You've likely heard of the body positivity movement, but have you ever considered where the voice fits into it? Our body is our instrument when it comes to singing. As we often have a complicated and sometimes negative relationship with our bodies, much the same can happen when it comes to the sound of our voice, both as we speak and as we sing.
Want to join in on the discussion? Use the hashtag #voiceneutrality
Image by Gerd Altmann
Voice shaming is the auditory equivalent to body shaming. To voice shame someone is to criticize or mock someone for perceived imperfections in their voice. Perhaps you've experienced it yourself, or perhaps you've unwittingly done it to others.
Here is an obvious and common example of voice shaming: You’re a child singing in the school choir. You’re doing your best to follow the music, sing the right words, do the actions and follow the directions your teacher has given you. Later that evening at home, you excitedly show your parents. Perhaps your father snaps and tells you to be quiet because "you can’t sing in-tune" and "you’re giving him a headache". Or maybe you sing at school assembly in front of your schoolmates, and they laugh or mock you.
These examples, whilst they may only last for a brief moment, and may not necessarily come from a place of malice, can be deeply traumatic. Many people shut down immediately and may never feel confident enough to explore singing ever again.
It's not just singing
The way people speak may also make them a target of bullying and voice shaming. Interestingly, these are often traits that are associated with femininity. Men with higher pitched voices are often subject to homophobic slurs, which may make them feel they need to manipulate their instrument with excess tension to manufacture a sound that’s deeper and more “masculine”. Women often face sexism when it comes to their voices with things like up-speak or vocal fry.
Trans or non-binary people face another set of unique challenges as they may experience gender dysphoria around the sound of their voice, or they may be insecure about being “clocked” by others when they speak.
Much like body shaming, voice shaming revolves around a narrow idea of what society deems acceptable and “attractive”. These standards are aligned with a very traditional and simplistic idea of gender presentation, as well as socioeconomic and cultural elements which shape our accents and the way we speak.
In tandem with how the rise of Photoshop has promoted an unattainable standard of beauty, there has similarly been a trend over the past 20 or so years to massively overproduce voices on recordings. Auto-tune was released in 1997 and has now become a standard part of the music industry, and can even be used in live performance. Music production also has the tendency to heavily compress vocals, to the point where they don’t even sound quite human anymore.
Constructive criticism v.s. voice shaming
Singing teachers have a responsibility to not perpetuate language which contributes to voice shaming. Students need to be supported in their growth and learn how to address their vocal issues, but in a psychologically healthy way.
For example, if you tell a student they are singing out of tune, it's rarely a solution to their intonation. Rather, they will instead be too busy listening themselves, or too self-conscious to properly commit to the adjustment in technique necessary to actually sing in tune. Intonation is rarely anything to do with the student's ears, and far more likely to do with mind-body coordination. The source of the issue is usually rooted in breath management, and when you are working on this, the breath needs to be fully released. This surrendering to the breath is very difficult if you feel shamed and afraid of your voice!
For any technical issue being worked on, it always makes more sense to go the source directly and not use a label that could be potentially be damaging to self-esteem. Plus, which will get you faster vocal results "you sound nasal, stop singing through your nose" or "let's work on raising your soft palette a bit more so all the sound is coming through your mouth"?
Voice shaming or criticism that doesn’t come from a place of empathy or tact slows the whole process down, not just because we start to hold our voices back and take less risks, but because voice shaming doesn't give steps for constructive action.
The voice is unique when it comes to musical instruments. Because our body is our instrument, it’s an inextricable part of us. Not only do we use our voice to sing, we also use it to express our basic needs, our thoughts and ideas, to laugh, to scream, to cry.
Each persons’ physiology is different, and when you combine the uniqueness of one’s body with individuality of their background, everything that has shaped that person in their life… it gifts us with a voice that literally has never existed before and will never exist again.
Body positivity emphasizes that all bodies are beautiful, and the movement strives to be inclusive of bodies that are marginalized by society. At the time of this article, there 16.5 million posts for the hashtag #bodypositive on Instagram, and when you consider what performs best on the platform, the movement has become more visual and performative over time. As a result, the perception of what body positivity actually is, has changed.
Body positively now is often equated with positive body image. Having a positive body image means you like the way you look, which is the prevalent message of the hashtag, as the majority of posts are focused on appearance alone. This may come in the guise of models revealing what they look like in flattering vs unflattering poses, makeup or editing-free selfies, or photos of scantily clad people who don’t necessarily fit what body shape is currently in fashion. Given that Instagram world is so visual, the voice has largely been forgotten in the movement.
The problems with body and voice positivity
Self-love, diversity, inclusion. These are wonderful cornerstones of the body positivity movement. But there are some points within body positivity that still perpetuate ideas that can still lead us to feel shame, as well as failing to address the reasons for our underlying body and voice dissatisfaction.
The movement says every body is beautiful, and by the same token, every voice is beautiful in its own way. The issue is that it still equates the notion of beauty with the notion of worth. And this isn’t just in reference to our own self-worth, but our worth in the eyes of others.
Ignoring past programming
Body positivity expects us to just flick a switch in our brain to love our bodies and voices, but it does nothing to address the root cause of effects of body shaming, nor does it help dismantle the systems that attribute to body shaming in the first place. It ignores the fact that there are still messages all around us that tell us we are not enough. Even from childhood, we see movies and that depict the hero as conventionally attractive, friendly, and in the case of singing, as in many Disney movies, the voice is smooth and pitch-perfect. This is a stark contrast from how many of the villains are depicted with voices that may be croaky, nasal, pitchy, etc as a way of communicating that this person is evil or cruel. From little children, we see attractive equals good person and unattractive equals bad person.
There is the message that our perceived attractiveness is an important part of our relationships and how we move through the world. It says that if we have a voice that sounds a certain way, or a body that doesn’t fit a certain standard, that we simply aren’t as deserving of love or respect as someone else who does fit that mold. Romance, adventure, and opportunities are for people who look and sound “attractive”.
When you fail to address the systemic classicism, racism, ableism and all the other sociopolitical elements that make up voice and body standards, it makes it very hard to just immediately push all that aside and fully embrace ourselves positively as if this social programming doesn’t exist. Despite the maxim of “everyone is beautiful”, advertising, movies and TV, the beauty, music fashion industries, and generally society at large says something at odds with this.
Guilt and shame
Not only this, but when we don’t feel positive about our self-image, feelings of guilt can set in. We want to be body positive, and may see the days where we don't feel attractive as a failure. It may feel inauthentic to prescribe to the movement unless we're permanently feeling attractive. To go from feelings of shame around your body or voice, all the way to "I love my body and and my voice", can be a stretch for many of us.
We are complicated beings, and our thoughts and feelings aren’t fixed. There are days you will feel fierce and you’ll carve up like Beyonce during your practice session. But there will also be days when you don’t feel beautiful, perhaps your voice just isn’t cooperating, you have some swelling on your vocal folds, you feel bloated, your skin’s breaking out…
Why is having a beautiful voice and body so important that we feel we need to create movements to help us feel beautiful all the time?
Is being beautiful really the only thing that matters? Is beauty something that needs to be on the forefront of our minds, a social currency? Why do stretchmarks or an untrained voice need to be morphed into something attractive?
Why can’t they just… be.
Rather than adopting a forced positivity which can feel inauthentic at times, especially when we are having a "bad voice day", body neutrality can be useful to first explore our bodies from a place of less judgement. Body neutrality centralizes what our bodies do, rather than what they look like. It also stresses the importance of accepting yourself as a whole person, and that your value is determined by what is inside and not outside. Imperfections, and specifically loving them, doesn’t even come into the equation because perfection doesn’t exist.
There will be days you love your body and your voice and other days that you won’t, but you, your worth and all the amazing things that make you, you, have not changed. It takes off the constant and quite performative need to be feeling attractive at all times.
Singing without judgement
A big ethos of mine when teaching singing is viewing singing as meditation. What I mean by this is that when you are practicing, you determine something specific you want to work on, hone your focus onto one, maximum two things (so for example, “ok, I’m going to sing this line three times as legato as I possibly can”) and focus on this thing without judgement. You remove the need to listen to yourself and criticise as you go; you are concentrating on the sensation of singing itself.
This lends itself very much to the concept of body neutrality. When you are constantly listening to yourself and making micro adjustments, you take away from your ability to actually just release, which is what you need in your singing technique. I use the analogy of a gymnast doing floor work. To do all the complicated flips and turns, they need a run up and then take their first big jump with complete confidence and focus. If they start to second guess themselves or try to start watching what they are doing mid-jump, they won’t be able to land what they are doing. Singing is the same, especially when it comes to things like high notes. If you start to critique and listen to yourself during difficult passages, you will fall on your face.
When you detach from the notion of beauty being important in your voice, you free up a bunch of brain space to commit to the actual process of singing, and therefore improving your voice more quickly. It helps get you out of your own way.
Also, keep in mind that the quality or value of singing isn’t measurable. Singing isn’t like sport, you can’t win at singing. It’s completely subjective. Even super-trained and healthy voices, ones that are conventionally "attractive", you might not find yourself particularly drawn to. And there are some very successful singers that don’t have conventionally attractive voices. I’ve never heard anyone say “wow, Leonard Cohen, what an exquisitely beautiful instrument!”. You don’t listen to Leonard Cohen for vocal mastery, you listen for story-telling. We often berate ourselves for any of our own perceived imperfections but may actually celebrate those imperfections in others.
Our voices have so much more to offer than sound alone, they are our primary means of communication. Through song, we have the ability to transport people to a different time or place, to move them to tears, to entertain them, to help heal their pain. Singing connects us in profound ways as we share in the human experience. This is a truly special gift and transcends anything like singing an off-note.
This blog highlights voice shaming and voice neutrality, and I needed to bring up the accompanying body focused movements for context. I do wonder however, that body neutrality, whilst sounding idyllic in many ways, is too erasive of some cultural elements. Body positivity, before it was manipulated into a capitalist thing, was a movement that was born out of and championed by people of color. To say appearance shouldn’t determine worth is correct, but perhaps in the way that saying “all lives matter” is correct. It derails conversations about racism and dismisses the problems of discrimination that the Black Lives Matter movement fights for. Much the same, perhaps body neutrality is too homogenised a concept and is too dismissive of the body positivity’s roots where the message is not so much, everyone is beautiful, but that marginalised bodies of colour are also beautiful.