The Dark Side of the California Girl

You guys see Danielle?" a friend named Anthony said to my best friend and I, pointing down from where we sat on the bleachers to the girls playing volleyball. "Look closely. Ugh. Cellulite. Don't ever get that shit, okay? Don't ever get cellulite." We weren't sure what to say back to that, so we just kept our eyes trained on the game, trying not to stare... not just at our cute and sporty friend Danielle's legs in her short volleyball shorts, but every girls' legs. We were all 16 years old.

This is the first encounter of its kind that I remember…a brief comment that I don't think I understood, until years later, was one of the endless moments that would establish a shadow in my head, a dark place where something would always be whispering, "You and your body are not good enough unless you are perfect." The terrible thing is that I know my dark side is not nearly as dim or as vast as that of so many California girls that I've known throughout my life. 

I grew up near San Francisco. I played a lot of sports, namely soccer, and my closest female friends and I mostly had pretty healthy body images. I don't remember even thinking a negative thought about my body until prom photos when I was 16, which was simply, hm, my arm could have looked smaller there, but whatever. I have since known 11 year olds with worse thoughts. I am really grateful that there wasn't much to this dark side for me until I moved away for college, just before I turned 18. To southern California.

My university was a tiny, gorgeous private school that looked more like a summer camp, with low buildings nestled in the trees on a mountainside that sloped down to the beach about a 5 minute drive away. People would sit outside the dorms in the nearly perpetual sunshine and play the guitar, play spontaneous frisbee games on the vast lawns, and occasionally a class might be held outside in the formal gardens. It was a happy little paradise, in many ways. 

The dorm I lived in, for freshman only, had 100 girls in one long hallway on the 3rd floor and as many guys on the 2nd. There were extremely smart, pretty and well-dressed girls everywhere; some would say that the ratio of prom queens was higher here than any other university our friends had gone to. It was an expensive school, so there were a lot of students from pretty well off families. You may not know what this is a recipe for unless you know a lot about high achieving upper income females in the US. The rumors were that our school had to pay for new pipes to be installed every couple of years in that dorm due to the excessive amount of stomach acids that were eroding the plumbing because of so many cases of bulimia among the girls. 
We never knew if this was true, but it's a common story among some college buildings that house a lot of females. 

After just one semester away at university, I came back to the San Francisco Bay Area for the holidays and met up with a high school friend I used to play soccer with. As soon as I saw her, I thought to myself, "Wow. Has Leanne always been this small? Those must be like size 0 jeans." The thought immediately startled me. Since when had I noticed such things? I tried to dismiss that "sizing up" instinct, but it had only begun. 

Over the university years, the culture of hyper-body awareness became more and more normalized for the women around me (including those for whom it was already normal). Elements of this fused into an ever-present sort of black hole that followed you around most days. You'd get sucked into it when people would talk about the dreaded "freshman fifteen," the common amount of weight gain in the first year of college, comparing themselves with each other. I remember friends weeping because of the pressure their mothers put on them to become skinnier, at 20 years old, when they were just fully becoming women. The California moms you'd see at Orientation or Graduation Day at our university were often skinnier and more fashionable than their daughters. One friend would, when the rest of us would get a coffee or hot chocolate after dinner in the dining commons, pour herself a steaming cup of... hot water. "Not even tea?" we'd ask. "No, it has calories..." Rebecca would answer. Her best friend told me that Rebecca's boyfriend made it pretty clear that he was concerned about her athletic shape gaining any more weight. A guy friend of ours, from a different California university, would always comment out loud about how skinny he preferred girls to be, so we would always joke around with him, saying "Darin likes his girls malnourished!" and he'd nod with a smirk. Guys at my university were not typically that verbally obvious, thankfully. I'd see girls whose weight fluctuated dramatically from year to year due to rumored anorexia, and a couple girls that had to drop out to go to eating disorder treatment centers.

After university, although we were no longer daily surrounded by hundreds of female peers, I would say that the messages and pressure from the outside world were stronger than they had been in our little secluded campus… in coastal (and especially southern) California, you are subliminally or obviously directed, every day, that for a woman, being thin is the best way of being accepted and admired. And also, for god’s sake, don’t AGE!

There was the friend who ate only green beans for dinner for some weeks, and she’d occasionally say that she wasn't the "size she used to be anymore." She was tiny. "Do you mean, the size you were in high school?" I asked her one time. "Well, yeah..." she answered, looking down. We’d discuss how, at age 23, to beat our wrinkles. “That girl’s hot!” a guy would say. “Is she?” we’d ask. We would sometimes not really see how she was, except for the fact that she was extremely thin. And that became the key factor in being hot in our eyes too. I remember distinctly believing that if you were not a size four or smaller, you’d need to have a great personality as compensation if you want a good-looking guy to be interested in you. Some of my favorite boutiques in Santa Barbara, LA and Orange County did not carry jeans that were larger than one size above mine. I remember some of my friends and I, at different and repeating times, having a hovering algorithm in our heads for every single bit of food we consumed. We talked a lot about working out, about our skin, about our hair, about how our clothes were fitting that day. You must understand: my California friends are some of the most amazing, thoughtful, down-to-earth and virtuous people I have ever known. It's just that the whisper, "you and your body are not good enough unless you are perfect" plagues almost all of them to varying degrees, driving them to both good and bad habits, harmful and non-harmful thoughts and ways of seeing themselves and others. 


Heard this quote?  


Regarding the good habits thing… I do believe that the “California healthy lifestyle” thing, which often manifests itself in these dark ways, produces some good ingrained behaviors. Straightforwardly, and without obsession: Fitness is a great thing. Eating healthy instead of poorly is a great thing. Attention to your appearance isn't inherently bad. Not totally letting yourself go after you get married and have kids is a good goal for someday. There are perhaps many that would say that some of these things shouldn’t have a place in your head every day. I don’t know. How big a place should they take? How much priority?

It wasn't until many many months in Sweden that I actually was able to identify the “dark side.” It's hard to see something as twisted that became your normal many years ago. In my long-term separation from California, I slowly started realizing that it had been a long time since I thought about what size each girl was. It had been a long time since any girl around me wanted to talk about hair to the extent I did. I encountered a couple guys from California in Sweden (and then of course many on my visits back to California) and when they would start speaking about girls I felt startled by the conversational focus on body shape and slimness.
A friend living in San Francisco just recently told me how much she wants to move to London, and one of several reasons was because, “The guys in SF are so obsessed with skinny girls. When I’m in London the men make me feel as if I am so sexy.” A few of my friends back in California had babies and truly agonized over losing the weight afterwards, feeling ashamed that it was hard for them, compared to, say, our skinny friends. My heart ached for them, and the pressure they were putting on themselves felt to me like such a dark thing. A black hole sucking energy, self-esteem and happiness.

Scandinavia is not the opposite of California in what I’ve discussed. Certainly not. But it’s different enough that it has gotten me to separate myself from it to some degree, to identify the darkness. Whether or not Swedish guys think it, they rarely comment in front of women on their or other women’s bodies. The male and female actors on TV here are not all smoking hot and very thin. This honestly genuinely perplexed me at first.  Ads for gyms are not filled with fit models. Sometimes I would see couples here and wonder how they got together, they seemed “unevenly matched” in a body type way, ie, the girl seemed heavier than what that size of guy would prefer. Even writing this out makes me feel twisted, that this thought was ever somehow established in my head. Though I know that appearance and fashion is quite important to most of my female friends here, they don’t speak much about their bodies and certainly don't seem to be tortured by weight gain when it happens. There are eating disorder issues here too, with males and females, to be sure. I don't have a born and raised perspective obviously, just deep and long term observations.  

Though I believe I have a much more relaxed and healthier perspective now, having been gone for so long, there are some things, both good and bad, that may never go away. I have to admit that I don't fundamentally believe guys when they say "You're great just the way you are." I just don’t. I can write this out, and know that I should believe them, but then what I really believe is, they just don’t realize that they’d think I was even greater “if” this or that were improved or different. As strong as my sense of self-confidence is, this belief will not budge.

A Swedish female friend was recently dating a guy from a different part of Europe, and she was casually saying something to him about how she’d gained some weight over the last year that she’d really rather not have. She told me that he immediately started suggesting ways that she could be losing the weight. She’d felt a bit hurt and very perplexed, it was a reaction she was really not used to. “If it were a Swedish guy you were dating, what do you think he would he have said?” I asked her.  “Just… I think you’re fine babe, you are beautiful no matter what!” she said, her eyes looking forlorn.

The process of breaking down the skinny=beautiful construct continues and I wish I could bottle up my experiences in Scandinavia and give them to my California friends. Recently a Danish guy, who is one of the most handsome and in shape people I have ever known, was telling me about how he had a chubby phase in high school. He was sort of laughing about it. I wanted to empathize a bit, so I said, “Oh well in university I was like 5 or 6 kilos (12 pounds-ish) heavier.”
“Oh boo hoo,” he teased me affectionately. “That’s not a big deal at all.”
“Well it’s a devastating thing in California,” I responded a bit quietly.
His response was immediate and his eyes were serious. “Fuck California.”

Yeah, actually. He's right. Regarding the dark side… fuck California. 


******

For a macro view, this body/weight/youth obsession does seem to characterize the US more than, say, Europe. But it's on this side of the Atlantic too of course. I don’t believe my friend who went to university in Illinois nor my sister who went to Boston dealt with such issues to even a fraction of the same degree as we in California universities have. I don’t get the sense that people I know from or living in other States experience as much of what I’ve spoken about. But other people have written about such pressures and fixations in the US outside of California, most prominently in New York City, and some of the most interesting pieces I’ve seen are from a famous French fashion blogger that moved there. She writes about dieting among women there, as well as what “New York skinny vs Paris skinny” is. Worth a read. California is particularly plagued, obviously, because of the youth and weight-obsessed culture of celebrity, fame and media that is part of our lifeblood more than anywhere else. And there is not time or space here to address the possibly shifting values towards women with some added shape in that realm, nor the likely large variances in body/beauty pressure across socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Also, I don’t bring up how guys are pressured by it regarding their own looks, because I can’t easily speak to that, and I also don’t place much blame on California guys (despite the stories I’ve shared) because they are in fact a product of their culture and environment. And there are plenty of them that have never once thought of asking their girlfriend/wife to watch what she eats, and would be offended at the idea, while I am positive there are some Swedish guys that have done this. 

******

THIS RIGHT HERE is what I'm talking about. "California Skinny" is what this Tumblr is called, and one of its descriptions is "thinspo" ie "thinspiration" (googling the term may terrify you). Super thin supermodels have her dream body and on her daily progress blog there's this entry:

"Urghh everyone has an off day and today is mine. Totally ate feelings today. Was feeling stressed about starting a new job and having to reschedule a flight on top of juggling some unforeseen expenses. Too much all at once and I caved. Tomorrow is a new day though and hopefully I won't be too tired to workout tomorrow because although I know I need the rest I don't think I'll be able to look at myself if I don't."

The obsession. It hurts to read. 

******
*Names have all been changed. 

Comments

  1. thanks for sharing this, corinne. so well written and something i'm very passionate about. I love hearing about your experience since being away from it all. I'd love to share a link to this on my website tomorrow. hope that's okay :)

    ~robin

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  2. Share the post however you like! Love what you're doing regarding fitness and health, Robin! xoxo

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  3. thanks for sharing your thoughts on this corinne. i had never heard that rumor about the pipes needing to be changed at our university! i don't think i ever even noticed anyone with eating disorders either which makes me wonder if i was just on another wavelength entirely!

    from my experience growing up in southern california, i agree that you definitely get certain ways of thinking about body image ingrained in you from a young age. whether you keep that at a healthy level like you mentioned is up to you and can be difficult for most everyone. i don't believe that living in LA ruined my idea of body image by any means but it is something i probably will always have in the back of my head - even if that means I'm trying to ignore it being in the back of my head. :)

    It will always be about trying to find a balance of staying healthy, feeling good, and taking care of yourself. As long as I'm reading Vogue or watching films/tv it will be impossible to ignore the crazy standards of celebrities and models. Body image can be a vice just like anything else can, so all we can do is try to find our own personal points of healthy living - and that includes healthy thinking.

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  4. Hi Nicole! Thanks for the thoughts! I never on my own "noticed" that someone or another had an eating disorder, it was always something I learned through a source. I was pretty naive about that stuff, and I think that people become experts at hiding it. The issue came forward for me a bit more when I was an RA junior year, and we had a bit of discussions about it, plus some parents had asked me to watch out for their girls because they had some episodes in the past "with a bad balance between their weight and consumption," as they liked to put it...

    I really appreciate some facets of my California upbringing in regards to an active lifestyle and attentive body focus, though you really nailed it when you said that "body image can be a vice"... I think that's what it is for a lot of girls I know. They aren't going to eating disorder treatment centers or anything like that... it's just a vice. As it gets to be with me sometimes.

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  5. I loved this post, Corrine. Wise, original and well written thoughts. What's interesting for me is that I didn't start paying attention to my body image until after college when I lost about 15-20 pounds. (I was living with you at the time...) I started exercising which I hadn't done since high school, and I stopped eating cafeteria food. Those two things combined made it very easy to shed weight, even though it wasn't my intention. I had many girls ask me if I had an eating disorder because of the weight loss, which I was offended by. (I shouldn't have been, they simply cared about me, but it was the first time I realized just how much others paid attention to my body.) Now that I've experienced firsthand how other women pay attention, it makes me more paranoid when I've gained weight. I figure, if they noticed I lost weight, they'll certainly notice if I've gained some. Isn't that weird? I don't worry what my husband will think but I worry about other women. I hate that.

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  6. I'm a teenager living in Australia and although ideas aren't as extreme about skinny=beautiful as they are in California they are definitely still very prevalent and the media is full of the 'perfect' airbrushed girls, this is a great article and very well written and hopefully one day the rest of the world can learn to have more emphasis on health and wellbeing like Sweden/London seem to primarily on what size you are. Being so skinny is so unobtainable and I sympathize the people who miss out on eating delicious food out of fear of gaining weight, just recently i heard one of my friends saying how she "was going to go to Grill'd(burger place) with her boyfriend tomorrow night so she wasn't eating until then" Thanks:))

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