“Increasingly, the size and shape of the body have come to operate as a market of personal, internal order (or disorder)—as a symbol for the emotional, moral, or spiritual state of the individual.”
—Susan Bordo, “Reading the Slender Body” in Unbearable Weight
Several years ago, I was sent home from my job at a department store for violating the brand’s “commitment to family values.”
I confess, I hated my job as a sales associate. I’d just left a difficult graduate program and didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. So, you might assume that I’d been sent home for badmouthing the company’s policy of bribing us to push credit cards with 27% interest rates. Or that I’d told a compulsive shopper to shove it. But I wasn’t in trouble for anything I’d said.
I was in trouble because I had breasts.
One of the higher-ups was visiting the store and we’d been told to stay busy. So, I was surprised when one of the assistant managers, a young woman about my age, came over to talk to me. She let me know that I was in violation of the store’s dress code, but kept awkwardly talking about this being “a family company.” Since something had been said about my sandals at that morning’s meeting, I assumed that was the concern:
“Is this about my shoes, Stacy? I’ve already been told about those. I don’t understand what you’re trying to say?” I could see she was uncomfortable—and frustrated. Finally, she decided to be blunt:
“Do you EVER wear a bra?”
I hadn’t worn one the day they hired me. I never did. My bra collection was limited to one flimsy and beige half-cami that I rarely wore. I’d abandoned bras as a college student—with the support of my mother, who thought underwire was a form of torture that should be avoided whenever possible—and never looked back. I didn’t believe Stacy when she said there had been a customer complaint about me. Who would even notice, much less talk to a manager, about someone else’s breasts? Did people notice things like that? I certainly don’t, I thought. A few moments later, my actual supervisor came over and told me I was being sent home. I was to “put on a bra and come back” to finish my shift. They had poor Stacy break the news, I imagine, because she was my age. It’s difficult now not to laugh when I think about the irony of one twenty-something girl being sent to police another twenty-something girl’s body. But at the time, I wanted to cry.
Ultimately, that experience propelled me to look for other jobs and to re-apply to a more fulfilling graduate program, where I discovered the work of Susan Bordo. The first time I read Bordo’s Unbearable Weight, I was stunned by how closely my experiences matched her words. I realized I had lived through what she describes in her chapter on “Reading the Slender Body.” I could trace my adult relationship with my body into two distinct phases, described by Bordo’s analysis of the contemporary “slender” ideal and the fifties “hourglass.”
In “Reading the Slender Body,” Bordo describes the contemporary thin, toned ideal as a repudiation of a more voluptuous, feminine form. Toned women are powerful women, who suggest “willpower, energy, and control” over their desires. To be jiggly or “wiggly,” she says, is to be “unacceptable;” such body parts are loose, lazy, and over-sexed, at least in our culture’s stereotypes about women’s bodies.
As a teenager, I experienced the “compelling attraction” of slenderness first-hand. In my junior year of high school, I had taken up exercise with a religious zeal, to cope with a stressful regimen of advanced classes. Walking myself to exhaustion on the treadmill was one way to turn off the fretting voices in my head: Had I done all my assignments correctly? Would I oversleep my 7am class tomorrow? I went to class, I studied, and I exercised—and by my senior year, I was a tiny size two.
While I’d always been a “normal” weight, my progressively shrinking body drew compliments—largely from other women. I have a photograph of myself on my 21st birthday. In it, I’m scrawny, almost fragile. My collarbones are sharp, pronounced. Even strangers would coo, “you’re SO skinny!” in stores. Buying clothes in ever-smaller sizes became a point of pride, so I routinely picked jeans that left an angry red mark across my waist. My mother looked at it with horror, but I insisted that everything I wore should be tight. It was important that everyone know exactly how thin I was. In retrospect, I wonder how I managed to breathe, much less be comfortable. When I got to college, I maintained my “slender” weight for several years.
“Taking on [the slender body and] the accoutrements of the white, male world may be experienced as empowerment by women themselves, and as their chance to embody qualities—detachment, self-containment, self-mastery, control—that are highly valued in our culture.”
However, the stresses and disappointments of my first graduate program diminished my desire to exercise. Locked in battles with my advisors and classes that I couldn’t handle, I gave up my daily hour on the treadmill and gained weight. Subconsciously, I think I realized that no matter how I thin I was, maintaining control over my weight wouldn’t actually give me control over my career. It took a bigger concern—what I was going to do with my life—to make weight worries seem ridiculous. Abandoning my painful jeans, I bought stretchy pants. I stopped weighting myself regularly. Dealing with my internal commentary about my body, however, didn’t mean I received more external validation. I also left behind the days of casual, skinny-affirming comments from other women: “She was so thin, thinner than you, even.”
At my current size, I’ve transgressed a different type of boundary. Once I read Unbearable Weight, I realized the department store incident happened because my body had changed—I no longer had what Bordo called a “docile” body. I wasn’t boyishly thin and contained. Instead, I was suddenly too sexual, too dangerous, potentially threatening to “family values.” I jiggled, heaven forbid. At 139 lbs, my bralessness—unremarked upon in the past—was disruptive. It wasn’t “professional,” as my boss reminded me, and I had to pay a price for it. When I looked around at the media, especially in researching my thesis on women in classic films, I found similar paradigms. The ultra-svelte Audrey Hepburn? She was always on a pedestal onscreen, unlike her more voluptuous contemporary, Marilyn Monroe. Through Bordo, a bra, and a department store, I had discovered how the personal could be political.
Yet, as a feminist, I’m not sure how to concretely respond to all this cultural pressure on my body. I’ve adopted a more relaxed attitude about many things—my clothes, makeup, & waistline—since I gave up body perfectionism. I practice yoga and exercise responsibly. I try to avoid talking about my body in negative ways. I even donated all those skinny clothes to charity—the final signal that I don’t ever want to be that size again. But I can’t go back to feeling unself-conscious about my breasts. In classrooms and at work, I notice if someone’s eyes dip below my neck while I’m talking. I think about what I’ll wear to job interviews after I leave school. I wear bras now.