Body Image: Thinking from the Inside Out

June 17, 2011

Close your eyes.

(I just realized, if you close your eyes, you won’t be able to read this post. So – metaphorically speaking, close your eyes. It’s an exercise. )

Envision your body, just as it is – pear shaped, apple shaped, kumquat shaped, mashed banana shaped – whatever it is, the thick thighs and the deflated boobs (that’s me, by the way) – see your body, flaws, muscles, poofs, pudges, dimples, spots, inflammations, bulges, creases, bloats.

Now step into an alternate reality with me and imagine that your body – just as it is – is the ideal form for a woman.

All the magazines suddenly feature models with your breast-to-hip ratio; all the celebrities get their bodies done to have their thighs match the width of yours; and when you walk by the male construction crew, they all nod and whistle and say, “Lookin good, lady.”

Imagine that you do look good. Right now. Just as you are. Just how you are supposed to.

Imagine that your body is perfect, just the way it is. (Now you can close your eyes, stop reading for a second, and see if you can give yourself this mind trip. It really is a trip. A kind of vacation away from the normal ideas you take for granted as factual.)

Now, I’m not addressing here whether my body or your body is in “healthy shape” or not. I know some of you reading this will start protesting with me that you don’t care about looking good, just being healthy, and that the fat or lack of muscle or whatever you know to be wrong with you really is a problem or flaw that needs to be fixed.

I’m not going to argue with you. (Nice of me, huh?)

I just want to ask you to try the mental experiment. Just for today, remove the concept that is corseted around most of our brains that there is something wrong with our bodies if they don’t manifest certain features – minimal fatty tissue, proportions that emphasize our busts, muscle tone that doesn’t admit to any aging. Play Bruno Mars in your head – he’s serenading you – you are amazing, just the way you are.

Try it.

What does it feel like?

For me: Relief.

Relaxation.

Deep breaths.

I’m interested in the body image as an idea that I know I have ingrained in me as a Fact of Life – my breasts are too small, my tummy is too big, my jaw pokes out too much, my eyes are squinty and increasingly surrounded by undesirable puffs of skin.

I might rationally ‘know’ that I’m supposed to not have a negative body image; I’m a lesbian-feminist, for goodness’ sake, with a daughter to whom I want to present the most positive endorsement of female physicality possible. I abhor the sexual objectification of women; I try to stay aware of how I’ve internalized ideas of the ‘right’ way for a body to look.

But I’m a product of this society, and ideas slip under the door of our consciousness all the time.

So, take away the idea your body is wrong – looking at your body from the outside – what does it feel like from the inside? What feels strong, what feels pained, what feels comfortable? Can you construct an image of yourself from the inside out?

This is not happy therapy talk; I’m not encouraging you to love your flaws.

I’m asking you to stop thinking about your body as a separate thing, like a car, that needs to be fixed.

What is your relationship to your body? Do you think of yourself as being in – even stuck in – it, like it’s a jar?

As I try to understand myself as not in my body but as my body – I am my body – any idea of making it being wrong – any part of it being shaped “wrong” – is ridiculous, irrelevant. That would be like a tree wanting to bulk up or slim down, a pig feeling her figure needs to be an hourglass – well, it would seem silly, no? Why? Because they are the shape they are supposed to be, right? Can you apply that logic to yourself?

I have heard people say, have said myself, when disappointed or disgusted with my body – “I just can’t live with myself.”

Well, goodness, how can you live with yourself if you believe that yourself is somehow not okay?

It strikes me that our society benefits from this divide and conquer strategy – dividing us within ourselves, so that we are never comfortable or okay with what we look like. What a transformed world it would be, here in consumer-materialistic land, if we weren’t spending our money and time on endlessly adjusting our appearances…

Try it, for one day at least. Feel your body, yourself, from the inside out – remove the good/bad comparison with the manufactured ideal, and see how you feel. You are perfect. Just the way you are. Try it on. How does it feel?

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What Twilight Tells Us (maybe)

July 14, 2010

One of my favorite podcasts to listen to on long commutes is Mark Kermode’s film reviews from Britain’s Five Live radio broadcast. He’s frumpy and funny and insightful, and complimented well by his sidekick, Simon. I don’t watch movies these days – too busy – but I can certainly listen to these reviews, which are entertaining, whether the movie was great or rubbish.

So, Kermode liked the latest installment of the Twilight series. Unlike some other haughty reviewers, he views Bella’s decision about which guy to go with – werewolf or vampire – not as just a whiny Which Boy to Date melodrama, but as representing her choice about who she is and who she wants to be, what world she belongs to – a deeper question of identity.

I have not seen any of these movies, nor have I read the books.

But this comment struck me, twice:

  1. First, I thought, How Refreshing, not only that the movie actually is more than just about superficial teen attraction, but that this very opinionated guy recognized that, beneath the hype and the hot film stars. Yay for feminism, I thought. Too quickly.
  2. Second, I thought, Yes, but would this story line work in reverse? Would there be a boy choosing which girl to date in the same emotional mood?

That is, why is a girl choosing her life path having to do so through the catalyst of a male/relationship, while a guy would be choosing – what – an action? Which adventure? Why does romance represent the most significant choice a woman makes?

Yeah. Boo, feminism.

I’m glad there’s movies demystifying the male aesthetic, but I want more. I want a teenage boy to get a makeover. I want a teenage boy to weep over his divided heart, and the choices that will have ramifications the rest of his life. I want men to suffer from relationship choices as much as women do. In the movies. In real life.

Do women still see the arc of their lives in terms of love and marriage? Despite all the careerists and working women and all the rest?

Do girls emphasize relationships at the exclusion of their spiritual, financial, and other considerations?

I think – yes. We have only to see the movie to know this – art is imitating life, and life is still true to the usual form. The power balance in relationships remains tilted towards dudes. It’s women and girls who get date raped, who get killed by angry boyfriends or pissed husbands. It’s the female of the species who carries the child to term – or not. It’s the woman who gets paid less for the same work. It’s women who have to contend with stereotypes and malignant assertions if they act at all uncouth, willful, strong, aggressive, and fail to procreate, settle down, domesticate, and send greeting cards.

Men get to be vampires and werewolves – hungry, hunting creatures whose animal instincts drive them and excuse them for their rash and often childish behavior.

Men get off easily (pun intended).

Women are left to choose between them. Or, failing that, to not choose men at all, and live with derisive labels. Or suffer their anger at her rejection.

Are there movies I’m missing?

Am I too callous and cranky?

Let me know. Also, I do want to see the movies. I love vampires and romantic triangles. They get me every time…


Why the Big Eyes?

January 21, 2010

girl with big eyes

Applying Tinkerbell-sized eyes

I have a problem with the big eyes.

[Note: I have small eyes – tiny, beady eyes that I always wished were bigger – it’s a sore point with me, so if I sound slightly bitter, now you know why.]

But even despite my personal hangup, you have to admit that from the Disney princesses to the Dora dolls to Tinkerbell fairy cartoons to all the little dogs and cats and ponies marketed to young children, the eyes are always MASSIVE, completely out of proportion, and bordering on the hypnotic/psychotic/ frightening.

The eyes on Josephine’s Tinkerbell doll take up HALF her face.

Believe it or not, I have a theory! Sure, on the surface, toy designers are probably exaggerating features known to be attractive, the way cartoons tend to exaggerate features as a general strategy to make a character larger than life. We all know big eyes are signs of beauty. So, make them BIGGER and the doll will be REALLY BEAUTIFUL. (Ahem.)

But there’s more than meets the eye (ha ha) if you dig deeper and consider research that looks at iconography and symbols going back into the old stone age and beyond.

Psychologists have found that infants register their mother’s eyes and recognize faces in general by the eyes and maybe mouths – not noses or head shape of anything else – they play a prominent part in forming our earliest imprints of connection.

Anthropologists have used these findings to explain the predominance in the many ancient goddess/mother figures dug up in Turkey and thereabouts, have only eyes, maybe mouths, where the eyes are huge.

Greek religious ikons also feature giant eyes; so do our contemporary imaginings of aliens.

It seems humans tend to attribute mythic, spiritual, special beings – deities, saints, aliens – with the large eyes that connect in our deepest brain matter to our first images of love – our mothers.

I took a film class in college where the instructor showed us a number of films that used iconography to imbue main characters with that supernatural quality – of course, all of the actors in these roles had prominent eyes.

So, go figure – that annoying, horrific, plastic Tinkerbell doll shares her cultural roots with Venus figurines in Mesopotamia and Greek Orthodox Madonnas. The toy and cartoon producers know instinctively what features will make their characters seem extra-special to our children. Too bad the doll is still really ugly.

And can we do anything to promote the idea that people with small eyes can be attractive??