I know I bang on about a lot of things on this blog, some of them well received, some of them not. Everything I write about is, I think, somehow powered by the fact that I'm a mother to two (terrifying) boys and has an admittedly cliched though totally valid undercurrent of 'what kind of world do we want this to be for our kids?'
Obviously, this applies to an overwhelming abundance of topics. From climate change to bullying, from sexism to poverty . . . basically as soon as you unleash a little person into the world ALL of these things become a whole lot more important.
If only we could enrol on some kind of worldly-matters crash-course during pregnancy so we would know how to talk about all of these things with our offspring. Because once they start asking for a dummy / a snack / an iPad / a TikTok account we are also expected to know how to answer THE most existential questions known to man whilst eating dinner, or speed-packing the shopping at Lidl, or trying to strong-arm a baby-sibling-beast into a car seat.
And one of the things I find comes up time and time again with my two lads is judging people by how they look. This is often done by the most well-meaning of us, but it's actually very dangerous and damaging. And did you know there's a term for it? It's called Lookism and I first heard this term when I went to see Professor Heather Widdows speak at the Anti-Diet Riot Festival earlier this year (check out all about it on my recent post, The One With The Anti-Diet Riot Fest).
Heather is an academic and author of the book 'Perfect Me' which explores beauty as an ethical ideal, a way in which we have constructed standards for attractiveness and have pretty much okayed harsh judgements made against people on the basis of how well they do or don't meet that standard.
Does that sound familiar to you? You must have heard it before. Somebody is lazy because they're fat. Or healthy because they're thin. Or successful because they have glossy hair. Or unhygienic because they have yellow teeth. The list goes on . . .
Heather has started a new Lookism Campaign called #EverydayLookism which asks everyone to share their stories anonymously to show how common Lookism actually is. By bringing these stories together, there's a strong sense of kicking back to say that Lookism is not an ok thing. And it's really not - but it starts so young.
Even at the tender young ages of about four or five, my two would inevitably stare and point at people who obviously didn't meet whatever visual standards exist in a pre-schooler's mind. "Mummy look at those huge boobies!", "What's wrong with that man's nose?" and, lovingly directed at me, "Wow! Look at all the millions of lines on your face!"
Of course, we can't blame a four-year-old for asking questions - I've always encouraged it no matter how cringeworthy it might get. But we could have a long hard look at the culture which is supposed to be ultimately nurturing them into well-rounded individuals. Or what it is that actually makes me cringe. Because, honestly? Where are they getting this shit from?
Having launched myself into the #bodypositivity movement over the last year or so, I'm particularly alert to the dangers of judging people simply by how they look. Because what am I judging them against? My ideal of what beauty is? How did those standards get into my head in the first place and do I really want them living there, putting their feet up and picking out curtains?
No. I really don't.
On an almost daily basis at the moment, Big Lad, who started secondary school last September, asks me questions about how I got through this tricky time. How did I cope with bullies? How did I fit in with the right gangs? How did I know the right things to say and do and wear? These questions not only exhaust me, but cast my mind (and heart) back to a time when Abi was very different. A time when Lookism was a part of my daily routine in a big and horrible way.
Now I know I wasn't alone in being bullied for how I looked. I was a teenager surrounded by teenagers for god's sake. And I also know I'm speaking from the absurdly privileged position of being white, blonde, blue-eyed, slim - so I wasn't far from fitting in to the ridiculous standards set by god knows who however many hundreds of years ago. I don't want this to be about poor old me.
There are many more worse-off than me in terms of how they are judged, ridiculed and marginalised by others and we need to tackle that together through things like the Everyday Lookism campaign. And to take my part in elevating such activism, this is how I first remember Lookism affecting me, as an awkward, spotty teen.
It's the name I remember being most incessant and the most hurtful. It was invented by the 'handsome', dark-haired lad I had my eye on too, so all the more distressing. Plus it backed up what the doctor had said when I visited him because I had a nasty cold . . . "Well your cold will clear up, but we've got to do something about your acne." I hadn't even asked him about my skin, and I remember having to hold back the tears at his words. Cue massive doses of antibiotics, a gel that actually burned the top layer of my skin off and abrasive face washes that would have your modern day face 'scrubs' cowering in a corner. None. Of. It. Worked. I still got called Pizza Face. And I learned right then and there that to ever have a hope of being beautiful, I would need to suffer.
Is how people used to refer to my legs. Because they're white. Very white. But instead of pondering over the potentially luxurious, creamy colour of milk, I fretted over it day by day. And to make matters worse, whenever we had to do PE outdoors in the cold, that idiotically short netball skirt would reveal that my legs were not only white, but also blotched with purple, blue and even orange spots on account of the poor circulation I'd inherited from my mum. Oh my god I tried everything - fake tan, 100 denier tights, holding over-the-knee socks up with SELLOTAPE. And of course, the girls weren't allowed to wear trousers. Don't even get me started on that one.
Is how my belly fat was referred to for years. How long can you be in the puppy phase anyway? Grown-ups used to comment that it would disappear once I'd 'grown into myself', so I understandably assumed belly fat was a bad thing and would definitely need to disappear if I was ever going to be taken seriously. That poor little paunch that used to stick out under my school shirt, to me, was the most disgusting thing in the world. Never mind that I could write a 10,000 word story like some kind of literary-ninja, or that I could paint and sing and laugh and listen and learn . . . I had puppy fat that needed to go (Spoiler alert - it never went).
Sadly, there are many more examples I could give you from my teenage years and the years that followed. In school, college, university, workplaces, social situations, relationships, family gatherings, important occasions. Lookism is everywhere. It's not too far from where any of us are sitting now. Much like COVID19, it's rife.
And I'm not willing for my Lads to be perpetrators of Lookism. I'm just not. I celebrate them in their internal and external splendour like it's a life-saving ritual (it is) and I encourage them to do the same for others. "Be mindful," I tell them, "of commenting on somebody's appearance. Have they asked you for your opinion? Is it kind or helpful? Is it actually any of your business whatsoever?" I don't know if this is the kind of wisdom Big Lad wants to help him through his problematic school years, but nevertheless it's what he's getting.
I'd encourage you to do the same. Question the standards you've been fed your whole life. Why must a woman have clear, wrinkle-free skin? Why must she be no bigger than a size 12? Why must a man build muscle? Why must we have glistening white teeth? Why to all of this and much, much more.
So if you fancy helping put an end to body shaming but don't know where to start, definitely head over to the Everyday Lookism page on the Birmingham University website. There you can anonymously share your experiences of Lookism, and together we can show that negative comments about other people's bodies really do matter.
And as for my Lads, well, I'll keep coaching them in the only manner I know how. With truth, with honesty, with compassion, and with my ever-evolving knowledge on the matter. And if I'm totally sincere, I know they'll keep coaching me too.
Share your Lookism Story at https://everydaylookism.bham.ac.uk/
Find Heather's Book 'Perfect Me' here.
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