The Roots of Body Hatred Lie in Capitalism
The Roots of Body Hatred Lie in Capitalism

Vodka Yonic features a rotating cast of women and nonbinary writers from around the world sharing stories that are alternately humorous, sobering, intellectual, erotic, religious or painfully personal. You never know what you’ll find in this column, but we hope this potent mix of stories encourages conversation.

Every day when I get home from work or school, I toss my keys onto a shelf where, for the past nine months, a trendy black waist trainer has lived. The waist trainer, a hand-me-down from my mother, was purchased during one of her fitness kicks after seeing pop stars like Lizzo sport one on Instagram. It was a little too snug for her figure, but it was the perfect fit for mine. I excitedly went home to try it on and attempted to do a few exercises. After nearly fainting from how constricted my torso was, I ripped it off to allow my belly to expand back to its normal size. I took in several deep breaths and tossed the treacherous piece of fabric onto the nearest surface, and that’s where it has resided ever since. 

Though the trainer has remained stranded on that lonely shelf, my life has changed somewhat dramatically over the past nine months — from being arrested multiple times during peaceful protests over police violence and racial inequality to surviving COVID-19. I’ll save the details of those events for another essay, but one thing that came out of my experiences was the way I’ve come to recognize the role that capitalism plays in how the Western world shapes and enforces standards of health, physical appearance and the individual self. I began to wonder what on Earth would drive my mother and countless other women across the country to spend their hard-earned money on a product that basically feels like a boa constrictor wrapping itself around its prey, squeezing tight enough to snap bones like twigs. What would you sacrifice for a cinched waist? A meal, perhaps? The ability to move and breathe with ease? A perfectly intact rib cage? Why would you make those sacrifices?

The goal here is not to ridicule women who strive for the “perfect” figure. It is to interrogate what authority any human being has to establish what is perfect — to challenge the very systems of power that not only create a standard but use it to exploit and oppress anyone who does not adhere to it. In contemplating how, exactly, women are guided to these notions of health and beauty, the truth began to unfurl in my mind. I journey back to my childhood. I grew up a chubby kid who always left the mall empty-handed while my skinnier friends carried bags of clothing from almost every store. I understand now how that kind of experience shapes the way that young girls’ and women’s bodies are both validated and invalidated. Fat phobia is impossible to ignore in the clothing industry.

I thought back to an essay I read in my gender studies class a few years ago about the origins of manufactured clothing. For centuries, most clothing was specifically tailored to a woman’s individual measurements, and more often than not, those clothes were made by that woman or someone in her household. Fast-forward to a woman walking into a market and, for the first time, instead of buying fabric, finding a completed garment for sale. 

The advent of the clothing industry — by far one of the most impactful economic advancements in the Western world — created new standards for bodies. It’s arguable whether it was intentional that the earliest clothing brands only catered to small-framed women. In some cases, clothing was tailored to fit the person who designed it. In other cases, making small sizes was the most cost-effective thing to do. Since resources were more limited, brands would likely choose quantity over all else, with little regard as to who wouldn’t be able to find clothing that fit, or for the long-term impact these standards would have.

The most important thing I’ve learned in the past year is that capitalism depends on the discontent of consumers. The wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by more than 25 percent during the height of the COVID-19 crisis. The less satisfied we are with ourselves, the more willing we are to spend our money on things that we think will bring us closer to complete. This means that the people who profit from the clothing industry are the same people who profit from the food and fitness industries as well. The roots of body-shaming and fat phobia are economic. 

Let’s say my mum is shopping in Whole Foods one day and she picks up a copy of The Washington Post. In it, she sees an ad with a super-fit celebrity wearing a waist trainer. She pulls out her iPhone, opens the Amazon app and orders the exact same item. It’s shipped to her doorstep the next day. In this case, a single man — Jeff Bezos, owner of the Post and CEO of Amazon, which owns Whole Foods Market — has a controlling interest in everything she sees, influencing not only what she buys, but where she buys it from. This type of power is especially dangerous because it governs every aspect of our vulnerable lives. 

Nearly a year later, that waist trainer my mother ordered is sitting on a shelf in her daughter’s bedroom. My journey to radical self-love has been a process of great learning and unlearning, fueled by a fierce determination to not allow some white man to get rich by exploiting my insecurities. 

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