Today’s 101 is inspired by a recent experience at work where I was talking with a group of people about plus-size fashion. One of the people in the conversation was Nicole Reader, the CEO and Founder of a company called Modern Mirror. She talked about new 3D technology that could totally change how the fashion industry deals with sizing.
Here’s how the technology works: consumers would have an avatar of themselves while they shop. That means no longer having to rely on seeing clothes on a model. They could see how clothing looks on their avatar. Companies can get an avatar through a simple process that starts with a customer getting their body scanned.
Imagine stripping down to your underwear, walking into a small dome filled with a few dozen high resolution cameras, and standing in the middle of it as all the cameras go off at the same time, capturing the full dimensionality of your body. All those images are rendered into a single 3D model. Poof: you have an avatar. You can now shop using that avatar with your exact measurements, instead of seeing clothing on a model who may or may not look like you.
People at the event began to share their experiences of having their images rendered like this. A number of people shared a sense of vulnerability, shame or self-awareness about the size of their bodies. Then, one person shared that she actually was pretty satisfied with her body, but seeing her avatar was still unsettling. She said she didn’t recognize herself in her avatar.
I immediately recognized the phenomenon she was describing: how much you like yourself has nothing to do with whether your brain is telling you that your body doesn’t match the “normative” body it’s used to seeing. In our culture, the “normative” body - that is, the one we are shown all. of. the. time. - is overwhelmingly thin, white, able-bodied, cisgender and young.
The visual culture in the United States doesn’t match the statistical reality that most people (around 70%) in the U.S. are plus-size, that around 40% of the United States is non-white, that around 25% of Americans have a disability, that about a million and a half Americans are trans, and that over 20% of the people in the U.S. are over 60. What this leads to is our brains reading thin, white, able-bodied, cisgender and young people as “normal.” If we don’t fall into those categories, even high self-esteem doesn’t buffer us from our brains sending out an error message when we look at our own bodies - simply because they don’t match the preponderance of visual representation.
This conversation was a concrete example of how body image is not an individual issue of self-esteem; it is an issue that we must collectively solve as a culture.
Here’s why: a person can have very few issues with their body, but if that body is not reflected back to them consistently, their brain can still see it and read it as an “error.” The visual processing center of the brain is located in the occipital lobe. This processing center is good at comparing what we see to other things we see in order to make sense of them.
So, for example, if you were shown 100 images of thin people, your brain would start to code those images as “normal.” Then if I showed you 1 image of a fat person your brain would sort of spit out an “error” - or “not normal” - message when it saw that 1 fat person because it doesn’t look like the preponderance of images you’ve been shown. Likewise, the opposite is true. If I showed you 100 images of fat people, your brain would start to code them as “normal,” and images of thin people as “not normal.” Beyond any specific internalized oppression we may possess, our brain is just labeling images as “typical” and “not typical.”
And this leads us back to the story I started today’s newsletter with: you don’t have to have an enormous amount of internalized body shame for your brain to spit out a “not normal” message when you look in the mirror or at an image of yourself.
So, don’t beat yourself up too hard about how body positive you are. Your own attitudes about yourself can only take you - and your occipital lobe - so far.
Good news: research seems to show that we can alter our perception of “normal” pretty quickly - in as little as 2-3 days. Try it for yourself: only look at images of 1 type of body from Friday through Sunday of this week and then on Monday, introduce another type and see how your brain reacts.
+ Register for a free virtual festival I'm hosting called FEASTSF. It's a week-long celebration of food and eating as art forms, hosted from kitchens and tables in and around San Francisco.
+ Take a look at my books: You Have the Right to Remain Fat (I narrated the audiobook), The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion