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.