January 18, 2006

If a Body Meet a Body Filling up on Pie

Helen has a light-bulb moment with body dysmorphia. Great stuff:

I feel best about myself if I am skipping meals, I buy clothes so large that I am drowning in them. The comments from my boss and additional comments made by a neighbor haunt me.

But fuck them.

I'm not perfect. I'm not gorgeous or a size 4. I'd like to lose some weight and I hope to make that happen. But I need to stop beating myself up that I am less than I should be simply because I am not 100% proud of my body.

This is a subject I understand intellectually, but not at all intuitively; body dysmorphia is something I just haven't got. Some of the reasons I think I escaped it have to do with my psychological makeup; I don't know if you've noticed, but I've got a thin steel wire of "fuck them" laced through my bones, and that's always been how I've reacted to other people putting expectations of any sort on me--often to my detriment ("They say booze is bad for you? Fuck them"), though in the case of body image I think that attitude is mostly a good thing.

Other factors were external. I first read about anorexia nervosa and bulimia in 1981, in this book. I was horrified and mystified; that anyone would choose what seemed to me to be a particularly slow and gruesome method of suicide was not something I could get my head around. Besides, I couldn't then (and cannot now) conceive of food being gross, disgusting, or repulsive. Food wasn't that at all. Food was Sunday dinner pot roasts and hot buttered rolls. Food was Ziplocked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bags of chips and pretzels, and coolers of sodas ferried by my grandparents to La Guardia or JFK to pick up my brother and I, so we'd have something to eat on the 2-hour drive back. Food was . . . food was awesome! Food was fabulous! How could anyone hate food? What did food ever do to them?

But this was 1981. There were no "pro-ana" sites on the web (what web?). There were no girls in my junior high classes frantically dieting off their baby fat. Actresses in the 1970s hadn't been suffering from the gymorexia they all sport now. Some of them were damn skinny, don't get me wrong. But it was a natural, I-just-happen-to-be-a-beanpole-genetically sort of skinny, for the most part; or it was the result of cocaine abuse, and viewed with disgust. So "disgust" was about my reaction to anorexia nervosa. Dieting away your menstrual period?--All together now: Ewwww.

The early 80s were also the heyday of Paulina Porizkova. I first read an interview with her in a People magazine. The interview was conducted in a restaurant; Paulina asked the waiter to bring her the most fattening thing on the menu. She then scarfed down a slice of cheesecake as she explained that modeling was a stupid, boring, but lucrative career, and that she did nothing--no yoga, no aerobics, certainly no dieting--to look the way she did. She was just a happy genetic accident. Or, she speculated, maybe she burned calories through all her "nervous energy."

Modeling needs more Porizkovas. I'd been an avid ooher-and-aaher over fashion models until that interview. I knew the names of the leading fashion models of each decade going back to the 1940s--but that interview was the end of it for me. Deep down, I knew Paulina was telling the truth: Models were freaks of nature. They did nothing to earn their fame except be born lucky, and grow up without suffering disfiguring accidents. It was like looking up to lottery winners, except even more stupid than that, because while I could buy a winning ticket tomorrow, theoretically, and be elevated to lottery-winner status, there was nothing I could do to make myself 5'11", 115 pounds, and unbelievably gorgeous.

I am writing this on the slim (ha!) chance that some young woman wondering whether the pressure to be thin is getting worse or better finds it, because as far as I'm concerned it is getting worse. Young women have it much worse than my generation did, and that is partly the fault of the women before them.

Yes, I said women. You know how much I love to blame the patriarchy for things, and I do blame the patriarchy here, I do. But I've also got to give us all thumps on the head for not pushing back more against the destructive cultural tide at work in body dysmorphia.

In the mid-80s, anorexia was seen, rightly, as a horror--now it's celebrated, and women are among the most fervent celebrants. Who reads web pages like this? Who makes up most of this woman's audience? Who buys magazines with this woman on the cover? That ain't men, ladies. That's US. We need to take some ownership here.

And I'll go out on a real bitchy limb here for a minute and say something that's been on my mind for some time now: I'm a little disappointed in the younger generation of feminists. You're like feminism-lite. You're . . . wimpy. You've brought so much extraneous crap into the mix--you're so worried about classism and ageism and racism and making sure every little i is dotted and every little t is crossed--and you are SO thoroughly wedded to one political party that you alienate women who might otherwise be sympathetic to feminism; thus the basic things, the very fundamental things like, "Maybe it's sick and wrong that our society encourages women to starve themselves," get buried, lost, deferred.

You have way too little "fuck them" in your bones. You worry too much about what antifeminists think of you. You worry too much about what you look like and whether you're popular. You worry too much about trying to educate. You're so busy trying to educate that you have no fight. You write articles about beauty products that are bullshit AND THEN YOU BUY THOSE VERY PRODUCTS. I am not blaming men for that. I am not blaming patriarchy for that. That was you reaching into your purse and paying perfectly good money for perfectly worthless crap. No one, no system, made you do that.

At the risk of being labeled anti-intellectual, let me propose something. Let me propose that body dysmorphia is not rocket science. Let me propose that there is one very simple solution, not to each individual case of body dysmorphia, no, but to society's tacit encouragement of the phenomenon as a whole--and that is to say without reservation or exception, "Fuck them," and mean it from the bottom of your hearts and your wallets.

There is no end of difficult, complex problems in the world--famine, pestilence, disease, war, crime, corruption, and oppression being just a few of them. But by cracky, teaching our daughters and sisters and friends how to flip the finger to skeletal celebrities and the people who encourage us to emulate them is not one of those problems.

All you've got to do is be willing to do it.

Posted by Ilyka at January 18, 2006 12:51 PM in hell is other people

Amen, sister.

Fuck them all.

Posted by: caltechgirl at January 18, 2006 07:48 PM

That ain't men, ladies. That's US.

Too true. Someone did a study - using the helpful statistics that a certain magazine has published every month for nigh fifty years - and found that women who appear in men's magazines weigh on average ten to fifteen pounds more than women who appear in women's magazines. Where the present female ideal of feminine beauty came from I don't know.

Having said all that, ass cream? You're kidding me, right? (Yes, I live alone. Why do you ask?)

Posted by: Pixy Misa at January 18, 2006 09:26 PM

Yes, yes, yes. And double yesyesyes to the paragraph containing this:

...You write articles about beauty products that are bullshit AND THEN YOU BUY THOSE VERY PRODUCTS...

Confession: I cannot read beauty-related posts on feminist blogs. I just can't, because - and I realize this may be unfair - most of them seem to be summarizable as follows:

Our beauty culture tells us that only women who look like Y are attractive. This has women doing the patriarchally-approved action X in order to attain the ideal of Y. This is terrible! Now, I admit, I do X myself. But [I realize that I'm doing it for stupid reasons / I'm actually NOT doing it for stupid reasons, and here's why: ___________ / I'm introspective enough about the whole thing that I know that I'm promoting an unattainable ideal, so give me a cookie.]

Stick a fork in my eye. I mean, call me hopelessly pragmatic, but I can't for the life of me see any real functional difference between doing X because you're mindlessly submitting to the patriarchy, and doing X from a position of enlightenment. Either way, you're still buying bullshit beauty products, and you're still adding another data point to the set of women who use bullshit beauty products, and guess what? The 99.999% of women who see you and don't read your feminist blog are exposed to yet another image of a woman who won't leave the house without her bullshit beauty products, and guess what that makes her feel more pressured to do? I'll give you a hint: the answer is not "Read Naomi Wolf's book on the subject."

But I don't get body dysmorphia, either, so. And I realize that by being so hard on women who play into this crap, I'm holding them to a standard that no one holds men to, and I should cut that out. Besides, it's not like I choose my wardrobe or hairstyle based entirely on what makes me the best feminist role model, either - I doubt anyone does. I mean, I don't wear makeup, and I don't wear ass-hugging jeans, and I don't wear heels, but I am singlehandedly keeping several shampoo companies in business, so do I fall short of my (and your) call to quit promoting unrealistic beauty standards? Hell if I know, but I'm not shaving my head even if you say yes.

Posted by: Moebius Stripper at January 18, 2006 10:08 PM
And I realize that by being so hard on women who play into this crap, I'm holding them to a standard that no one holds men to, and I should cut that out.

Thus my guilt on this post because that's just what I'm doing. Or, as Lauren summarized a post in the last Carnival of the Feminists:

By being born female, and further she argues by being born a black woman, one loses “The Right to Err. The Right to be Wrong Sometimes. The Right to not be Perfect.”

And "the right to be wrong sometimes" is vitally important to me, if only because I'm wrong so freakin' often. It's what one does after acknowledging being wrong, however, that grates my nerves with respect to modern feminism. If AFTER you realize that you've been playing into a bunch of nonsense, you then spend your time making up reasons why it's okay for you to keep doing that, then I'm not too impressed.

Men do indeed get a free pass on a whole host of things, but they are nonetheless generally expected to own their choices--and buying that issue of Glamour or Vogue? Oh, that is definitely a choice.

Someone did a study - using the helpful statistics that a certain magazine has published every month for nigh fifty years - and found that women who appear in men's magazines weigh on average ten to fifteen pounds more than women who appear in women's magazines.

I'd have some nerve asking my host to do research for me Pixy, but if you happen to stumble across that online ever, please let me know. I'll be keeping an eye out myself.

Posted by: ilyka at January 19, 2006 12:12 AM

I did a quick google before posting that comment, but couldn't find it. It's out there somewhere. :)

Posted by: Pixy Misa at January 19, 2006 02:23 AM

I took another look, and turned up something different - studies indicating that about 70% of Playboy models are underweight according to the BMI. Which doesn't necessarily mean that what I said before isn't true, but does leave me a bit confused.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at January 19, 2006 05:49 PM