinness can become an excuse for ignoring the life-long process of inner transformation that leads to authentic self-acceptance.

Body acceptance has little to do with clothing size or the image captured on that high tech mirror called a smart phone.  It has everything to do with the condition of our interior life. If we obsess on our appearance to the exclusion of our inner transformation, we will never be comfortable in our own body. When we look in the mirror, we will see our self darkly, as through a smoky, gray cloud instead of illuminated with light, aglow with the beautiful colours of our soul. That’s an image that not even the smartest phone can capture.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Online shaming

"With no one but the online mob as guide, it (is) all too easy for people to throw stones, while claiming the moral high road for themselves."

A modern twist on an ancient story

It's a modern twist on an ancient story.

Our modern story concerns some scandalous behaviour that occurred during a summer festival in Alberta. 

The ancient story, recounted in the Gospel of John, goes something like this. Some Scribes and Pharisees, accompanied, I imagine, by a crowd of onlookers, brought a woman caught in the very act of adultery to Jesus. Their motives are questionable. Not terribly concerned about adultery, they want to trap Jesus with a tricky question. 

Rembrandt: Woman Taken in Adultery
National Gallery, London

They ask him if they should stone the woman. Jesus, who is in no hurry to answer, bends down and writes in the sand before he looks at the womans accusers and says, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.   Beginning with the elders, the crowd slowly disperses as individuals slink away in embarrassed, guilty silence. 

Left alone with the woman, Jesus asks her, Does no one condemn you?  to which she replies, No.  Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more, responds Jesus.

The modern version of the story goes like this. 

A young woman and two male friends were cavorting in an alley when a Peeping Tom spotted them, filmed their tryst and posted the video online where it went viral. Viewed by several million people, the woman became the object of online shaming, while the men were applauded.

There are lots of things wrong here, as others have pointed out.  Some point to an invasion of privacy. Others focus on society's acceptance of online shaming. Still others draw attention to the misogyny inherent in the shaming that slams the woman and high-fives the men. All of these concerns point to the precarious condition of the collective moral compass.

Lets return to the crowd in Johns story.

A few individuals had probably whipped up the moral outrage of some in that ancient crowd. Others may have just been along for the ride, not wanting to miss out on a good spectacle. And a spectacle it was, although not the kind they were expecting. 

Jesus silenced everyone, effectively asking, Are you sinless?. He created space for people to think about their own behaviour.  With the moral compass swinging away from the woman towards their own shortcomings, people in Johns crowd had the good sense to shut up and go home. 

Not so for todays online crowd. With technology providing an instant platform to condemn someone elses bad behaviour, our crowd was neither predisposed nor inclined towards self reflection.  And with no one but the online mob as guide, it was all too easy for people to throw stones, while claiming the moral high road for themselves.

Without even realizing it, the online crowd called its own moral credibility into question. It was, you might say, caught in the very act of voyeuristic tendencies, which are hardly a hallmark of integrity. In shaming, the group restricted moral conduct to the breaking of sexual taboos . They forgot that the way we treat others outside of intimacy also speaks to the content of our character. 

The collective moral compass is in need of repair.  No one involved in this sad and sordid affair can claim the moral high road. Everyone - the threesome, the filmmaker, and those who viewed and commented - sullied themselves with their failure to respect the innate dignity of the human person.

Our ancient story teaches that sin is not excused, but forgiven. Moral slip ups are not a cause for condemnation. They are an opportunity for tweaking a wobbly moral compass and getting back on track.

 Compass image: courtesy of