(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, Don’t 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.