Today I am interviewing Kristen Tsetsi, who is an author, feature writer, and columnist for a Connecticut newspaper. She recently had two posts on Blogher.com that caught my attention because of how well she articulates our cultural challenges with body-image and also because she offers such a refreshing perspective on body-image, modeling for us the wonderful possibility of loving ourselves just the way we are.
Those two articles are:
I thought I would ask Kristen to share her perspective on body-image and how women can learn to love themselves more.
Her answers are powerful. They will change how you think, maybe even change your life.
Kristen, what is your personal history with body-image?
I went from being the too-skinny younger sister of the best looking girl in town – and being very conscious of that role – to gaining twenty pounds in my twenties and feeling perfectly fine about it until I saw myself in pictures.
I did what it took to fix it both times. When I was a skinny child, I rode my bike several miles every few days to build muscle “weight” around all my bones, and as a twenty- (and later, thirty-) something I would speed-walk for 45 minutes every morning in disgusting Alabama humidity (and switched from pasta and ice cream to a balanced diet) to lose fat weight.
There was a period after my second weight loss when I could understand the extreme weight loss some people experience. I had a goal weight, but any time I hit it, I felt like I couldn’t eat, because I’d go over goal if I did. So, I’d try to stay under goal. That new “under goal” weight would somehow suddenly become the new goal weight, and so I’d try to stay below that – all so I could pig out at dinner without worrying about going over goal.
“When you get to 110, we’re having a talk,” my husband said, and I suddenly realized how ridiculous I was being. (The realization was heightened when I saw pictures of myself in a bikini. I hated how thin I looked. The goal was never “skinny,” but “pleasantly proportional.”)
So, there were what I’d call little struggles. Feeling not pretty enough compared to other women, feeling too skinny compared to other women, too fat compared to other women, etc. It was always “compared to other women,” and a lot of how I thought I should look was coming from what the media and magazines say about how we should look.
However, aside from being made fun of for being skinny and flat-chested when I was between 11 and 13, I haven’t had serious problems with body issues. I haven’t been told, “I’m sure we have nothing in your size,” and I haven’t been told I should visit another store for “people like me.” So I can’t speak to that kind of challenge.
How did you arrive at your present body-image?
I should probably first say what my present body-image is: I like it. And I should, because I do what I need to do to keep my body where I want it. What I’m actually more interested in is what drives us, as women, to want other women to not be happy with their bodies or faces unless they’re someone we can all pretty much agree are considered “unattractive,” or were at the very least overweight or had an eating disorder at some point, so that we can rest assured (wrong or not) that they probably don’t really like the way they look, but aren’t they brave and sweet for trying? (That’s the subject of “You’ll Love Your Body When We Say You Can,” which you link to above.)
It’s hard to be happy with how you look when there’s this unspoken understanding floating around in woman-land that we’re supposed to be constantly armed with self-criticisms – and excited to use them.
Last year, I was walking onto a passenger plane when one of the flight attendants noticed the boots I was wearing. “I love your boots!” she said. “But I could never wear them with legs like mine.”
She weighed a little bit more than I did, but she was about the same height, so I could only assume she was referencing her weight (as opposed to leg length). I’m almost positive I was supposed to say, “Oh, what are you talking about? You have beautiful legs! My boots would look better on you than they do on me!”
But I’ve never been good at being a woman in that “commenting on people’s looks” way. It isn’t natural for me to say to a woman I haven’t seen in a while, “You look gorgeous!” Maybe it’s because I was raised by my father.
But more than that, I didn’t like that I was being pressured by her self-deprecating comment to a) pay her, a stranger, a fished-for compliment to combat the insult she launched at herself, and b) pay myself a matching insult to assure her that I thought I was pretty lame, too.
If we don’t hate something about ourselves, the understanding implies, we are obviously conceited. But surely there’s plenty of space between self-loathing (which we for some reason prize) and conceit.
You talked about liking different things about your aging body. I could relate to the comment about liking the wrinkles around your eyes. I feel the same way about the crinkles in my neck. What is it that allows you to feel powerful and good about these changes? And how can other women harness that for themselves?
It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to look at signs of aging in a positive way had I not been inspired by our country’s advertising to change my perception of not just myself and aging, but advertising.
One line from a commercial stands out in my memory, and it’s been a couple of years, now, since it aired: “Feminine odor. Nobody likes it.”
Nobody likes it.”
What am I supposed to feel like as a woman when this line is uttered—by a woman—on a national commercial?
It absolutely infuriated me. Who did this company (and I wish I remembered the name) think it was to make this offensive statement, to brazenly scrutinize and criticize all women’s vaginas? (Never mind that we see nothing comparable for men, whose external parts sweat and chafe and generate their very own special scent that should just as easily inspire deodorant companies to manufacture a male “freshness” spray.)
“You are not ‘quite right’ just as you are,” the commercial said—as do advertisements and commentary on women aging.
Isabella Rosselini said in a recent interview, “I age, it just happens; it’s like, tell a baby don’t grow (but) it will grow. Nothing I can do to stop the progress.”
Aging is an inevitable part of living, and if you enjoy life, you probably cherish every extra day you get to live. Yet, we (women, primarily) are made very well aware that it’s fine for us to live longer—as long as we somehow continue to magically look young while doing it. Forget how very, very, very important it is that we be attractive to be assigned value; we also have to be young (or at least look convincingly young) to be attractive.
It was just as infuriating to be told that not dying young should make us anxious as women as it was to be told that because I am a woman, if I don’t use a feminine deodorant spray, my privates could apparently clear a sidewalk.
I finally figured out there was nothing wrong with me, but there was something very wrong with the public message. And it seemed silly to allow a judgmental, superficial media and a greedy marketing machine to have any influence over how I felt about myself or this life I so enjoy.
You’ve authored 2 wonderful books of fiction, Pretty Much True… and Carol’s Aquarium. You write very viscerally. (Reading your writing is like drinking water. It’s effortless.) You really allow your readers to feel, touch, taste and see what is happening in your stories. What do you think it feels like to love yourself vs. hate yourself?
Thank you so much for the compliment on the books!
I think, with regard to physical appearance, loving yourself allows you to enjoy the world around you, and hating yourself keeps you constantly focused on how you look or believe you are perceived (aesthetically) in the world. One allows you to appreciate the women in your life whether they are more or less beautiful than you are, and the other has you making constant comparisons between yourself and others that too often result in viewing the other person as an automatic foe.
But it’s all silly, because self-perception is so arbitrary. If you aren’t happy with yourself, there can often never be a perfect size, a perfect look, for yourself. A thin woman can feel too skinny beside an hour-glass woman; an hour-glass woman might feel fat next to the thin woman. In Pretty Much True…, the protagonist, Mia, is a fairly thin woman, and she feels gawky and awkward when spending time with her heavier-set neighbor, whom she finds beautiful and graceful.
When you truly love yourself—which is different from merely tolerating or accepting yourself—you see the beauty in others without consequently viewing yourself negatively for not having the exact same kind of beauty.
Do you find that there is any relationship between writing and a positive body image that women can take advantage of?
I think so. Most of us have some “ideal” body image in mind. But what if we were suddenly given that “ideal” body? Would we be happy with it for very long? If I woke up tomorrow looking like Selma Hayek (in body only), would I feel as sexy as I think I would or would I suddenly envy Natalie Portman’s more slight build?
To use writing as an aid to improve body image, I’d recommend first writing a scathing letter to a feminine deodorant spray company’s marketing team. After that, try writing passages from two different perspectives: the woman whose body you think you want, and then a woman who sees your body type as her ideal. Would the body you want really make you happy, or would you still find something to dislike about it – an indication that what’s needed isn’t a body change, but a change in mindset? And if you see your body through the eyes of someone who truly enjoys it, what might you suddenly see that never occurred to you before?
What do you think are the most important things women can do to improve their own body image? What are the most important things we can do as a community of women, as society to alleviate our challenges with body-image?
The most important thing I think women can do is to stop reading women’s magazines and paying attention to beauty ads. But since that’s unrealistic, I think it could be helpful to remember that these are companies actively trying to create insecurities so we’ll buy their products designed to make us feel “better” about ourselves. How much power we give them is completely up to us.
What I believe we can do as a community of women is stop competing with each other. Stop believing it’s our “lot in life” to hate our thighs, our shoulders, our arms, our belly pouches, or any other body part we can find to hate (and I think we’ve targeted them all, collectively). If a woman is happy with how she looks, whether she’s traditionally “beautiful” or “unattractive” and whether she weighs 120 or 250, just let her be happy. Instead of thinking, “How come you’re so happy with how you look? You’re not all that,” think anything else. Anything else at all. Why do you care what she looks like? Why should it bother you that’s she’s not insecure about her features? If you’re insecure, work on yourself instead of tearing her down.
Any final message you’d like to convey?
Be nice. We don’t do enough being nice—and I don’t mean “Midwest nice,” but real, in-the-soul nice. I understand there’s a certain feeling of power or confidence that comes with judging other people or finding things about them to criticize, but it’s temporary, and it doesn’t lead to lasting positive feelings. It’s incredible how much better you feel about yourself when you allow yourself to view other people with positivity.
That, and screw the beauty standards created by marketing teams. The true, real-world value of their “advice” and opinions is about as substantial as a foam brick. Besides, how we look is largely based on a gene-pool lottery, anyway. It’s meaningless.
Thank you so much for your time!
Here are 3 books authored by Kristen.
I’ve read the first two and, as I mentioned in the article, they read like drinking water. Delicious story telling.
If you enjoyed this and know someone who may like to read it, all the sharing links are below. Thank you!
What is your opinion? Any comments or questions for Kristen? Look forward to hearing from you!photo credits: Left, Middle, Right