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.
One often hears the expression “feminine wiles”, a tangential reference to an alleged mystical power that women exert over men. It began with Eve and an apple and then the Ancient Greeks introduced sirens. In all examples where women use their apparent attractiveness to exert influence over the opposite sex, the overarching narrative is regarded as scheming. As if the odds are somehow stacked against the other side and hapless generations of men are merely “seduced” beyond their control into attending to every female whim. In the battle of hormones versus hegemony, the former wins… or so we are told. But what of battles where the bets are stacked from the get-go? Why is it that appearances still play such a front-running role in sexual power plays? Men and women planning their wardrobes meticulously to cultivate a personality before they leave their rooms: smart, casual, smart-casual / bohemian, chic, boho-chic / grunge, geek, grunge-geek. Glasses to look smart, purple hair to look edgy, tattoos to look unique and so on. If appearances are nine-tenths of personality then how is it possible to actually deduce personalities in today’s interactions? And when one does come across a rare person who cares about their appearance in “proportionate” proportions… how do you set yourself up in comparison? Sexual power politics rests on partners being able to read each other, but if we are merely reading the front the other has cultivated rather than the personality they are concealing, how effective is the exercise?
Body image is key not so much in how much value it is given by those around us, but also in how it debilitates us in valuing ourselves. There are some who manage to use it to their advantage, a shield of sorts that allows their real selves to shine through because they no longer feel the pressure to look perfect all the time. There are others who cripple their selves trying to look perfect and thereby minimize any tangible sense of self. We are always setting standards and simultaneously setting stumbling blocks for ourselves and others each time we weigh in on the “right” kind of pretty.
Tina Fey pegs such beauty myths rather beautifully in her autobiography ‘Bossypants’ (Little, Brown and Company, 2011) when she says “But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then – what felt like moments later, boom – Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular thighs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful… Aahahahahah. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyoncé and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes that women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have: Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama and doll tits.”
Truth be told, it’s a hard barometer to escape, surpass or circumvent — the idea that we pre-date before our form, that we are all people before we are physical, that we need not wait for perfection before we can expect romantic fulfillment. That unlike Hollywood, real life need not always show the pretty people ending up with other pretty people, while the rest scramble with the leftovers. How does one begin to believe that love, sex, relationships and all the variants in between are founded on interaction and that this interaction is not entirely rooted in appearances? Appearances can be affected, improved, effaced and even discarded when interactions deepen. Psychoanalyst Paul Schilder, first coined the term “body image”[i] in 1935. Schilder acknowledged that society had always placed great value on beauty but also that society’s definitions of what that meant often changed. Moreover, Schilder put forth the idea that a person’s own perception of their body and how they “owned” their appearance held great weight in whether they were considered attractive.
We see it everyday, hounding us on television. “Perfect” faces. “Perfect” bodies. “Perfect” personalities. The Clark Kents and Chris Hemsworths, the Kim Kardashians and Lana Langs. It is those of us who fall for perfection that need fixing, not those who posit it. The idea of perfection is unattainable and, generally, that is its appeal but for those of us who can appreciate a challenge and a challenger, let us have the courage to choose the game less played, with players flawed, passionate, eccentric and exciting.
There is, after all, both attraction and power in imperfection over pretty, petty, pretention. But modern culture, media and mannerisms are doing a great job of diminishing this by positing what is acceptable in appearance in such absolute terms that individuality is generally second-place. Individuality is often considered our generation’s most blatant apologism, reserved for those who cannot compete in the “looks race” rather than those who refuse to. How is it that, when it comes to relationships, the most obvious sexual plays are also the most powerful ones and they are always all about judgment?
Why is it that we always wish to be loved for our flaws while still retaining the right to judge others for theirs?
Maria Amir is Features Editor for the magazine.
[i] Schilder, P. ‘The Image and Appearance of the Human Body’, International Library of Human Psychology, Routeledge , July 30, 1999
[ii] Martin, C.E. ‘Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body’, Free Press, April 17, 2007