Since when did being comfortable in my own body require courage?
Aah, backhanded compliments. You may not be immediately familiar with the phrase, but just about everyone’s familiar with the phenomenon.
If you’ve ever had a relative come up to you and say, “It’s such a shame. You have such a pretty face!” or had someone say “She’s a pretty good driver for a woman!” you’ve officially experienced a backhanded compliment, otherwise known as microaggressions; little flippant comments that minimize the people they’re addressing. They seem like praise, but leave you feeling unsettled, like a cat that’s been pet backwards. They’re flattery, with strings attached.
That’s why it really damages my calm when people call me the b-word, “brave”, for doing things that shouldn’t be considered brave at all. A woman who’s given birth and posts photos of her stretch marks on Instagram will be called brave. Why? Why is it brave to showcase something so completely normal about your own body? Are models brave for exposing their stomachs and thighs all the time?
I’ve been called brave for things that deserve it – for standing up for myself when I’m being bullied, for standing up for others, for surviving things that were impossibly difficult and for pulling myself along and refusing to give up.
I’ve also been called brave for things that felt more like a slap in the face. I’ve been called brave for wearing tights under a skirt that went down to my thighs at night. I’ve been called brave for walking home alone. I’ve heard friends be called brave for wearing clothes that don’t hide the fact that they have cellulite, or going to work without makeup on, no matter how conventionally attractive any of us are despite all of these things.
Being fat and daring to go to the beach has been enough to label me as brave, and boy is that a double-edged sword. Because depending on whose mouth that word comes out of, it can either be condescending, or heartbreaking.
“Wow, you’re really brave wearing something like that,” from the mouth of a random dudebro on the beach is insulting. The implication is that being fat means it requires bravery for me to wear something literally everyone else there is wearing.
“I can’t believe you’re brave enough to wear that here” as a hushed whisper from a young fat girl huddled under a towel half-hidden under a beach umbrella, is crushing. Wearing a swimsuit shouldn’t require bravery.
But it does, and it requires that extra courage because women’s bodies are seen as commodities. Women of color have it worse, often finding their skin tones described as food. Their “chocolate” and “caramel” tints are literally consumable objects, advertised as pieces available to anyone who wants a taste. In that sense, we are considered brave for daring to display ourselves while under the cultural understanding that we exist as objects that should be under constant renovation. There’s always a product we need to buy to make ourselves prettier, younger, thinner. If we don’t buy into that system, we’re deemed the b-word.
Feminist comedian Amy Schumer highlights this double standard in the latest episode of her sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, in which she refers to a photoshoot she did with Annie Leibovitz.
“This is the word you don’t want people to use after a photo of you where you’re nude goes viral: brave.”
So why don’t we stop calling women brave for daring to display their bodies without shame? Or at the very least, do what we can to dismantle the system that spends endless amounts of time, energy and money trying to convince us that it takes “courage” to simply be who we are.
Comment: Have you ever been called “brave” for wearing something?