One big reason I don’t miss the DELi*As catalog

Today I spotted a Buzzfeed article called 19 Reasons Why You Miss Getting the DELiA*s Catalog, and was instantly reminded of the one BIG reason I definitely DO NOT miss the DELiA*s catalog. The DELiA*s catalog was how I learned to hate my body.

Sure, DELiA*S wasn’t the only publication out there with images of thin teenage girl models. But I never had Seventeen or Cosmo magazines, so largely and for the most part, the DELiA*s catalog was the only collection of images of skinny girls I could take up to my room and stare at for hours, alone, wishing I was thin. That was my DELiA*s ritual — a deep, dark secret known only to me, my teenage self, and I. Until now, anyway.

Once a month or so, I’d spot the DELiA*s catalog in the pile of mail on the counter, grab it, and go up to my bedroom. I’d pour over each page, looking not at the clothes but the girls. I took in every detail, every airbrushed line. (Of course, at the time I didn’t realize they were airbrushed.) I even cut out a few of my favorites — girls with hair, outfits, and bodies I wanted — and pasted them into my journal.

I would strip to my underwear and look at myself in a full length mirror, strategically covering the parts of my body that weren’t “right” — the love handles, the belly, etc., and imagine myself without them. I used to fantasize about a magic knife that could simply slice off the extra that didn’t belong. I would visualize slicing, slicing, slicing, in long, fluid motions — literally carving my body into the shape I thought it should have been — the shape of the girls in the DELiA*s catalog.

Sick, right? Describing this behavior is weird and when I write it down, it sounds completely pathological. It’s horrifying to remember this part of my past. But if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that a lot of my peers were doing similar things.

I’ve come a long way since then, of course. Despite my perpetual and (unfortunately) NORMAL struggle with body image, I managed to develop a healthy self-confidence about the way I look. There are a lot of things I’ve always loved, and some that I’ve learned to love, about my body. And my feminist awakening, graduate research on body image, and introduction to Health At Every Size certainly made a huge difference in how I feel about my own body image journey.

So yes. I didn’t share this embarrassing secret so that people would pity me, nor did I share it to brag about how far I’ve come since then. I share this embarrassing secret because the Buzzfeed article about the DELiA*s catalog made me realize how glaringly absent my experience was from this ever-so-nostalgic account of what the DELiA*s catalog meant to girls who came of age in the 90s.

I can’t help but imagine how different my experience would have been if DELiA*s models exhibited the varied and beautiful range of body diversity in our world. What if some of those teen models looked like me? (What if the clothes they were selling actually fit me?)

I just read an amazing piece on XOJane about Lena Dunham’s audacity in showing her own, “imperfect,” body on screen — and how much people seem to really hate the fact that she’s doing it. It says:

For all our talk about wanting to see more so-called “real women” in the media we consume — a problematic category itself, as all women are “real,” no matter how near or far they might be to the female beauty ideal — we are awfully quick to condemn a woman who is showing us reality in a very plainspoken, unvarnished way.

The aghast controversy evoked by Dunham’s nudity shows us just how much of this “real women” talk is lip service, and how very far we have to go before we can socially deal with the fact that different bodies exist. Truth is, we’d all probably be a lot less neurotic about our own bodies if we could get used to seeing and accepting the natural variety in other people’s — without shame, and giving no fucks.

So maybe I, too, would look back with loving nostalgia on the DELiA*s catalog if it showcased a cohort of teen models who reflected the wide and diverse reality of what girls look like, and if those girls modeled not only quirky 90s fashion, but also how to not give any fucks about what other people think about their bodies.

Now, that would be a catalog to reminisce about.

“All Adventurous Women Do”

HBO's GirlsOn the third episode of HBO’s new series, Girls, the protagonist Hannah (played by creator Lena Dunham) is diagnosed with human papilloma virus (HPV). Distraught, she tells her best friend, who replies with the most revolutionary phrase ever uttered on television regarding STI stigma: “All adventurous women do.”

STI stigma is not difficult to understand. Since STIs are sexually transmitted, they’re easy to interpret as punishment for promiscuity. People with STIs are often characterized as slutty, dirty, trashy, or stupid and reckless. And when someone is diagnosed with HPV–no matter how confident she is in her choices, no matter how careful she is–she’s faced with the crushing weight of this stigma. She must try her darndest not to internalize it–not to believe that she is being punished for her sexuality, not to believe that she brought this upon herself, or that this viral infection is indicative of poor moral character. This is extremely difficult because no one has prepared her for this, and she will almost certainly go through it alone.

Since HPV and STIs are treated as a shameful secret, we don’t ever talk about what the process of diagnosis and its aftermath is like, and as a result, we never hear what it was like for someone else. We each have to figure out how to cope on our own, in silence, without the comfort or guidance of those who have been there and can understand. There are no celebrity spokespeople for HPV. No star athlete role models. And so very few narratives in television, film, or literature.

It’s rare to see STIs on television. Rather, it’s rare to see STIs on television outside of medical and crime dramas where STIs are used as a “who done it” plot device to reveal some unexpected twist regarding infidelity or some otherwise inappropriate sexual behavior. It’s rare to see a character simply living with an STI–getting diagnosed, experiencing treatment, navigating relationships, and dealing with shame and stigma in every day life. It’s rare, but it shouldn’t be.

HPV is the most common STI in the United States. The CDC approximates that 20 million Americans currently have HPV, with six million new infections occurring each year. (For reference, 20 million people is roughly the population of Beijing, New York state, and the entire country of Australia.) The CDC estimates that 50% of sexually active Americans (men and women) will contract HPV at some point in their lives, although the American Social Health Association thinks it’s closer to 75-80%. For women, the rates are even higher: the CDC estimates that, by the age of 50, at least 80% of women will have acquired sexually transmitted HPV.

So, if at least 50% of Americans will one day have the experience of being diagnosed with HPV, shouldn’t we be doing something to prepare them for that moment so that the bottom doesn’t drop out from under them? Shouldn’t we let them know that this is a shared experience and that they don’t have to feel so alone? Shouldn’t we be working to combat stigma at the social level so that we can reduce the emotional damage it inflicts?

Writing HPV and other STIs into television narratives is a great way to challenge and combat stigma. Especially when the character is able to make peace with the diagnosis, providing a model for the rest of us.

“All adventurous women do.”

In that one glorious sentence, Girls let us know that HPV is common and that instead of a being a sign of poor character, it’s a mark of an adventurous spirit. This one line erases the stigma and reframes HPV as something normal, even positive. “All adventurous women do” allows Lena Dunham’s character Hannah to own the diagnosis, to embrace it, to wear it as a badge of honor. And it teaches the rest of us–all of us girls who have felt the waves of shame and guilt crashing on top of us, suffocating us–that we are okay. That HPV, much like traveler’s diarrhea, is just another part of the experience of being an adventurous woman in the 21st Century.