Yesterday, Meredith Graves joined the myriad cast of contributors on StyleLikeU’s What’s Underneath project—a video series touting a mission to celebrate the fashion site’s belief that style is not about the clothes one wears but the fearless spirit, with which (and over which) one wears them. The concept is to visually illustrate the interviewee’s experience with body image as they slowly disrobe, item-by-item, to progressively uncover the body they have struggled with; the body that does not equal or enumerate the spirit said to be highlighted.
My problem, and seemingly that of many on the Internet, is the fact that having women (though men have already appeared in the series too) undress in front of a camera to express that “style isn’t mere clothes” not only completely distracts viewers from the interviewee’s answers (which are the closest embodiment of any interviewee’s spirit), it also accelerates the especially feminine problem with body comparison in the most nefarious way: by hiding the harmful comparisons it’s still perpetuating under a fluffy, unfounded cloud of “honoring spirit.” I can’t hear or feel her spirit when I am looking at Graves’ moon phase tattoo and toned physique. This is not an affront on Graves, no. It is on StyleLikeU’s What’s Underneath project and other similar “real beauty” campaigns that don’t see that the only way to stop the comparison of bodies is to NOT fucking focus on them, or prompt people recovering from eating and control issues to enumerate their past regimes in detail for the many who are still too impressionable and ensnared in socio-gendered conditioning to latch onto and recreate for themselves.
As one mutual friend of mine said “I’d like to see Reggie Watts do one of these.” Prince Fielder might be down but the breadth of bodies featured in this project (thus far) doesn’t show much more than the fashion industry’s body trend cycle moving away from total waif and toward figures with a little more muscle mass than bone density and a decent recovery story to tell. The fact that I just typed “body trend cycle” and it means something to any of us is fucked in and of itself.
In the video, Meredith Graves gives eloquently thorough responses, as always, to not only SLU’s questions but to her mind’s own socio-political tangents. She, however, is human, falling ever-so-briefly into the self-competition that comes with an indelible history with disordered eating. In an attempt to give Graves’ words more—if not as much as her body’s—visual real estate, I’ve pulled what I think are the more spiritually-telling quotes from the interview for us to see in their context.
On assumptions made about her appearance, her politics, and her authenticity:
The Dallas Observer let someone write an article where he said ‘The singer of this band is a very strong feminist and she said all this stuff [about an unsettlingly objectifying poster illustration] but it’s very, very hard to take her seriously because of her appearance. She was wearing a stripey T-shirt. She has blonde hair. She was wearing very *air quote* un-punk *air quote* shorts.’
I have no idea where this guy got off thinking it was acceptable to devote one paragraph to my politics and three to my appearance.
According to him it became a question of my authenticity. He said because of how normal I looked, the name of our band, my violent stage performance and my feminism seemed inauthentic. […] I have my fair share of black and studs…but that feels like as much of a costume as this.
On taking up space as a second fiddle, and the conditioned comparison problem:
I’ve always had a problem with my size. I was 5’5″ by the time I was twelve. I’m like 5’10” or 5’11” now. Even at my thinnest I’ve never really been smaller than a size 8. Like my best friend in high school was a twin. She and her sister both grew up to be models. And we’d get in fights and she would say “Well, it’s a good thing you’re the smart friend because I’m the pretty friend.’ […] It took a really long time for me to realize that it’s okay to be who I am. And, in somebody’s eyes, I might be the pretty girl.
On language and the incredible disappearing woman:
Coming to terms with the space I take up in the world… We’re taught from birth to shrink ourselves. Erasing fine lines and wrinkles. Shrinking two sizes. Making varicose veins disappear. It’s this language that wants women to not be visible.
On entitlement, mass murders, and mental illness:
We live in a world where men feel so entitled to women’s bodies that when they don’t get what they want they go on killing sprees. And yet everyone chalks it up to some mental illness and doesn’t want to talk about violence against women is a mental illness.
On the silencing effects of our “capitalist hetero patriarchy”:
We live in a capitalist hetero patriarchy that hates non-male people—that hates women, that hates transgender people, that hates queer people, hates young people, hates the disability and the elderly.
There are so many more voices that are louder than those of us that are trying to protect ourselves and each other saying ‘Eh, don’t worry about it.’
On insecurity’s pressure to control one’s body:
At my worst I went to the gym six days a week… [details of running routine & time] and most of what I ate was ‘raw vegan,’ which is slang for ‘I didn’t eat food.’ I did it out of insecurity. I saw that most of the men in my life were attracted to women that were thinner than I was. I was in a very self-hating place. I felt very insecure and meanwhile I was working at this alteration place working with women. They would come in and say ‘I need this dress altered because my body is bad.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no. Fashion is weird. Garments are weird. It’s totally normal to have to have a dress altered to fit your body.’ And I was so into that for everyone, except myself.
There was a period a couple years ago when I honestly felt like, unless I got my body together, I would never be successful.
And there are still days now that I wake up and say ‘Our band would be doing better if I was prettier.’
On when she feels most beautiful:
When my circumstances are so strange that I am able to see myself as a small component in a much bigger world.
[But also:] When I’m riding my bike. Always!
Watch the whole interview below. Or don’t. Maybe just press play as you open a different tab, turn down your brightness or walk across the room, and just listen. As You can hear the frenzy in the interviewer’s voice rushing to reassure Graves with praise as she removes her final threads. “You have a beautiful body, by the way” jumps out of her mouth with urgency. Moments like that prove that, regardless of whatever it claims to highlight, this video ended up shining an unintended spotlight on the damaging irony to which most body image campaigns fall prey.