Human beings are bestowed with bodies designed to endure and survive. Each organ, limb, and hair follicle serves a specific purpose and it is a blessing to be a healthy individual. This talk might seem very ‘evolutionary’ in the 21st century, an age of appearance and size. Consequently, there exist multifarious opinions on every possible matter. These lead to a range of obligations, a variety of ‘shoulds’ that dictate how we should eat, look, talk, behave, and function as humans, serving almost as an instruction manual for human behavior. I wish to address a few of these ‘shoulds’ in this article and discuss why they should not be a guideline for a healthy life.
Let’s begin with the definition of health as supplied by the World Health Organization (1984). “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. I like this explanation because it emphasizes health as a multidimensional state. Now try and google the following- ‘What exactly constitutes a healthy body?’ I did and found results that instead dictate how a healthy body should look. There are factors I ‘need to know’, ‘continuous hard-work and strict commitment’ that I should strive for, if I aim to be a healthy individual. Sounds like boot camp. Do note the discrepancy. A healthy body has been fundamentally linked to how we look and I consider this misleading because humans come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colours, and sexualities and to generalize them into a single image is akin to reducing us to a blueprint.
Speaking of blueprints, body hair is a relevant issue. Accepting that we are mammals sharing genealogical roots with chimps, we should accept body hair too. The fact that we do not frustrates me to no end. Like many other women, I undertake laborious acts such as waxing and shaving in order to adhere to societal standards of what it means to ‘look like’ a woman in the 21st century. This exhausts my energy as well as my wallet, but I voluntarily subject myself to this ‘clean-up’, just because. I wonder what would happen if I stopped. I would feel self-conscious certainly, given the fact that Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) bestows me with a little more hair than normal. I have spoken with women who echo similar sentiments and others who despite the comments and stares continue to embrace body hair without ripping it out every month. I asked a friend to share her thoughts about body hair and her response surprised me:
“It’s hair. The same hair that is on your head…it will grow back, so why abuse it?’
Perhaps the only person bothered by my hair is myself. Yes, people can be curious and pass snide remarks but if I don’t let it bother me, I can live happily just as I am. Moreover, hair-free is an industry standard. For example, Veet’s ‘Don’t Risk Dudeness’ advertisement in 2014 attempted to highlight how women should be afraid of appearing masculine if they fail to keep up with clean-shaven standards. This is ultimately a marketing tool that forces women to conform to a warped prototype of femininity, under the guise of facilitating a clean and natural look. It angers me when they promote hair-free as a clean image. How dare you suggest that my hair is unclean, impure, worthy of being waxed, shaved or lasered off? There does not exist any rational explanation for why women must remove body hair other than the fact that they ‘should’.
I interpret this as conditioning. Monash University student Sophia McNamara pointed out that ladies have been “socialized over the centuries to regard body hair in certain places (legs, armpits) to be disgusting but body hair in other places (head, arms) to be fine”. I agree, if hair was the problem, it should have been denounced on every part of the body, which clearly isn’t the case. Body hair in certain places as something to be done away with–is a social thought that manifested a norm and finally into the present expectation. Furthermore, we tend to mirror what we see. Hence, when bombarded with digitally-altered images of Gisele Bündchen’s poreless legs or Priyanka Chopra’s heinously smooth armpits, we are more likely to consider such misleading representations as the norm, or #goals. I understand that there are women who choose to be hair-free and others who rock the au-naturel look. If the first is a choice, the second should be one too, equally deserving of respect.
Menstruation is the second topic I want to focus on. This natural bodily function has been scrutinized by newer perspectives that consider it ‘unnatural’. It amazes me, for example, the expertise with which vegan vlogger ‘Freelee the Banana Girl’ explained how a raw vegan diet helped her get rid of periods. She regards menstruation as “toxicity leaving the body” and thus believes, along with blogger Miliany of ‘RawVeganLiving’, that menstruation and periods are unclean and unnatural. While their videos and comments have faced criticism from audiences and doctors alike, I am taken aback at how women unnecessarily complicate their lives making a fuss out of periods.
The influence of the media is very pervasive, especially with anything related to women. Let’s take Instagram as an example. Toronto based poet Rupi Kaur’s photo of a fully clothed woman was removed from Instagram because the period-stain on her pants violated community guidelines. This is the same media that gloriously objectifies nude celebrities with explicit content presented as art or fashion. There is hardly any objection to ads that depict provocatively positioned nude women selling anything from Tom Ford perfumes or Abercrombie and Fitch apparel. I thus find it very ironic that Instagram does not regard Kim Kardashian’s naked selfies as violating community norms but takes objection to Kaur’s attempt at “de-mystifying all the taboos” that exist in conjunction with the period. This is our hypocritical media that feeds off the female form while simultaneously denouncing menstruation as a feminine process that is too revolting and provocative for audiences.
So too have I observed that women have a significant role in contributing to the ‘hush-hush’ attitude towards the menstrual cycle. Despite knowing that it is a process essential for life, we continue to refer to it, albeit jokingly, as something women are ‘afflicted with’. ‘That time of the month’, ‘Aunt Flo’, ‘shark week’, and ‘my vagina has a nosebleed’ are just some of the many ridiculous euphemisms. I fail to understand why there should there be a need to talk about this process without referring to it. It must not be a matter of shame or embarrassment for either sex to be comfortable talking all things menstruation. If we stop hushing it up as a secret or being so light hearted about it, perhaps we shall come to see it as something as normal as breathing or digesting.
Lastly, I must emphasize that shaming women or men for their bodies is shaming them for, well, being human. Size is a label, one invented to categorize individuals in the easiest manner possible. It is not an indicator of health or beauty. Skinny, fat, plump, curvy, lean, muscular, sculpted–these are just words, adjectives, synonyms and antonyms. Molding our bodies to fit these vanity labels is erroneous because we are live beings, not machine-made candy. The ‘lifestyle culture’ of eating portion meals, extreme exercising, contouring tricks for make-up, tons of products to slim down or beef up is an industry that profits off our insecurities and more importantly targets the Millennial Generation that takes a fancy to all things #goals.
As humans, there are no ‘shoulds’ that we need to live by. No justifications that we must provide for our bodies, for ourselves. I do not advocate for a certain look; my only contention is that we stay true to ourselves without contorting and transforming our bodies, and accompanying self-image into one controlled by society. We are more than blessed to be well-functioning individuals; all other factors then become mere considerations, not compulsions. Be the healthy you want to be, not the one you should be.