Back in May, I wrote a post called “Functional Beauty,” in which I tried to ask, “what do I actually have to look like in order to achieve my goals in life?” This post is similar, however this time around, I want to talk more about those specific goals, and why trying to change my look seemed so crucial to achieving them.
Part of what made my obsession with food and secret problem with binge eating so miserable was the fact that I felt stupid and vain for having them. Going in for counseling felt terrible, because I thought it was a dumb and shallow problem that I was seeking help for. I think if you look at women who are struggling—who are starving, purging, burning themselves out, unable to think of much else—it’s easy to say, “well, they’re trying to change their look,” and it becomes a superficial thing. But it never ends there. Changing your appearance is just the short-term goal. The long-term goal always goes much deeper than that, and usually it has something to do with personal value.
In “Functional Beauty,” I wrote about wanting to feel accepted, to be taken seriously, and to be OK with myself. These are not superficial goals. These are essential for functioning in society. Since writing that post, I’ve discovered even more things that were driving my obsession: having the right look meant being able to speak authoritatively, to be right about things, to challenge people (no small change in an argument-driven environment like the University of Chicago). It meant having the right to be a bitch. To not be happy or friendly all the time, and to choose when I wanted to be nice to people. Probably more than anything, it meant taking myself seriously. You know, thinking of myself as more of a person.
When I look at other people now, and especially other younger women, who are embroiled in this same battle, I realize they’re after many of the same things. Society wants to say (and it’s so tempting to say), “oh, they’re just crazy,” or “oh, they’re so shallow,” but that’s not what this is about. Not for the woman who is so tired of caring for obese parents that she feels horrified of doing that to her own children, but has become afraid of eating. Or for the girl who is going to snap if her mother calls her fat one more time and refuses to buy her clothes over a certain size. Or the woman is who is afraid she will lose her job if she looks too heavy or too old. Or the woman who is afraid she will always be alone and never experience affection if she doesn’t look right. Or the girl who is afraid that if she is too curvaceous, she’ll get assaulted like her sister did. We have a long history of making women “decorative” and trivializing their emotional lives to thank for why these legitimate sources of social pressure get glossed over, written off as vanity or craziness. A purely individual problem. And it certainly doesn’t help the many men who struggle with disordered eating, dysmorphia, or substance abuse for weight control, who then get the double stigma of both vanity and being too much like women.
Changing one’s body isn’t the end in itself; it’s almost always a means to another, more profound end. We want to matter. We want to be valued and taken seriously. We want the right to be important. We want to feel good and happy about ourselves. We want the partners we’re attracted to. We want to be safe from verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. These are not just things that women want. These are things that humans want.
My hope is that by peeling the moral judgment of off women’s (and really, all people’s) preoccupations with their bodies, we can look seriously at the things that are deeply wrong with our culture and see what can be changed. A body is not such a trivial thing to worry about. After all, you are human by virtue of the fact that you have one. And it is what allows you to interact with every other person and thing in the world. The unfortunate reality is that corporations have a chokehold on our mass media. They don’t broadcast messages that don’t make them money, and unfortunately, shame sells. Worship of an elite few and denigration of the many is a formula that generates ridiculous profits. So it’s up to individuals and communities to resist this and set up a new paradigm for how we think about and value each other. It will be a long process. But I think that removing the shame and judgment on our preoccupations with our bodies is going to be a crucial step.