The week before last, I was reading a couple of articles about the Dove ad campaign, “You’re more beautiful than you think.” In essence, the writers were arguing that while it’s tempting to pat Dove on the back for bringing up the fact that most women are overly harsh towards themselves, the ads still send the message that being beautiful is fundamentally important for a woman to have any value in society. (So buy Dove products!) I found myself immersed again in what I call the “body wars,” and I tried to process my frustration by describing, in the absolute plainest speech possible, the conflict that the ad campaign stirred up for me. So what I got was the poem/stream of consciousness piece that I last posted. So far quite a few people have told me that they really connected with it, which is very exciting and gratifying. So I wanted to go a bit deeper into some of those thoughts.
I have been asking myself for a long time: as a woman who is young, white, straight, cisgendered, and normatively able, what do I actually need to look like in order to accomplish my goals in life? In a society that has stringent, narrow standards for what is acceptable, what can I get away with? To “get to the point,” so to speak, to feel safe, healthy, respected, and simply happy, what do I actually have to look like? Is there a functional level of beauty that, once obtained, will make these things possible? Or at least easier to have?
It feels absurd to admit it now, but for the bulk of my high school and college years I sincerely, earnestly believed that if I didn’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model (ok, a very short Victoria’s Secret model), no one was going to love me. Now, where this belief came from, I don’t actually know. Certainly not from my parents. But probably from everywhere else. And this was also a very hard belief to even acknowledge in the first place, for a number of reasons. For one, I knew plenty of people of every age, shape, and size who were in happy relationships and doing just fine. But for some reason, I wouldn’t do just fine. I needed to look a specific way even if nobody else had to. I couldn’t really get my head around that inconsistency in my thinking. Moreover, I eventually understood that I was under dueling pressures.
It’s not just that women are told, in so many ways, that they must look perfect. We’re also told that we have to keep our efforts as out-of-sight as possible. So, you should look beautiful (because that’s your job in society), but it’s vain and shallow to want to be beautiful, or to try. So, be high maintenance (spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars out of your still-not-equal paychecks on beauty products), but try to appear as low-maintenance as possible. Don’t ruin the illusion. (If you want to see some hilarious examples of this phenomenon in action, I recommend reading Cliff Pervocracy’s “Cosmocking” posts, in which she roasts each issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. Actually, come to think of it, you can probably see it at work in just about any typical women’s magazine.)
So, you have a choice, kind of. You can be ‘fat’ and therefore disgusting. Or, you can be ‘thin,’ and be pitiful and shallow. No matter which side of the line you fall on, you’re the target of some kind of criticism. It’s no wonder I felt so conflicted. People who are considered overweight in our society are subjected to all sorts of cruelty that we, unfortunately, have normalized. And people trying to escape that torment (like myself), are seen as a kind of victim or a kind of villain if we reveal ourselves to be trying too hard.
For a long time, I didn’t even realize that all these pressures were operating on me; they just dwelled underneath the surface of my consciousness and ate at me. Meanwhile, food became a secret source of torment, and all my attempts to change my appearance became a secret source of pride, but also a source of shame. One of the most horrible moments that I remember from college was sitting down on the bed in my dorm room and realizing, “all I can think about is food. All I read about is food. I go to class and do homework. And beyond that, it’s only food. I don’t do art anymore. I don’t read for fun anymore. I don’t feel inspired anymore. What could I be doing with this time, what could I be making or learning about, if I didn’t have to worry about food?” By the way, if you’ve ever felt perplexed about what kinds of forces in the world are holding women back, this is one of them. “Body terror,” as I call it, takes people’s lives away from them. In my case, it ate up so many of my cognitive resources that I felt that I could not create anything. In other cases, it takes people’s lives away from them in the forms of disease, starvation, and mental illness.
After all of the cooking, shopping, raw food seminars, food journaling, calorie charts, grueling workouts, post-diet binges and post-binge guilt-trips, a part of me just snapped. “Why?” I thought. “Why am I doing this? Why am I forcing myself to do this?! What is it that I am trying to achieve?” And after some time to meditate on this question, some answers came to me, and they were very simple:
“So you can believe that you are OK.”
“So people will take you seriously and respect you.”
“To feel worthy.”
In my post on spring cleaning, “A Romance of Stuff,” I talked about the idea that once our basic needs are met, most things that we pursue are a means to an end, and usually that end is a feeling. Often some variant of self-acceptance. This was the case for me in terms of the body I was trying to create, just as it was for almost everything I spent my money on.
So how much is enough? What it does it take to feel that way? I think the answer to this question is different for everyone. And it depends very heavily on the people we live with, and what they expect, want, and need from us.
Certainly I had some partners that expressed disdain for how I looked above a certain weight, as a matter of visual preference rather than any concern for my health. But they were by far the exception rather than the rule. When I think about the wide range of people I’ve felt attraction to and affection for, I realize that I’ve never needed them to look like the “inflatable men,” these absurd GI Joe-style caricatures of masculinity. I just wanted them to be well. And that’s not to slam people who naturally look more like cultural ideals or who strive towards them; it’s just that looking that way has not been an outright necessity for me or any of my partners the way I used to fear it would. I had to assume that if I were capable of being in good relationships with people all over the spectrum of reasonably healthy body types, then certainly other people were capable of it as well. So far this has proven to be true over and over again. In fact, the more I date and the more I talk to people about relationships, the more I realize just what a wide spectrum people are capable of being profoundly attracted to. It makes the range of what gets presented as normal and ideal look apallingly paltry.
Moreover, when I think of the people I respect and admire, whether writers, artists, musicians, family members, professors, and so on, I remember that it’s possible to be respected and admired regardless of one’s appearance.
I think it can be so immensely difficult to feel acceptable, safe, and happy, given the incessant stream of criticism that comes from all sides. And sometimes it’s well-intended. We might make comments about someone’s body out of fear for their health, worried that they’re harming themselves with too much or too little food. Sometimes we urge them to make changes because we want to spare them from other people’s hurtful words. But often, to borrow an image from the writer Aravind Adiga, it’s a case of “the chicken coop policing itself from the inside.” Our belief in these ideals is so firm that we feel obligated to hold everyone to them.
I have a certain way that I like to look, but I also want to live in a world where looking that way is not necessary. I want the processes of life to be allowed to happen to me. If I get injured, if I get sick, if I get pregnant, as I get older, I don’t want these things to be a strike against my value or humanity. Of course, a big part of making the world that way is relenting: allowing people to look how they look and be where they are. To try to be respectful and accepting regardless…that is what creates a space of safety for people. And it can be hard to do; I catch myself being judgmental and critical all the time, and I try to forgive myself and change course. It can be hard, but I believe people need to try. So often, I think that feeling accepted and safe in the first place is what allows people to begin caring for themselves and achieving their desired health, not just the other way around. Perhaps by relaxing our demands on the level of “functional beauty” that people need to have to be worthy of our regard, we will all end up healthier for it. That’s my hope at least.