Weighing your options — how much of how we look is a choice?
By Maria Amir
“A woman watches her body uneasily, as though it were an unreliable ally in the battle for love” ~ Leonard Cohen
It often strikes one as odd how our appearance serves as a tangential extension for our being. No matter how hard one tries to locate their “essence” outside of their body and in their mind or dubiously soul, it is usually a futile exercise. We are each a composite of our hands, feet, height, nose shape and bulging thighs just as much as our personal philosophies and ubiquitous quirks. It is a perpetual struggle trying to define, confine and eventually achieve… that elusive “perfect body” and this quest is made no easier when the entire world appears to have a say in what constitutes “perfection”.
I once participated in a rather extraordinary confessional during my study stint abroad. The enterprise involved standing up in front of a class and highlighting what we each considered to be our most significant physical flaw. The class was designed to help us trace the roots of where our physical complexes originated… i.e. media, family, society et al. It was a grueling venture and the eventual goal of being able to overcome one’s self-loathing was not entirely achieved. I discovered that my massive behind, meaty thighs and crooked nose were not all there was to me, but they were certainly all that stood between me ever approaching the chance of a relationship. “Fat” is a state of mind, just as much as a state of body and essentially, body image is most important when you actually let your body become your image. Self-awareness does not always lead to self-acceptance but it may well be a good first step on the road to refinement.
In fact, it is the many myths about the importance of personality and charm, wit and intellect that debilitate the discourse on sexual politics today. Most feminists hope to locate their primary identity in the “smart-but-still-sexy” column rather than the “sex-bomb-who-needs-nothing-else” column, and yet this is not exactly how modern courting works. There are rating scales for attraction and most of the “a number 8 walking towards you at your 9-o-clock” references do not factor in personalities until well into the third date. The question to ask here isn’t one of cynicism but rather of plagiarism — what is considered “sexy” today, when “sexy” can be sold in a bottle, splashed on a magazine and cloned by both girl and guy friends in their respective cliques? When it comes to appearances, is it the fact that we settle for a prescribed definition of how we should look over who we should be, thereby ensuring that the standards for social intercourse will essentially be generic, even plastic?
Personally, I have found that navigating the appearance matrix is debilitating but often necessary. It is one thing to pin your hopes on having a relationship where appearances don’t really count, and it is another to be bitter about relationships because you discover that they often do.
I have always been one of those girls who expanded horizontally rather than vertically: in my twenties I was told I needed to “lose a few pounds”; in my late twenties, I was “overweight”, but somewhere over the past few years I traversed that invisible line between being overweight and fat and finally landed firmly in the “fat” zone. The first thing I noticed was that even the peskiest of relations tend to stop commenting on your weight once you actually are “fat” rather than just getting there. Essentially, you are now beyond help and somehow deserving of quiet sympathy. This isn’t to say people won’t still comment on your appearance but suddenly, they begin to look at your personality more. Perhaps the most annoying pro-choice synonym I have discovered for being fat is “bubbly”. As if the extra poundage somehow magically morphs into excess humor and verbosity.
The reason for my exposing this transition is the exploration of social interaction. I have always resented the idea of being known more for my appearance than my intellect and yet, like most people, I cannot help but gauge other people by the conglomerate of their personalities and appearances. For years I have oscillated between wanting to lose weight and not caring… as long as I was not unhealthy. Then there was the self-righteous resentment I felt when I actually lost weight and suddenly people who had known me for years began to find me attractive. Where was I before? Or did my new jeans size mean a shift in personality? It made me crave the security blanket of excess poundage that kept them away. Layers of fat, somehow serving as a social shield, kept me out of a game I wasn’t ever quite ready to play. I find body image to be a self-effacing and simultaneously self-negating negotiation.
That said, there is a perverse sort of apologism involved in the whole debate. There is simply no getting around the fact that being overweight is something in an individual’s control and thereby “choosing to remain fat” speaks volumes about a person’s state of mind. Sure, there is an integral part of many of us that simply “doesn’t care enough” but mostly it is cowardice that prevents the will to change. Personally, I am someone who has always tended to dream more about my next meal rather than my hypothetical, future boyfriend and so my weight gain – while never appreciated – has never been top priority either. Still, the idea that the extra pounds somehow make me unfit for entire life experiences is a tad jarring. I suppose it all really boils down to that old cliché “Real beauty is on the inside… yes, that’s just something ugly people say”. For who is to really judge whether using one’s looks to get ahead in life is any less crucial or indeed, noble, than using one’s wit or intellect and all the other logical anchors locked away in our personal armory.