Earning My Tiger Stripes: An Exploration of My Relationship with Body Positivity

By Raegan Boettcher

Art by Kaitlyn Anderson

When I was thirteen, I would wake up hours before I had to leave for school. I would fix my hair and haphazardly cover my every flaw with foundation and concealer. I didn’t perform this morning ritual because I enjoyed makeup or doing my hair. I did it because I was terrified to be imperfect. Every night, I would come home and wash all my makeup down the shower drain and silently berate myself for having to try so hard to be beautiful. I hated my round face and my soft jawline, usually carved out with my amateur contouring palette in the morning. I hated my round stomach and my thick thighs, so I hid those under tight jeans and baggy hoodies. I would struggle to meet my own eyes in the mirror because I hated myself for not looking how I wanted.


I saw the same frame of self-hatred in the other women in my family. I saw it in my mother and my grandmother, in my aunts and my cousins. It was a struggle passed down from mother to daughter, a perpetual generational trauma that none of us quite knew how to shake. Each facet of my appearance could be easily traced to the women in my family. My face was my mother’s face. If she hated her reflection, why wouldn’t I? Despite our common self-hatred, we all held this turmoil within. Self-hatred thrives on isolation. It’s a war against yourself and everyone else is just a spectator. I didn’t know how to express the issues I had with my body, and I thought it was something I had to tackle alone.



The rise of social media in my adolescence certainly did nothing to aid my self-image. I followed as all my peers flocked to Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. The glamorous highlight reels crafted on social media pages drove the incessant micromanagement of our appearances that we inherited from our mothers. From this perpetual self-immolation, shared not only amongst my schoolmates but amongst most women in society, rose the body positivity movement. It was the first time I ever experienced women bonding and uniting over society’s suffocating beauty standards. I didn’t know we were allowed to talk about how exhausting it was to always strive for perfection and never quite reach it. With the aim to tackle standards of beauty both in the microcosm of social media and in society, myriad body-positive social media pages boasted their photos of models of varying body types, with their skin bare of any makeup or photoshop to showcase their “perfect imperfections.” Sometimes they posted photos of models with their stretch marks lined in glitter, captioned “Earned my tiger stripes!” The phrase “tiger stripes” always angered me; I never felt as if I earned anything — these scraggly dark marks on my skin often felt like punishment for growing outside my bounds, so why should I regard them as a reward?

The body positivity movement aimed to affirm everyone’s beauty despite their flaws. The mission was admirable; everyone is beautiful, regardless of what society has to say on the matter, but I always felt alienated from such notions. It outraged me that these other women were allowed to have flaws and still be beautiful, but my flaws were able to infect every part of me and make me ugly. The body positivity movement undoubtedly helped some people. For some, it was empowering and emboldening to see these people proud of their flaws and happy with their unconventional beauty. It was liberating to see women of every body type embrace their flaws, but the movement strived for the wrong goals.


The movement harbored many problems, but the first of which was the heightened expectation of femininity and effort. Unconventionally attractive women were constantly expected to put exceptional effort into their appearance, whether this was through the use of makeup or by wearing stylish and flattering clothing. Larger women were never portrayed looking in any way unsightly or undone. There was a pervasive double standard: thin, conventionally attractive women could post pictures eating whatever they wanted. They could post pictures with messy hair and unflattering clothing, and other ‘body positive’ women would praise them for existing and defying beauty norms. If a larger, unconventionally attractive woman did the same, she would be vilified. She would be accused of promoting a culture of obesity or not caring enough to put effort into her appearance as if women should always have to look perfectly presentable to be worth anything.


Women’s worth in these body-positive spaces largely hinged on their ability to market themselves as sexually attractive. It was common for people to express their sexual attraction to large and curvy women, boasting that they love a woman with a little more “meat on her bones.” Most often, this sexual attention came at the cost of degrading thin women for not having enough “curves.” People made such remarks in an attempt to make larger women feel better about themselves, implying that they should feel good about themselves because some people find them to be sexually attractive. First and foremost, this objectifies women and reduces their worth down to whether or not someone finds them attractive and desirable despite their flaws. However, it also imposes an entirely new hierarchy between women, where curviness is more desirable and sexually attractive than thinness. Such a notion degrades and alienates thin women for not meeting ever-changing, impossible standards of beauty, while simultaneously treating fat women like sexual objects. (Though, of course, no one ever used the word “fat,” because to be fat is to be undesirable, so fatness had to be marketed as “curvy” or “thick.”) Embracing your sexuality can certainly be empowering, but no one should have to justify their existence or prove their worth by cultivating sex appeal.


Overall, the movement warped the notion of body positivity, turning this paragon into a plea to society to see all women’s bodies as desirable and attractive, rather than just some women. Broadening society’s range of acceptable bodies does little to actually help, however. Our society thrives on the objectification of women’s bodies. Corporations, whether weight loss programs or makeup companies, profit off our self-hatred and our incessant need to change our appearances. There will always be some facet of women’s bodies that society finds unsightly, so women will always be subjected to such policing. Society’s expectations are always changing and we cannot expect ourselves to perpetually conform to this fleeting notion of beauty.


———


I’ve spent all my life preoccupied with how other people perceive me. Distorted versions of body positivity that were fed to me through social media did nothing to help. Escaping from the clutches of these ideals was more difficult than I like to admit. I didn’t like myself because I thought other people didn’t like me either, and it took me years to realize that my worth didn’t hinge on whether other people found me desirable. Forging my own path to self-love had little to do with calling my stretch marks “tiger stripes” or watching other people objectify me for having enough “meat on my bones.”


When you start to truly love yourself, you gift yourself the privilege of imperfection. You can allow yourself to not do your hair and makeup. You can eat an extra slice of pizza or help yourself to a second or third serving of your favorite meal without hating yourself for being bloated later on. You can look “ugly” (by society’s standards), without doubting your intrinsic beauty or the inherent dignity of your body. You can’t always expect yourself to look your best, so you have to love yourself even when you feel your worst. The goal is to love yourself unconditionally, rather than despite your flaws because your worth should not be dependent on the omission of your imperfections.


I love the stretch marks on my hips because they are a part of me, even though I don’t necessarily like that the way they accentuate the extra weight I carry there. I love my thick thighs because they carry my body, even though I don’t necessarily like how difficult it is to find jeans that fit. I love my round cheeks and my soft jawline because they are mine, even though it’s still difficult to meet my own eyes in the mirror sometimes. I’m sure that reading that may be startling, and it might make you feel compelled to spew trite phrases like “No, you’re beautiful! I’m sure you look great!” While I appreciate the sentiment, if you feel compelled to say things like this, I think you’re missing the point.


When you start to see your flaws as inherent parts of you, they stop feeling so much like flaws. You start to see yourself as something whole rather than the sum of various desirable and undesirable parts. Instead of scrutinizing every inch of your appearance when you look in the mirror, you start to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of your body, regardless of what society may have to say.


Lizzo once said, “I don’t think that loving yourself is a choice. I think it’s a decision that has to be made for survival.”[1] I remember reading those lines the first time and realizing that I’ve been working against my own survival my entire life. In hindsight, it is a miracle that I’ve made it this far in this internalized civil war.


Recovering from this took time. For so long, I let my self-hatred fester like an untreated wound. I still carry this wound with me; it’s a lasting scar, unlikely to ever leave me. I still struggle to remind myself of my inherent worth and dignity every day. But like every other “flaw” I carry, this scar belongs to me, so I love it anyway.


Maybe my life would’ve been easier or maybe I would’ve been happier if I looked how I wanted to when I was thirteen, but focusing on ‘what-ifs’ and ‘could-have-beens’ is a waste of time. My body is the only body I will ever have and my life is the only one I will ever live. I won’t waste my life hating myself for existing as I am. I may not always get along with my body; I will not always look at myself and feel joy, but I will always love my body because it is mine. When we allow ourselves the freedom of imperfection, we can liberate ourselves from the ever-changing norms of beauty and from the perpetual commodification of women’s bodies. Life is messy and ugly, and often so are we. It does not make you any less beautiful or any less worthy. If you’re going to love your body, you cannot just love it at its best; you have to love it at its worst and at its ugliest. You don’t always have to like it, but yes, you do have to love it. It’s a matter of survival.






[1]Lizzo, “Self-care has to be rooted in self-preservation, not just mimosas and spa days”, NBC News, April 19, 2019,https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/self-care-has-be-rooted-self-preservation-not-just-mimosas-ncna993661