Archive | June, 2012

Body Image Part IV: My Choice and Your Choice Entwined

24 Jun

Copyright Folke Lehr(Image ©Folke Lehr)

 

I began The Body Image Series with this question: If we were fully convinced that no one else cared one bit what we looked like, how much would we care?  Would we have any reason to envy conventionally attractive people?  Would weight loss have anything to do with waist size?  Would limb-lengthening still touch on the idea of “blending in”?

 ***

Ten years ago, I attended the premiere of HBO’s Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale along with the other subjects of the documentary.  Upon seeing me, one of the men with achondroplasia asked his friend, “What’s she doing here?  She’s not a dwarf.”

“She had limb-lengthening surgeries to make her taller,” his friend murmured.

 “What?!” he exclaimed. “She cheated!”

I felt myself blush before I could think of what to say.

Immediately, a woman with diastrophic dwarfism, the shortest of all of us, turned to me and said, “I’m on your side, Honey.  No way did you cheat.”

Part of me finds it hard not to laugh when others dismiss limb-lengthening on dwarfs as a “quick fix.”  Breaking bones, stretching them over a three-to-five-month period and then waiting for them to heal for another ten months is not exactly comparable to a boob-job done over the weekend.  Then again, you’d better have a damn good reason to be willing to go through something so intensive and risky.  So, did I do it to function better or, as a former president of Little People of America insisted, to “blend in”? 

I did it to access public facilities—desks, shelves, cars, bikes, kitchen counters, cash registers, ATMs, exercise equipment—without any modifications.  I did it to use public seats—classroom chairs, restaurant chairs, theater seats, train seats, plane seats, toilets, friends’ furniture—without needing foot stools to keep my legs from dangling and falling asleep.  I did it to correct some of my lordosis, so that I wouldn’t need to carry backrests with me to every desk chair I sat in.  I did it to have the extra leverage enabling me to lug more around: bigger suitcases, bigger shopping bags, bigger backpacks, bigger children.  I did it to take bigger steps when walking, so I could cover more ground before I got tired.  I did it so that my weight would be slightly more evenly distributed, making spinal compression less of a danger.  I did it to stop straining to reach the back of my head when brushing my hair.  I did it because the patients I met who had done it were just as happy as those who had not.  Looking back on it all, this was definitely reason enough for me, regardless of whether or not it is for others.  But I can’t just leave it at that.

In my last post, I argued why there is no right way to hate your body.  In my experience, you can take dramatic measures to alter your body without hating it.  Indeed, the work you put into it can and should be an act of love, not desperation.  The night before my first limb-lengthening surgery, I kissed my old legs goodbye.  I was willing to let them go, but I kissed them all the same.  Yet many if not most outsiders assume that dwarfism is a visible difference the patient must want to erase.  After all, trying to argue that you don’t want to blend in, even though you will blend in, sounds like you’re trying to circle a square. 

So why not just say that limb-lengthening was my personal choice and my choice doesn’t affect anyone else?  But it does.  By blending in, I automatically relieve myself of a good deal of prejudice, of stares, of awkward reactions.  I have fewer questions to answer from people on the street and fewer chances to educate them.  By blending in, I’m breaking ranks with the dwarf community to some degree.  That’s nothing to sneeze at when considering that before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, dwarfs had an unemployment rate of 85% in the U.S. all because of lookism.  By blending in, I am contributing to the trend that may make limb-lengthening a fashion for people with dwarfism.  Both politics and beauty standards measure strength in numbers. 

In the late 90s, my first femur surgery was filmed for a feature about limb-lengthening on the American news show 20/20.  The interviewer asked a 12 year-old patient with dwarfism, “Did you do it to look normal or to function better?”

Without missing a beat, the boy answered, “So that I could function better.  I don’t care how I look.  I just want to do what everyone else can.” 

Sitting at home watching, I raised my fist in solidarity and whispered, “Right on, kid.”

In the follow-up commentary, Connie Chung reported, “He has since finished the procedure to combat his dwarfism.”

I shot up in my seat in disbelief: “COMBAT?!” Was that the automatic assumption?  I wasn’t in a battle against my dwarfism, and obviously neither was this patient.  I was working with my body, not against it!  I realized then that it was important that others knew this if they were going to know that I chose limb-lengthening.

We may someday live in a world in which every candidate for limb-lengthening makes the same decision I did and in doing so, makes the world a less physically diverse place.  I will accept such a world, since my own efforts to function better have helped contribute to it.  But I won’t make any arguments advocating such homogeneity.  If my dwarfism and limb-lengthening have taught me anything, it is that it’s far more important for me to argue that beauty is about so much more than blending in. 

Deep down inside, every one of us wants to be conventionally attractive to some degree, because life seems easier that way.  We love the idea of throngs of people admiring us, envying us, falling hard for us at first sight.  It makes us feel fantastic on a visceral, heart-thumping level to be praised for our looks.  But if everyone agrees that there’s more to love and romance than conventionally good looks, what is the point of having broad appeal?  During the years when my curly hair reached my backside, I enjoyed the compliments but they were always the same, regardless of whether they came from friends or strangers.  My short, round achondroplastic hands, meanwhile, have garnered a lot more attention to detail.  My dad always called them “starfish hands.”  A guy in college examined them and disagreed: “They’re Maggie Simpson hands.”  Another amended it with a giddy squeal, “They’re finger-painting hands!”  When I began my final limb-lengthening procedure, a guyfriend in high school nicknamed me “Legs” because I had the most expensive pair around.  Who needs broad appeal when you have genuine affection?  What better proof is there of such affection, of people’s capacity to look beyond convention than their fearlessly falling in love with features they’ve never seen before?

If I deeply regretted having dwarfism, then limb-lengthening would indeed be an extreme measure taken to offset severe personal insecurity, and that would be a major cause for concern. Hating my looks so profoundly would impact other dwarfs’ perception of their own looks.  This is why I blog.  I don’t want to live in a world where anyone is pressured to change their body just to be accepted, and I don’t want my story to be misused to contribute to the forces pushing the world in that direction.

This is not to say every person who is born on the margins should turn their life into a 24-hour political cause.  Trans individuals should never have to answer invasive questions about their bodies any more frequently than cis individuals should.  LGBT people should never be pressured to come out.  Black Americans shouldn’t have to put up with strangers and acquaintances trying to touch their hair all the time.  The right to privacy is a human right. Your sex life, your income, your medical records, and your body are all matters you shouldn’t ever have to submit to anyone’s microscope if you don’t wish to.  But if we do open our mouths, we have to take responsibility for the consequences.   

When I choose to talk about my body and my choices, it feels to me like I’m talking only about myself.  But others are listening for how it all affects them.  If they don’t care about me personally, it’s their only reason for paying attention.  It’s the only reason we read novels and newspaper articles and blogs about strangers’ lives.  We’re searching for something we can relate to, and if we can’t relate, we at least want to know how other people’s choices are shaping the world we live in.  Opinions such as “I was so gross when I weighed x pounds,” or “I can’t wait to get rid of these hideous scars” both reflect and influence the society comprising us all.  We love taking credit for our words when others agree or are inspired by them.  But if someone raises the possibility of our statements having a negative impact on others, the temptation to shirk all responsibility for others is strong.  But we can’t ever shirk it.  That’s cowardly.

This doesn’t mean we must accept others offhandedly judging our most complex decisions.  Unfortunately, no matter what we say or how carefully we try to shape the argument, there will always be those out there who judge before hearing the end of the sentence.  Putting more energy into brandishing our opinions than admitting what we don’t know is also cowardly. 

A friend I met in the hospital was ten years-old and in the midst of limb-lengthening when a woman with dwarfism approached him at a train station and told his mother, “You are RUINING your child’s life!  How could you do this to him?!” 

When the conversation was over, my friend’s mom asked him, “So what did you think of that?”

He replied, “I think you shouldn’t talk to strangers.” 

We are talking to strangers when we publicly discuss our personal decisions, and the Internet is blurring the lines between public and private discussions faster than ever.  As decision-makers, we cannot discuss our choices and our views free from any responsibility for the effect they will have on others.  As observers, we cannot accurately judge others’ decisions at face-value, free from the burdens of learning. 

During the seminars I taught about dwarfism and limb-lengthening to classes of middle school and high school students, I would write the following quotation on the chalkboard, paraphrased from a French magazine article in which I was featured as a child: 

Society does not physical accept differences easily.  Without a doubt, that is society’s fault.  But who should change?  Society or the dwarf?  For the dwarf to change, she must undergo years of painful surgeries and intensive physical therapy, risking many complications.  For society to change, it must alter its way of thinking.  Who suffers more in the change?  Which change is harder to achieve?

Every single one of the fifteen-odd classes I taught gave the same answer.  To the first question: The dwarf suffers more.  To the second question: Society is harder to change.

But my experiences with dwarfism and limb-lengthening have inspired me to try to change both.  As best as a bossy girl from Long Island can.

 

 

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Body Image Part III: Mirror Etiquette

17 Jun

mirror(Image by Trixi Skywalker used under CC 2.0 via)

 

After picking apart the unhelpful things we often say about others, I now move on in the third installment in the Body Image Series to the unhelpful ways in which we talk about ourselves…

 ***

Two moments in the Wonderful World of Body Image:

ONE: A woman sitting in the waiting room at my surgeon’s office reveals a leg perfectly tanned, as well as dotted and streaked with fresh scars from an Ilizarov fixator.  Our surgeon walks by on his way to radiology and flashes her a grin: “Lookin’ great there with that fixator finally off!”  She calls after him without a hint of joking in her voice, “Yeah, but God!  What am I supposed to do with these hideous scars?!”  She has about a quarter as many scars as I do.

TWO: One of my mom’s oldest friends flips through a photo album with me from back when she and Mom were my age.  Every other photo of herself elicits a moan:  “God, look how fat I was!  Omigod, look at that tummy.  Ick, what a fatso!”  In every photo, she was thinner than I’ve ever been, save for my limb-lengthening years spent on heavy painkillers.

Trashing one’s own body in front of others is so commonplace in Western female culture, I’ve yet to meet a single woman who hasn’t done it at least a dozen times since puberty, if not yesterday.  But it should come as no surprise that whenever you talk about something as self-centered as your body image, your listeners instantaneously have a self-centered reaction, wondering how they fare in your line of judgment.  If you hate it on yourself, why would you think it looks good on others?  (Indeed, there are scores of studies showing that mothers who vocally criticize their own bodies have daughters with unhealthy body image.)  This is why trashing your own body is perhaps the most impolite, if not irresponsible, of all our social customs.

Eating disorder survivor Chloe Angyal has given us the revolutionary battle cry: “There is no right way to hate your body.”  This has to be true if we believe that everyone is beautiful in their own way­.  If we can’t swallow it, it means we can’t let go of competing with others.

In 2002, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon declined the invitation to be photographed for People magazine’s List of 50 Most Beautiful People, arguing that fitting the magazine’s criteria for the list shouldn’t in any way be considered an achievement: 

I don’t give a shit [about it] … I only take pride in things I’ve actually done myself. To be praised for something like that is just weird.  It just felt like somebody calling and saying, “We want to put you in a magazine because the weather’s so nice where you live.” 

I know only a few women who would pass up the opportunity to be rewarded for their looks as he did. 

Women usually trash their bodies in front other women not out of malice but because we are culturally conditioned to build close friendships by sharing our most personal feelings.  The (liberal) mantra, “Don’t bottle it up inside!” is a constant hammer to the floodgates.  And so we hear: “I can’t be seen without my makeup!”  “Why can’t my gray hair grow in evenly?”  “I’m so fa-a-a-at!”  Yet with all this sharing of body-oriented self-hatred, no one manages to make each other feel better. 

If I say, “God, I talk loud on the phone,” or “Yuck, you can tell I had no time to brush my hair!” anyone who disagrees with the complaint can say so, and anyone who agrees can tease: “Eh, we’ve gotten used it.”  If, deep down inside, my self-deprecation was a circuitous check to see if I really am that bad, I can consider if the teasing is a reason to try to change my habits.  Life is, after all, about learning how to be both a happier and a more tolerable human being. 

But bodies are different.  Any choices we have about changing them are limited, and they are entangled in visceral feelings about our attractiveness.  If I say, “Ugh, my dwarf cheekbones are so low!” or “My nose is so ugly!” no one should agree with me out loud.  Even if silently they do.  (I didn’t notice how low they were, but now that you point it out…)  The only acceptable confirmation of these statements must come in the form of protesting praise: e.g. “I love your nose, it reminds me of [insert name of famous and attractive person here].”  Otherwise, etiquette demands protesting the statement altogether: “No!  Your cheekbones aren’t low at all!”  This may or may not be a lie, but in any case, it supports the idea that low cheekbones are something to lament.  Anyone who wouldn’t think the cheekbones in question are low because theirs are lower suddenly feels paranoid, if not miserable.  So all this body trashing is an obstacle to honest sharing, rather than a path to it.    

And to complicate matters more, some share their deepest body image issues with each other and then use them against each other when feeling competitive.  (“I can’t believe he went for that fat/bony slob!”)  Anyone who obsesses about her body secretly knows how harshly she herself judges the bodies of others in moments of weakness (“At least I don’t look like that!”) and fears that others judge her the same way.  This is, of course, a chicken and egg scenario: maybe the self-hatred comes from judging others or maybe the judging others comes from self-hatred, but in any case, the only end to the cycle is to stop trashing bodies, both others’ and our own.

During my limb-lengthening procedures, my friends at the hospital would commiserate about all the things our bodies were going through.  (“Are your legs getting hairy, too?  The doctor says it’s because of the increased blood-flow caused by the healing.”  “Can you see inside your leg when they remove a pin?”  “Would you have your torso lengthened if you could?  I wonder how that would work…”)  But our complaints never touched on our looks.  Even in therapy group, all our venting was about pain, nausea, restrictions on movement, living away from home, dependency on others, or the procedure taking longer than it was supposed to.  All our jealousy was directed at those who had less pain or a quicker recovery.  Perhaps it was because we had enough to worry about trying to reach our physical therapy goals, keeping infections at bay, forcing ourselves to eat, and constantly trying to get comfortable.  Or perhaps it was because so many of us were pre-pubescent kids not yet initiated into the adult world of body competition.  Or perhaps beauty standards are automatically less restrictive for groups with true body diversity.  In any case, the woman in my surgeon’s office—who looked to be anywhere between 30 and 45—was the first patient I heard complain about what the procedure did to her looks.

We all want to be attractive, but the only way to avoid insulting others is to expunge everything that makes beauty a competition.  The editors at Offbeat Bride ban all discussions about weight loss or body insecurity on the forum, and I don’t think anyone has suffered as a result.  Celebrating more progressive, inclusive and creative beauty standards can be helpful—more on that next week—but minimizing the attention and importance we afford our lookist insecurities should be a goal, if anything because all this self-scrutiny is fantastically vain.  As Peggy Orenstein has said, mainstream girlie-girl culture too often mistakes self-absorption for self-confidence.  The most self-confident women I know obsess over their bodies at about the same low frequency self-confident men do.  And like the men, they don’t bristle or burst into tears at any form of affectionate teasing.

A healthy ego owns its fears instead of demanding others allay them.  Pointing out our own supposed imperfections can be constructive as long as it’s intended to elicit nothing but giggles, with no hint of fishing for compliments, of shaky self-esteem, or of competition.  In our high school yearbook, a friend listed under his Wishes For The Future, “Smaller ears, bigger teeth.”  And so I threw “Tiny Teeth!” back at him whenever he would shake his head at me and sigh, “Once again, you smile and your eyes get all thin and pointy!”  The harder I laughed at him, the pointier they got.      

As said before, when we tell our loved ones how beautiful they are, it’s a testament to the sum of their parts, to the combination of their perfections and imperfections.  When we’re mad about someone—not just attracted to them, but truly mad about them—their beauty makes them entrancingly divine and their flaws make them adorably human.  Perfect lips enveloping crooked teeth create the tension and contrast that makes the human body a work of art. 

Two moments in the Wonderful World of Healthy Relationships:

ONE: A friend is leading a seminar about American immigration and heritage.  “People from Scandinavia tend to be blond-haired and light-skinned, but they tan.  People from the British Isles are so pale, they look like they just crawled out from under a rock.”  She smiles at me.  “You’re British, aren’t you?”  My laughter is drowned out by my classmates’.

TWO: A friend was told by her fiancé: “You have such huge eyes and a round face.  It’s like Thomas the Tank Engine.”  She prints out a photo of the train and mails it to him while he’s away on a business trip, so that he won’t forget her.

 

 

Body Image Part II: The Rules for Snark

10 Jun

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Last week I went after talking about others’ bodies for the sake of analyzing what you can’t be attracted to.  Today I’m going after talking about others’ bodies for the sake of musing, or amusement…

Anyone who insists they never make fun of others behind their back is lying.  We all do it, and to the extent that snark is now rivaling porn as the Internet’s raison d’être.  Every bit of our outward appearance—our fashion choices, our speaking styles, our assertiveness or timidity—it’s all out there for others’ scrutiny and all of us pick targets when we’re in the mood, sometimes at random, sometimes with a purpose.  Just take the example of weddings.  I bet there’s at least one wedding you’ve seen that looked ridiculous to you.  Alternative brides think, Wear an expensive dress if that’s what you’ve always wanted, but it’s still vulgar materialism.  And the mainstream brides think, Dont wear a white dress if you don’t want it, but you just want attention for being anti-everything.  While others simply think, Purple.  Yuck.  Or something to that effect. 

In wedding planning as in our everyday fashion, what we choose is a comment on what we don’t.  No one’s choice is in isolation of everyone else’s.  To dress like a punk or to dress like a cowboy, to speak a local dialect or to speak like a newsreader, to try to fit in or to try to stand out are all decisions we make that usually reflect both our tastes and our beliefs.  We give others’ decisions either the thumbs up or thumbs down accordingly.  As I’ve said before, it’s fair game when beliefs are targeted, because we should all take responsibility for our beliefs.  But too many of us make no distinction between the elements of someone’s appearance that reflect their beliefs, and the elements that reflect their biology.  

Many of my friends and family, along with most commenters on TV or online, see little difference between making assumptions about others’ clothes and making assumptions about the bodies they cover.  Just as they’ll assume the slick suit must belong to a businessman and the lady in shorts and sneakers is American, they’ll assume the particularly skinny woman must be anorexic, that the man whose hands shake must be an alcoholic, that the young woman who collapsed must be either diabetic or pregnant, that the large child over there getting his breast milk is obviously too old for that, that chubby guy over there is certainly overweight and should lose a few pounds, that the poor kid with acne isn’t using the right medicine.  Sometimes these flimsy diagnoses are voiced as expressions of sympathy or intellectual exercises à la Sherlock Holmes, sometimes they are dripping with self-aggrandizing pity or snarky complacency.  They are always unjust because, unlike quips about clothes or tattoos or cell phone ringtones, comments about another’s body have little to do with choices anyone has made. 

As someone who’s undergone limb-lengthening, I can of course attest that there are a few choices we make about our appearance.  But while I chose to try to add as many inches as possible to my height, I didn’t have much of a choice about how many inches I could go for.  (I gave all I could in physical therapy, but in the end, my ticked-off muscles stiffened and decided the limit for me.)  Nor did I have much of a choice about my anterior tibialis tendons severing on both legs, which now makes me stumble on average every few weeks and makes dismounting from a bicycle dangerous.  (After two surgeries to repair the tendons and three years of physical therapy, they remain weak.)  Nor have I ever had any choice about my hips swaying when I walk because the ball-and-socket hip joint in achondroplastic people is shaped like an egg-and-socket.  Skinny friends with hypoglycemia, heavy friends with slow metabolism, and friends with diastrophic dwarfism—whose growth plates do not respond to limb-lengthening—can also attest that any choices we make about our bodies are always limited.  Discussing these choices is important, but strangers assumptions about them are usually way, way off.

It is because I know so many kind, loving people who analyze strangers bodies that I wasn’t at all surprised by the nasty ruminations over her “puffy” appearance that Ashley Judd so awesomely bucked in Newsweek earlier this year.  And I’m only half-surprised by the website Too Big For Stroller, where people post street photos of children who appear to have outgrown the transport and smirk about what idiotic parents they must have.  In his essay, “Broken Phantoms,” Robert Rummel-Hudson writes beautifully, harrowingly about the unfair judgment strangers often heap on individuals with rare disabilities whose symptoms are less visible.  He went after the Too Big For Stroller crowd and summarized their defense arguments thusly: 

However many kids with invisible disabilities might be made fun of or hurt by that site, they are acceptable collateral damage, because some of them are probably lazy kids with weak parents, and they must be judged.

“Acceptable collateral damage” is the word I’ve been searching for my whole life.  It’s how Jason Webley downplayed the rights of “the few conjoined twins in the world” in light of his Evelyn Evelyn project.  It’s how so many minorities are dismissed as annoyances in our majority-rules society by the vacuous, relativist claim, “Everyone’s going to be offended by something.”  Which is another way of saying, “We can’t consider everyone’s rights.” 

All of us make automatic, silent assumptions about others’ bodies, often trying to figure out how we ourselves measure up, because we are all insecure about our bodies to some degree.  But the ubiquity of these thought patterns and the rate at which they are voiced is the problem, not the excuse.  There’s probably a list of catty things I’ve said the length of a toilet roll, but I try to stop myself from diagnosing strangers’ bodies, if anything out of awareness of my own vulnerability to inaccurate assumptions.  A few years spent in and out of hospitals also taught me what the hell do I know about where they’re coming from, and we all think enough unproductive thoughts about others’ physical appearance as it is.  In an essay about me and my scars, Arthur W. Frank writes that when we see someone who looks either unattractive or pitiful to us, our first thought is, “I’m glad that’s not me.”  And our second thought is, “But if it were me, I’d get that fixed.”

This is, of course, more than anything ahope.  We hope we would be different in the same situation.  But we’re afraid we may not be, and this fear causes us to quickly deflect the problem onto someone else.  Why not the person who just upset our delusions of normalcy?  So we and our supposedly meritocratic society nurture this idea—“I wouldn’t be like that”—as a justification for being judgmental.  Whether or not we voice these assumptions is indeed a choice we make, and whether or not we add any hint of judgment is yet another.   Whether or not this is fair is often debated on a case-by-case basis, but anytime anyone insults someone else’s body, it is a demonstration of their own insecurities.  Period.   

We’re all constantly judging one another and judging ourselves in comparison to one another.  This can be fair game when we stick to focusing on the mundane decisions we all make.  There is a world of a difference between quipping about fashion choices with head-shaking amusement—Sorry, Eddie Izzard, but sometimes you do not know how to put on makeup—and allowing our personal insecurities to fuel pity or disdain for others’ apparent physical imperfections.  There is no fair way to trash someone else’s body because, for the most part, your own biology is neither your fault nor your achievement.

 

 

Body Image Part I: The Ick Factor of Certain Bodies

2 Jun

Contemporary pair(Image by Luca Rossato used under CC via)

 

“Did you do it to function better or to look normal?” 

This is Number One question about limb-lengthening for people with dwarfism, and it opens the Pandora’s box of Body Image, a topic that, no matter who you are, lends itself to resolution no more easily than does Religion.  But as I begin a series on the depths of our own feelings about our bodies, I want to first tackle the biggest influence of our self-worth: i.e., others’ opinion.  After all, if we were fully convinced that no one else cared one bit what we looked like, how much would we care?

The answer to that may not be easy, but the Number One reason why any of us care what others think about our looks certainly is.  It’s all about Dating.  Getting laid.  Finding a mate.  Every parent of a child with dwarfism is warned at Little People of America meetings that whatever ostracizing goes on in elementary school will be outdone by the perils of puberty.  The mainstream often dismisses this as an unfortunately natural stage of development, but people designated as minorities by the mainstream know that it is merely an introduction to what lies beyond adolescence.  Too often the adult world dodges any responsibility it bears for the lookism young people embrace. 

Whether following conventional or unconventional beauty standards, adults obsess over unattractiveness.  We are simply less blunt than teenagers, but therein all the more insidious, disguising our trashing of others as the (pseudo-)philosophy of having a “type”:  

I just need a really well-built man.  I can’t get into skinny guys.” 

I mean, I don’t want to be taller than my man.  No one does.” 

I’d honestly be grossed out if I found out my date was transsexual.

I do not like hairy bodies.” 

Whatever.  We all do it, but we do it way too much.  Most of us can see patterns to our attractions, but the more we talk about it, the more we cultivate it in our minds, convincing ourselves that it’s what we need in order to be turned on.  Which at best really does nothing—does it really help to weed out people in a crowd based on their bodies before we even talk to them?  is there some efficiency to dating that you get points for?—and at worse, limits our experiences and nurtures the dangerous misconception that beauty standards are immovable objects. 

A coworker of mine once claimed, “I’m not racist, but I’m just not attracted to black girls.”  Dude.  Forgetting for a moment that starting any sentence with “I’m not a racist, but—” is possibly one of the least convincing ways to exonerate yourself, are you sure of this because you’ve never been attracted to black girls before?  By that logic, I’m just not attracted to Slovakian guys.  Or Sri Lankan guys.  Or Cornish guys.  Or Oklahoman guys.  Or… wait a minute, this could go on for a while.  Even if you are set in your ways and for some reason believe this helps you, what good does it do to voice it? 

Granted faces and bodies evoke visceral feelings that transcend reason.  Attraction itself is never a choice.  But history has proven that disgust at the idea of interracial or international relationships is the result of social conditioning, and likewise homophobia, transphobia, lookism and ableism thrive thanks to the open support they are given in the media and in everyday conversation.

The battle against lookism is too often dismissed as hopeless by the simplified assertion that “people like to look at pretty people, end of story.”  Yes, we do.  But the definition of “pretty” is too often assumed to be universal, somehow rooted in our biological urge to choose a mate whose genes are resilient.  Studies of history and across cultures prove the definition is socially constructed.  Pale has been considered at times beautiful and at other times sickly.  Tan has been sometimes seen as gorgeous and other times derided on racist grounds.  Round and curvy is sometimes good and sometimes bad.  Skinny is sometimes good and sometimes bad.  Our supposedly “natural” repulsion at signs of unhealthiness is as random as fashion itself, often disenfranchising disabled individuals while simultaneously promoting faces injected with poison, lungs too constricted to breathe properly, bodies too lacking in fat to menstruate, not to mention blue and green eyelids.  Mentioning our repulsion at others’ natural physical features can be so unproductive, so paranoia-inducing, so ultimately responsible for others’ self-hatred.  This why I admire anyone who fights whatever temptation they have to describe what they dislike by instead describing what they love. 

When we tell our loved ones what exquisite hair or adorable hands or gorgeous eyes they have, it’s more a display of affection than a statement of what we require to be intrigued.  When we tell someone, “You are so beautiful,” it’s a testament to the sum of their parts, the combination of their perfections and imperfections.  And there’s nothing wrong with discussing styles or personas one finds attractive.  Gentle voices, deep voices, explosive laughter, sly eyes, short hair, long hair, a graceful step, a firm step, an assertive look, a cool stance; understanding why any of this draws one in leads to more awareness of one’s own character.  It also sparks dialogue that challenges the bland beauty standards of the day. 

But someone’s physical traits alone are superficial—not to mention transient—and placing any real value on them is shallow.  We all have our shallow sides, but we should be embarrassed to advertise them too openly, the way sitcom directors should be embarrassed to have the audience squeal when two characters kiss.