(U-WIRE) PITTSBURGH – I've only ever been in trouble once. It was 10 years ago, but I still remember it clearly – being called into the principal's office, sitting in the blue, upholstered chair in front of the tall, very Italian principal. He looked down at me; I was relatively unafraid. He asked me about my crime, and I freely admitted to side-kicking the girl in question. Then he asked me why I would do such a thing. My lips were sealed. There was no way I was going to repeat the insult that had inspired such violence in me, not to this black bow-tied man who had the cheesy motivational posters hanging in his office.
I can say it now, because it has been 10 years, and the offense has faded.
She called me flat-chested.
In hindsight, I should have just responded, "So is everyone else in the sixth grade."
But back in sixth grade, my breasts weren't the only part of me that was underdeveloped: My wit also lagged behind considerably.
Fast-forward about 10 years to my college career. Suddenly, I was facing the exact same insult. This time things were different. This time the insult came from an ex-friend, a self-proclaimed feminist who pretty much aced her SATs. This was no stupid middle school insult. This was a whole new level of bitchiness.
I, shamefully, responded in kind. Yeah, that's right. I dropped the "f" bomb. I uttered the unforgivable "f" word, those three little letters that drive all girls crazy: F-A-T.
Of course I didn't say it in such boring terms. No, I jazzed it up a bit, in true college fashion.
My inner sixth-grader still says; "She started it!" But the more mature side of me knows I was wrong. It's bad enough to feel the rest of society pressing in on you, affirming your worst self-image fears with every magazine cover and music video. What's worse is hearing it from someone who knows all of your secret fears, someone of your own gender, who should know better.
It's not particularly shocking to hear that most women struggle with self-image. There are entire industries built around this. Plastic surgery, diet programs, cosmetics companies and women's magazines revolve around this. Make yourself more beautiful in five easy steps!
And there is nothing wrong with wanting to be beautiful, to live up to your fullest potential, as long as people operate within safe – and sane – boundaries.
The problem arises when we enforce impossible standards on each other. No one is perfect. No one should be expected to live up to someone else's beauty ideal. The only ideal we live up to should be our own. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, "There is certainly no absolute standard of beauty." Each woman should only have to live up to her standard of beauty – not the standard of her friends, boyfriend or the editors of Vogue.
Yet so many women, including many so-called feminists, fall very easily into the trap of perfectionism and ridicule. Sometimes it's a vain effort to raise our own self-esteem, to make ourselves look better by tearing down the competition. Other times, we're actively trying to make someone feel bad. The reason doesn't matter, the result does.
My insults helped bring about someone else's eating disorder. Her insults made me spend hours standing in the mirror contemplating my own proportions.
And while both of us attribute our troubles to the subtle and cunning misogyny of the culture all around us, we should admit that we, as women, contribute to our image problems. Our insults to each other are self-defeating because they helped to carry on the pain of that impossible ideal.
The solution to the image problem begins here. We cannot enact a quick change in the beauty images that the media feeds us. Body image problems existed long before mass media did. Now we just have better technology to change our bodies to fit the standard of beauty more easily.
We can change how we enforce that image within our own social groups, among our peers, though. If we all sit around and nitpick each other's flaws, it only makes everyone feel bad. Trade in those tired old insults – "thunder thighs," "washboard chest," "baby fat" – for shiny new compliments.
Learning to find beauty in others may be the key to learning find it in ourselves.