“See Yourself Differently”–Part II

Girl at Mirror, 1954, Saturday Evening Post
"Girl at Mirror", 1954 by Norman Rockwell

As promised, we are continuing our journey into learning to like our bodies.  In my earlier post, “See Yourself Differently”–Part I, I cited from an article with the same title written by Isabelle Taubes for Psychologies Magazine UK Edition.  Because Psychologies Magazine does not archive their articles online, I am posting longer excerpts here for discussion purposes.  If you have not been following the discussion, you can find the first part of this article at “See Yourself Differently”–Part I.

“Someone suffering from anorexia sees themself (sic) as enormous even though they are skeletal, and someone suffering from body dysmorphia is constantly discovering new monstrosities that only they can see.  What is the demon that dominates the way we perceive ourselves and our relationship with our bodies? Freud called it the ‘ego-ideal’, and its role is to manage our relationship with all that we would like to be and do.

We love ourselves according to how we measure up to our ideal of perfection.  The higher we set the bar, the greater the risk that we’ll feel we’ve let ourselves down. (italics added) Someone with an uncompromising ego-ideal believes that to be lovable they must look like a supermodel, so it’s inevitable that they feel unattractive as they are.  Adolescents may be prone to anorexia, and their lives will be punctuated by long periods of dieting.  Orbach points out that comparing our bodies to an ideal makes us more likely to fall short, and even fall ill. ‘While we demand more rigour and have high expectations of what the fit, healthy and beautiful body can deliver us, there is an increase in symptoms, from sexual dissatisfactions to eating problems and fear of ageing,‘ she says.” (Psychologies 106)

I am going to interject here. Did you notice this quote from Susie Orbach?: “While we demand more rigour and have high expectations of what the fit, healthy and beautiful body can deliver us, there is an increase in symptoms, from sexual dissatisfactions to eating problems and fear of ageing.”  Firstly, I am fully supportive of a healthy body.  We cannot live the lives for which we were created from a hospital bed, but what constitutes “healthy”? Susie Orbach uses the same language to discuss the body that one might use to discuss a car’s performance.  She uses words like “rigour”, “demand”,”high expectations”, “beautiful”, and “deliver”.  These are words that advertisers use when talking to consumers.  Why not? It’s very possible that we could treat our bodies like some sort of product to be used and consumed.  It must be shaped, altered, pushed, pulled, stretched, injected, lipoed, worked, punished, deprived, and changed in order to deliver us the life we want.  This is the message that advertisers send us through magazine ads, television commercials, films, radio ads, music videos, ad nauseum on a daily basis.  Our minds are bombarded with the message–“You are not good enough as you are, but you could be…”–whenever you are faced with any sort of media short of listening to NPR unless you feel intellectually inferior.  Listen to NPR enough, however, and you might just walk away feeling a boost in your IQ.  Read People Magazine or watch E! Channel long enough, and you will certainly not feel a boost in your self-esteem.

The question I’ve been asking in my last few posts is “Who is setting the bar for us?” as far as beauty goes? I’ve named the media as one culprit.  There are others, and I’m going to get to those.  But, let me share a story with you to illustrate this point a bit further.  I have a brilliant friend.  She is a writer for a major television network, and she also moonlights as a screenwriter.  She has a lot of “connections” in Hollywood, and she also knows many other writers in the entertainment industry.  I am secretly envious of her (well, not so secretly) because she knows Tina Fey.  One cold, wintry night last year, I was fortunate enough to spend an evening with my brilliant friend, and we began discussing the issue of body image in Hollywood.  She was more than willing to share her opinion, but being the discreet woman that she is, she refused to name names.  She did, however, tell me tales of how these famous Hollywood actresses maintained their famous physiques–drugs, cigarettes, coffee, and alcohol.  I choked on my chai.  “Surely not,” I gasped, “this isn’t the 1970s anymore!”  She rolled her eyes at me, and said, “Get real,” in her characteristic deadpan tone.  She went on to tell me how these television stars relied on cocaine to get them through the 20-hour work days.  They rarely ate.  They were typically a size 0 or 2.  She said that the shows for which she writes now have “clean sets” meaning no drugs, but in the past that was not the case.  The stories that these stars tell the American public through their publicists like, “I love the new Zone diet, and I have a trainer who helps me follow a good exercise routine” are often bogus.  Much of it is spin.

As I sat at her kitchen table processing this information which really did not seem too far-fetched, she went on to tell me about another writer.  He was a local writer who was happily married.  He, too, wrote for a major network, and he was being pressured by one of the show’s producers to move to Los Angeles.  He didn’t want to move to L.A. because he and his wife were happily settled here.  The producer went on to ask him why he was unwilling to leave the area; the producer then asked him if it was because of his wife.  The writer did say that his wife’s family was indeed near, but he himself was happy to stay.  The producer then asked, “Is your wife L.A. caliber?” (This is a true story.)  The producer offered to pay the writer’s wife a certain sum of money to essentially “go away”.  The writer could then divorce said wife, move to L.A. in order to churn out more entertainment for the masses, and upgrade to L.A. caliber wife 2.0.  Hear what I say, this producer in Hollywood is one of thousands propping up the entertainment industry in this country.  That industry churns out billions of images which dictates the standard of beauty in this country.  They are a huge piece of the media pie that is setting the bar for all of us.  To that producer, that writer’s wife was expendable, worthless even, because she did not fit his standard of beauty!  She could just be paid off and sent on her way so that his end goal could be accomplished–another episode on his hit television show.

Understand that you are not expendable.  That producer and the industry that he represents do not get to set your bar for you.  You do! The media does not have that privilege unless we agree.  I think that is the key to learning to thrive in this culture.  We must remember the Parisians in the 19th c. Paris Salon when Ingres presented them with “La Grande Odalisque” (see A Variation on a Theme).  While his painting was beautiful, and it appealed to the senses just as modern-day representations of beauty do, the Parisians recognized that it was not realistic in the slightest.  And, because it was not realistic, it was not obtainable or relevant; therefore, it was a sort of absurd beauty.  The 21st c. media’s representation of beauty while fantastic, tempting, appealing, and provocative is also absurd; it is time that we learn to appreciate it, but reject it.  Your beauty, on the other hand, while perhaps still hidden to you is very relevant, and it is time that we all come out from under the shadow of “La Grande Odalisque” and her legacy.

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