Janet (j4) wrote,

She's a perfect 10, but she wears a 12

Body image is a strange thing. Just been chatting to simonb in real life, and then read his latest journal entry. It always amazes me how many of the gorgeous people I know have such a low opinion of their own bodies (Um, those who don't have body-image issues, this doesn't mean that I don't think you're attractive! -- just so's you know).

I've answered Simes's poll, but what I really wanted to do was say "Simes, you're gorgeous. Stop being such a muppet." On the other hand, I don't think I have much right to tell him he's being daft, when (as I just told him) I have the same problem.

I think of myself as "short and fat", and have done ever since I was a teenager. Okay, so at 5'1" I don't have much problem with being described as "short". But fat? Well, when I acquired this body-image that I have, I was about a size 16. Sure, that's not fat, but it's chubbier than I wanted to be at the time, and at my height I can't carry excess weight very well; and it did make my face look awfully round and babyish, which made me awfully insecure -- it's hard to feel grown-up when people keep asking you your age for 15-rated films. Most of my friends were happily getting served in bars at the age of 14 (I'm not addressing the issue of whether or not I think that's a good thing; it's just what was happening); I couldn't see over the bar. The combination of this and the feeling that I wasn't trusted with very much independence at home (in retrospect, I can see a lot of the reasons for this a lot better than I could then) made me feel like I was a bit of a baby compared to my peers. But more importantly, the fact that I didn't seem to be able to be attractive to the people I most wanted to attract at the time -- tall, slender women -- seemed, to my teenaged logic, to be the fault of my features being the opposite of what I considered to be desirable. The fact that most of the tall, slender women I knew were a) teenagers in an all-girls school, where admitting to fancying women was social suicide, b) as insecure as I was, and c) probably straight anyway, never seemed to enter into the equation.

Anyway. Currently I weigh somewhere between 9 and 9.5 stone (we don't have any scales; I was 9.5 stone at Christmas, but I did eat a lot more than usual over the Christmas period), and my stats are something like 36-27-35. There's no way anybody could call that "fat"; I'm never going to be skinny, but that's partly because of my chest, which (to be quite honest) I don't want to get any smaller. ;-) But bits of my body still look huge and ugly to me -- maybe it is all muscle, but unless I'm actually flexing my pecs my upper arms look (to my biased eyes) like big saggy bags of lard. Ditto my thighs, and to a lesser extent my calves (they don't look fat, but they do look bulgy -- perhaps I should just cut my losses and buy a gym-skirt, and remind myself that some people really go for that Phys. Ed. teacher look...).

The main problem isn't in my body, though, but in my head. The little bit of my mind that automatically says "short and fat" when asked for a description of me would probably still be saying that if I was a size 8 and could miraculously add an extra 6 inches onto my height.

People who are trying to lose weight often find it really offensive that I should have issues about my weight. Thin people aren't allowed to have body-image issues -- after all, thin == happy, right? It's a Well-Known Fact(tm) that all women's problems -- and some men's problems -- could be solved if they could only do up the buttons on that size 10 skirt from Monsoon.

Who said "Beauty Myth" at the back there? Clever man. You win the china horses and the cuddly toy.

I'm not going to go into the cultural history of body image -- I'm not going to sing the praises of the cultures where excess body-weight is a coveted sign of prosperity and fertility, or equate foot-binding with the REPRESSIVE PHALLIC COMPETITIVENESS OF THE PATRIARCHY ("smaller == less of a threat"). For one thing, as you can see, I'd be unable to finish a sentence without descending into self-parody. But I do worry where it's all going to end. We may think we're in an enlightened age where women no longer have to wear elaborately engineered constructions of corsetry in order to be considered a worthy marriage-prospect, but in reality very little has changed. It's still a rare occasion to see a woman bigger than a size 12 in a mainstream magazine (unless she's being exhibited as an overweight freak), and now men seem to have bought into the beauty myth wholesale as well. In fact, men seem to have an even more difficult line to walk, between the muscularity that's required of them to prove their masculinity, and the health-consciously slim image that the New Man has to display.

(Yes, we're into the realm of gross generalisations. But you only have to glance at any aspect of mainstream culture to realise that they're not unfounded, and they're not even that much of an exaggeration.)

The problem is, the discrimination has become more insidious. Everyone is quick to say that "fat is beautiful", even as they wrap that size 8 Versace jacket a little closer around them. "Fat is great... I just, you know, prefer to be thin." And the trump card these days is health -- "I'm not saying that being fat is ugly, just that it's unhealthy." The problem is, health depends on a lot of other factors which we can't see -- BMI is only part of the picture. For one thing, the girl whose ribs stick out further than her tits is just as much at risk of high cholesterol as a voluptuous size 24; and that's even before you get into the issue of how much muscles (which most people would agree aren't a bad thing) can affect body weight. (Not that the perpetrators of the Beauty Myth are interested in muscles on women -- they're probably "unfeminine" or at best "tomboyish", and therefore outside the remit of Female Beauty.)

Then, of course, as previously mentioned, there's the backlash. The eternally-slim are often vilified by the supposedly egalitarian Anti-Beauty-Myth contingent because they are perceived as conforming to mainstream ideas of beauty -- ironic, really, as we're quick to shout that some people can't help being "big-boned", but conveniently forget that some people can't help being, well, small-boned. Let's get this straight: it's just as objectionable to criticise somebody for being too thin as it is to criticise them for being too fat; and it's just as objectionable to criticise them for wanting to change their shape as it is to criticise them for not wanting to change it. Live and let live. Every Person, as we never seem to tire of saying in some corners of netnews (usually just before we insist that our own way is the One True Way...), Is Different. Repeat the mantra often enough, and we might believe the implications of it -- that our shape, whatever it is, is just as valid as anybody else's; and whether we want to change it or not is (or at least should be) a matter for our own personal choice.

The bottom line (does my bottom line look big in this?) is that, in the words of the Beautiful South, "we live our lives in different sizes". Or, as the Smiths more bluntly put it, "Some girls are bigger than others; some girls' mothers are bigger than other girls' mothers." That's not to say that none of us can -- or should -- change the size that we are. Many people want to lose weight for a variety of reasons, and there's nothing wrong with that provided they do so in a controlled way and don't compromise their health; many people want to gain weight for a variety of different reasons, and there's nothing wrong with that, provided they do so in a controlled way and (where have you heard this before?) don't compromise their health. However, everybody's idea of an "ideal weight" is different, and everybody's idea of "beauty" is different. What one person considers "overweight" may be "just right" for another; technically, I'm overweight according to BMI charts (although of course they don't take muscle into consideration), but I'm considered "far too thin" to be attractive by at least one of my acquaintances. That's before even beginning to address the fact that for most people, personality is a lot more important than vital statistics.

I think I've ranted enough on this subject now. I'm sure I'll get shouted at from both sides; I'm sure I've trodden on toes of all shapes and sizes. Still, if it gets someone thinking -- whatever their shape or size, everybody needs to exercise their brain! -- then I guess it's all worthwhile.

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