What Does A "Real Woman" Look Like, Anyway?

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UPDATE: This post was originally published on April 14.

"Zero is not a size." "Real women have curves." "Men want something to hold onto."

These phrases are meant to empower women everywhere and show them that being thin isn’t the only beautiful body type. The intentions are pure and honest, but for anyone out there who would consider herself thin or skinny, these “positive” phrases become insults. Putting down other women for their bodies in any way is wrong. Phrases like “real woman” are becoming an accepted part of our culture, but in the end, they only add to the prevalent female body-bashing and unrealistic body expectations that plague us every day.

After she was named Rookie of the Year in the 2011 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (and then proceeded to snag the cover spot in 2012 and again in 2013), Kate Upton quickly became America’s go-to example of female perfection. She was a blonde bombshell: fit, with serious curves, and an even more serious rack. She was deemed the ideal “real” woman that we all should strive to emulate.

But who gets to decide what a “real” woman is? Wouldn’t that technically mean someone with ladyparts and two X chromosomes — or, if you self-identify as a woman? The phrase is meant to celebrate women with curves and fuller figures, but in doing so, it implies that those with small, skinny frames and A cups are somehow less womanly.

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Heather Quinlan, YouBeauty’s body image expert, notes that although stigmatizing women for being overweight is much more prominent, making someone feel ugly or less womanly for being thin is just as wrong. “Why would it ever be okay to criticize somebody based on her appearance?” she says. “Some of it comes from each person’s own questions about her own body or her own lower self-esteem or body image.”

It’s also important to remember that people of every shape and size share a lot of the same self-esteem concerns, Quinlan notes. “I’ve met plenty of beautiful, thin girls who feel like crap about themselves,” she says. “Just because somebody is objectively attractive or thin or beautiful, doesn’t mean that they see that in themselves and doesn’t mean that they feel good about themselves.” When you tell someone her body isn’t “womanly,” you might be hurting her self-esteem more than you know.

Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., a psychologist at The Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders as well as self-esteem and body image issues, points out that another underlying cause of this body-bashing is our society’s focus on women’s bodies and the contradictory messages we get about how we should look from the celebrity world, filled with gossip and criticism. “I think that this sometimes creates competition and jealousy that’s not necessary between thin, average weight, and overweight people,” she says.

With so much talk about this celebrity or that model being too thin or potentially having an eating disorder, we’ve developed this notion that if a woman is skinny, she must be doing something unhealthy to look that way. “I’ve had patients tell me people will come up to them and say something like ‘Do you have an illness? Are you anorexic?’ assuming that their skinniness is something pathological rather than maybe just their genes and their lifestyle,” Kearney-Cooke says. “We have to really accept that people come in all shapes and sizes.”

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Some people are simply wired to be skinny, just like some women are wired to be fuller-figured, apple-shaped, pear-shaped, hourglass-shaped — and every other shape imaginable.

“There’s a whole huge range of healthy and attractive body types out there,” Quinlan notes. And to appreciate them all equally, we have to be careful that the pendulum doesn’t swing all the way from one end to the other, but that instead, we establish a balanced perspective and a broader acceptance of every type of body out there. So, how can we do that?

First, Kearney-Cooke suggests being a little more compassionate toward both ourselves and others. We need to stop trying to one-up each other. Then, to bolster your self-esteem (and your respect for other women’s), figure out and celebrate your own signature strengths, rather than trying to look like someone else or expecting someone else to match an ideal. If you have great legs, wear short skirts. If you have amazing hair, style it and show it off. Got straight, white teeth? Take good care of them.

For a real wake-up call, Kearny-Cooke suggests this exercise: Ask yourself if you’ve ever fallen in love with or been attracted to someone who isn’t a perfect 10 on the looks scale. Most likely, you have. Then ask yourself if your present or last partner is a perfect 10. Probably not. But you love them anyway, right? Somehow we fall in love with people of every shape and size. We overlook imperfections and see the whole package. So why shouldn’t we look at everyone we meet in the same light?

“The other thing I tell people, is when you start judging other people, just see a stop sign, say stop, and tell yourself, ‘This is mental noise, and I want to be closer to people, not doing things that disconnect me from them,'” suggests Kearney-Cooke. “Then I encourage them to focus their energy somewhere else.”

Critiquing other people’s bodies is a hard habit to break, and the only way to halt it is to stop the moment we notice we’re body-bashing and redirect our attention towards something more positive. Focus instead on who you are, how you can take care of your body, and use that energy to become the best version of yourself, inside and out.
Let's face it: Good intentions aside, it's easier to hit the snooze than get out of bed and hit the pavement. So, whether it's figuring out how to sculpt your body or finally learning how to carve out "me" time, the folks at YouBeauty have us excited to get sweating and stay on track.