I never talk about this. Ever. Because it’s something I really, really don’t like about myself.
I have body image issues.
No, I’ve never been “overweight.” I don’t have any kind of scarring to be self-conscious about. I’m not disfigured. In fact, I look pretty normal, slender even, and what should be important is that I’m in good health.
But if I’m perfectly honest with myself, most days, I don’t really like the way I look. I avoid getting my picture taken. I hide behind makeup. I’ve worn a bathing suit exactly three times since I was 13 and never really in public.
There is, of course, the simple fact that I hate having a body at all. I want to be a brain in a vat. I hate the maintenance that comes with having a body – bathing, hair care, having to trim my fingernails, eating, exercising. I’d really rather not do any of it, because it takes away precious thinking time.
Yes, I know this sounds absurd. I’m also not unconvinced I wouldn’t feel this way if I had a male body.
Iris Marion Young wrote this great piece entitled “Throwing Like A Girl” in which she talked about the ways women comport themselves, like how they sit with their legs crossed and try to take up less space, and how they don’t use their bodies to their physical capacity, size, or strength. Instead of being a subject who can harness their body’s power, female-bodied people live their bodies as objects, and they are constantly aware of threats to their bodily integrity and invasions of their bodily space.
I have no idea what it’s like to go through the world with a male body, but as a female-bodied person, I can tell you that I am very, very aware of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of my body. I can also tell you that I am hyperaware that my body is an object I possess, and the negative feelings I associate with this awareness always seem to culminate in my body’s appearance in some way or another.
I don’t know if it’s like this for all female-bodied people or if it exists for male-bodied people, too.
I do know that you hear all the time that the media, the fashion and entertainment industries put social pressure on the female-bodied to look a certain way – thin, busty, plastic, young, etc. And then in the next breath you’ll hear about the latest fad diet or anti-wrinkle cream, or, worse, you’ll hear people judge women who do give in to social pressure and get plastic surgery or who utilize the objectification of their body to get ahead.
This isn’t to say that men aren’t judged too, because they are. It’s just that I’ve heard women complaining about their appearances for as long as I can remember. I’ve heard women talk about wanting to be healthy, when they really mean they want to be thin. I’ve seen women cling to the elliptical machines at the gym for hours on end. I’ve seen women pick at good food while claiming to not be hungry. I’ve seen woman after woman refuse to get their photograph taken.
I know because I’ve done these things too.
And the “positive” response is always some hollow display of “female empowerment” or an idealistic plea for us to all stop judging other people’s bodies or flashbacks to the Renaissance where thin wasn’t in. And yes, it’s great that Seventeen magazine is going to stop airbrushing images and that runway models in Israel now have to meet a certain BMI standard. And of course, we should encourage all children to be proud of their minds and to express their creativity and to be accepting of people and to live healthy lives.
But it’s not so easy as all that.
I’m intelligent. I’m relatively self-aware. I am the opposite of someone trying to seek attention for the way I look. (Really. Luckily it doesn’t happen often, but I absolutely hate being hit on.) I know that my bodily hatred is completely irrational, and that I’m socialized to care about appearances. I’m a Foucaultian after all! But I still have problems with the way I look.
It started for me with a fairy. Yes, Crysta from Ferngully: The Last Rainforestwas the start of the slippery slope down the insidious abyss of self-consciousness. It would have happened anyway, of course, but I pinpoint the beginning of my demise to Crysta the fairy. The movie itself is supposed to send a message about taking care of the environment, but it made a different kind of impact on me.
Ever since I saw that movie when I was 9, I’ve wanted to look like a fairy. This is what my personal conception of beauty is – delicate features, big green eyes, a lithe body, skinny ankles, tiny waist. I wouldn’t even mind wings, to be perfectly honest (and I’d probably need hollow bones, but that’s neither here nor there).
But I don’t have delicate features. I have a prominent nose and a strong jawline. My eyes are muddy bluish-grey and never green enough. I have muscular legs. (I’m not even going to get into the wings. I’ve pretty much given up on those.)
And this isn’t a plea for compliments. It’s about how I view myself. I know that by most contemporary beauty standards I’m not fat or particularly ugly. That’s not the point. The point is that the immediate reaction of people who know me is to reassure me, but that’s still using the standards to placate the feelings of dissatisfaction I shouldn’t even have in the first place. The problem reveals itself in that the immediate place we go when we want to insult a woman is to call her fat or ugly (and I have been called both), because that’s supposed to strike her down even more than being called unkind, disloyal, or cruel – things we genuinely don’t value in anyone.
The thing is, pretty people, thin people, have advantages in this world. Studies have shown that they are perceived as harder working, kinder, more capable, etc. Popular culture celebrates these people, tries to make us idolize these people. The “overweight” girl is always the sidekick. The “overweight” man is only used as comic fodder, never the dramatic lead. The man with the big nose and deep-set eyes is always the villain. Even cartoon characters are abnormally skinny with huge, unnatural eyes and shiny hair. (There are also numerous racial issues in all of this that I’m not getting into here.)
What gets me is the way people talk about girls and women having poor body image is always from this weird, disconnected standpoint, like it’s a problem that can actually be solved by not airbrushing out the pores of models in magazines. Like it’s not pervasive. Like it doesn’t affect the women (and the men) writing and reporting the stories.
Self-worth is measured by appearances in our society, and there are certain beauty standards that don’t just go away with a few Dove campaigns. It’s not that we should stop trying to promote positive body images, but people who fit the standard are always going to win. Eradication of these things would involve completely destroying and rebuilding our culture, how we convey information, even how we make art. It’s not going to go away without changing who we are in a way we probably can’t.
What I’m trying to say is that I have disliked the way I looked since I was 9 years old. This is two decades of near daily preoccupation with something as trivial as a body and hair and a face – an arrangement of atoms – even though I know better. Even though I don’t want other people to even consider me in terms of my body. It’s sick. At this point, I don’t think this is ever going to change because it’s so ingrained in me, especially not as I continue to age. I’m going to spend the rest of my life looking for anti-wrinkle creams and reading nutrition labels.
That’s what I have to accept more than my body, because I’m probably not going to completely reconcile the fact that I’ll never look like a fairy.
And there’s something tragically absurd with that.
 This is a topic for another time, but I basically have an immediate and instinctive fear response to all male-bodied people.