A friend of mine recommended this blog to me: www.alreadypretty.com. I am now going to recommend it to you–this post in particular, http://www.alreadypretty.com/search/label/psychology, because it builds on what we’ve been discussing in the last few posts. I think that you will find her entire blog helpful, encouraging, useful, and edifying as you begin the process of deciding how high the standard of beauty, your own beauty, is going to be. She’s an honest writer, and she’ll make you laugh, too.
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.
Because we are discussing body image, I want to share an article I read today. 31 year-old actress, Jennifer Love Hewitt did an interview with Alexis Chiu of People Magazine recently. To provide some background information for you, some photographs appeared on the internet that were taken of Ms. Hewitt during a 2007 Hawaii vacation. She was wearing a bikini, playing in the surf, and looked to be having a lovely time. Many members of the blogosphere branded her “fat”, and the tabloid press ripped her body apart, inch by inch. Ms. Hewitt is a beautiful, voluptuous woman. There is nothing wrong with her body.
Is this what we are going to define as “fat”? Clearly, she is not fat. She did not benefit from the flattering lighting of a studio or digital alterations like airbrushing, but she is nonetheless beautiful. Her shape is utterly feminine and “hour glass”. Are you offended by this image? If so, why? Do you think that she “ought” to look better? Do you find her to be flawed? If so, what are her flaws?
Being raked across the coals by the media solely for how she looked had a profound effect on Ms. Hewitt. She was engaged when these photos were taken and published. That engagement ended shortly thereafter. She quickly became engaged again. That relationship ended, too. Obviously, I do not know the reasons why two relationships failed, but I am fairly certain that they were not helped by her experience. In her interview with Ms. Chiu she discusses her life after these photos surfaced, and what she now has to do to “be happy” with herself. In my opinion, it is extreme. Please read this article. Think about it. Is it possible to invest so much energy in our appearance that we fail to cultivate a rich inner life? Aren’t we more than just our bodies?
The title of this post is the title of the article from which I am citing the excerpts in this post and in the posts to come. I came across “See Yourself Differently” by Isabelle Taubes in the June 2010 UK Edition of Psychologies Magazine. I don’t think that Taubes is breaking new ground in this article, but she very succinctly brings to the forefront the myriad issues which make body image such a complex problem for women. Since I cannot find this article archived online, I will share longer excerpts here:
“The relationship we have with our body is constantly fluctuating between love, rejection and acceptance. Every morning when we look in the mirror, we see something different. If we’ve had a night of tender caresses with a lover, we might see a desirable body. After a bad night’s sleep the mirror is merciless–bags, wrinkles, bad skin…Our relationship with our own reflection is wracked with insecurity. One critical look can make us feel like an unattractive blob, while a seductive smile can reassure us and put a spring in our step.
‘We attach enormous importance to our appearance,’ says psychotherapist Didier Prades, ‘but it’s impossible to see ourselves as a whole. Our vision of ourselves is inevitably fragmented.’ This is why we expose ourselves to merciless examinations in which each body part is scrutinised (sic) and judged as a separate entity: ‘I like my shoulders but not my thighs, the stomach’s all right but my bottom’s terrible…’
‘There is no such thing as a body that can simply be,’ says Susie Orbach, in her book Bodies (Profile). Orbach, author of the seminal Fat Is A Feminist Issue, examines how we judge our bodies by external standards in a way that makes our relationship with them riven with dissatisfaction. ‘Disguised as preoccupation, health concern or moral endeavor, almost everyone has a rhetoric about trying to do right by their body, which reveals a concern that the body is not all right as it is and that the body is a suitable, indeed an appropriate, focus for our malaise, aspiration and energy.’
Our intolerance of what we perceive as imperfections is partly caused by the desire for a slim, firm body, but that certainly isn’t the whole story. Our relationship with our bodies is fraught with difficulty because the image we have of ourselves usually bears no relation to reality.
‘At 16, I felt like a skinny little nobody,’ says Helen, 52. ‘This was basically because my mother constantly told me that’s what I was. Then, just before I left for my first holiday by myself, my father said, “Watch out for the boys! A pretty girl like you–they won’t leave you alone.” I was astonished. After that I started to see myself differently. And naturally I threw myself into the arms of the first boy who paid my any attention. When I look back at photos from that period, I can see that actually I was lovely and not a tragic skeleton as my mother had always implied.’ (Psychologies, 105)
We all have a 16 year-old Helen inside us. This young woman’s mother imposed a false view upon her–“You are a skinny little nobody”. Why? The mother-daughter relationship is fraught with difficulty. I will devote more than one post to this topic, I’m sure. What I want to point out is that, as Taube writes, Helen’s self-image “bears no relation to reality”. Maybe Helen was petite or small-framed, but she was not a “nobody”. As an impressionable young woman, she believed her mother. Later, her father offered her an alternative opinion–“You are pretty.” Perhaps Helen had never thought of herself as pretty, but now that her father called her “pretty” she was going to believe that instead. It’s easier when these alternative opinions come at a younger age, I think. There is less time for the “untruths” to embed themselves in our consciousness. We can see the truth more clearly, and, therefore, choose to believe it more easily.
There is no point to reading this (or writing this) if it doesn’t get us thinking. So, try to remember a particularly influential “untruth” that was told to you when you were impressionable and vulnerable. The first thing that comes to my mind would be a conversation that I had with my mother. I was 19 years-old, and I had recently been diagnosed with a seizure disorder. I was not diagnosed by a neurologist but rather an internist who was not very familiar with anticonvulsants. I was, therefore, overly medicated with antiquated drugs. I was a zombie. One side effect of the drugs was weight gain. My mother had always struggled with her weight. She always thought herself to be fat even though she never was. I, on the other hand, had always been a string bean. I was nearly 6 feet tall by 17 years, and puberty was very late. She had always watched from the shadows with a jealous eye as I wore short shorts and tank tops with no bra oblivious to the world around me. After a month on the anticonvulsants I had gained over 10 pounds, and I felt uncomfortable in my skin. I could feel my thighs rubbing together. My clothes were tight. My breasts were larger. My face was rounder. I didn’t quite look like me anymore. So, I did what most girls do. I cried, and then I went to my mom. She sat down next to me on my grandparents’ couch. She put her arm around me, and I put my head on her shoulder. She quietly hushed me while gently rubbing my back. I shared my feelings with her; it came pouring out of me–all the frustration, the self-consciousness, and the insecurity. As I wiped my tears she said, “I understand, honey. You see, you and I, we just aren’t little. We are big girls. Get used to it.” It was like a bomb going off inside me. She wasn’t comforting me. She had been waiting for this day all my life, waiting for me to be like her (or at least how she believed herself to be)–big. From that moment on, I have not been able to shake the feeling of being “big”. I feel oafish, hefty, large, big-boned, unfeminine even. Men are supposed to be big. Not women. Right? (This is my neurotic self talking here) So, that is one of my stumbling blocks; one of my “untruths” that I essentially agreed to believe. Had there been another person in the room when my mother dropped that load of crap on me who offered another opinion like– “What you are experiencing is a side-effect of the medications that the doctor prescribed. It is not because you have done something wrong. In fact, let’s see if we can get a different medication for you. Until we can change it, I want you to remember that you are a strong, intelligent, capable, and beautiful young woman who is just experiencing a rough time. This too shall pass, and your weight will get back to normal. And, you know what? You’re beautiful no matter what. Oh, and you are NOT big.”–would I have believed it? Yes. That is so much more appealing than the other choice.
Here are a few suggested exercises. Pick a lie. Just one. Write it down. Now, if you could go back in time and tell your younger self the truth, what would you say? Write that down, too. If you feel strong enough, then imagine yourself counseling your younger self. Tell her (or him) the truth that you wish your younger self had learned and internalized. Imagine yourself sitting next to her, comforting her in her pain, looking her in the eye, and speaking true words–words of encouragement and kindness. This kind of exercise can be very healing. Role-play the conversation perhaps. Speak the words of your younger self out loud, and then be who you are today speaking the truth to your younger self. This can be very empowering. If doing these exercises is too painful, then don’t. Sometimes this sort of work needs to be done with a therapist. That’s okay. If you feel like sharing your experiences, then please do. Knowing that we aren’t alone in our struggles somehow makes it easier.
In yesterday’s post, I discussed Ingre’s “La Grande Odalisque” and its reception in 19th c. Paris. Ingre depicted the concubine unrealistically. Professionals in the field of anatomy have commented on Ingre’s work saying that the concubine’s spine would need five more vertebrae to curve in the manner in which Ingre depicts. Her arms are not of equal length. Her pelvis is not angled correctly. Of course, most of Ingre’s choices are stylistic in nature as this work is influenced by the Mannerists who preferred elongated limbs and necks. Parisians would no doubt know this as the Paris Salon was one of their sources of entertainment–“Hey, let’s go to the Salon tonight! I hear Ingre is showing his latest painting.” What the movies are to us, the Salon was to Parisians. The difference between 19th c. Parisians and 21st. c. Westerners is that the Parisians thought the Odalisque looked ridiculous, even absurd. Ingre did not represent her skin tone realistically. The shape of her body is unattainable. I’m sorry, ladies, but we are simply not going to be able to grow five more vertebrae. What’s more, the Parisians did not feel the need or the desire to try to imitate the art because the art was not imitating their lives. It was irrelevant even if was beautiful. It was not real.
This is a facet of our paradigm that needs to shift. What we see in films, advertisements, magazines, and other media has been changed so that it not only matches the current standard of ideal beauty but furthers it. Just like Ingre’s “La Grande Odalisque”, however, what we see is not real, but we interpret these images as if they are. So, when you look at any given cover of a magazine as you check out at the grocery store or the gas station, what you are taking in to your consciousness is an altered image. The model or celebrity who inspired the image upon which you gaze is beautiful no doubt, but even that individual no matter how beautiful, no matter how thin, no matter how physically fit, no matter how perfect, does not measure up to the current standard of beauty because their image has to be altered, too. Don’t you see? The current standard of beauty is impossible because the icons of beauty and physical fitness that are held up for all to emulate don’t even measure up. This kind of beauty isn’t just an illusion or a lie; it’s bondage.
This beautiful oil painting hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. It was originally met with great criticism because it did not essentially represent what a “real” woman looked like. The limbs are too long (one arm is, in fact, shorter than the other), the spine is too long, the tone of the skin isn’t right, the curve of the pelvis in relation to the curvature of the spine is impossible for a real woman to reproduce. Whatever the original woman from whom Ingres drew his inspiration looked like, she did not look like the woman represented in the painting above. She was changed to fit into Ingres’ artistic ideal, or changed in order to communicate his artistic vision. (To read a brief yet interesting commentary on “La Grande Odalisque”, click here.)
Times haven’t changed very much. Nearly every image of a person that we see has been altered in some way to fit into a cultural, artistic, marketing, or other ideal, or the image has been altered in order to change our perceptions of what the ideal ought to be in the first place. In either case, what we see is not remotely authentic, and the result of this barrage of inauthentic and deceptive imagery is, at the very least, a deepening sense of inadequacy. At the worst, the self-hatred, helplessness, and disempowerment that many of us feel resultant from our life experiences is exacerbated.
In an effort to explore some of the reasons for my own struggles with self-image, I want to dedicate some posts to “Learning to Feel Good About Our Bodies”. I don’t have any magic beans or mantras here. Mainly, I just have questions, and I would love some feedback because I feel pretty victimized in this area. When I look back on my progress over the past five years, I can see a lot of growth in a lot of areas, but body image has remained largely untouched.
I recently came across a British publication entitled Psychologies Magazine, and it frustrates me deeply that they do not post their archives online because they published a series of articles on this topic in their June 2010 publication. Their articles were succinct, helpful, and relevant to the lives of all sorts of women. One thing that I gleaned from reading through their series is that a poor self-image is a problem that haunts every woman. It takes many forms, but it’s there. Not every woman was hurt, abused, or traumatized, but every woman had suffered in some way. My intent, therefore, is to post some longer excerpts from some of their more meaningful articles in an attempt to peel back the layers of our self-image. Wouldn’t it be nice to finally see yourself differently? I don’t mean as that “Perfect 10” you’ve always dreamed of being. I mean being able to look in the mirror and see a beautiful person looking back. And, you wouldn’t need to criticize her or punish her or “should” her or tell her to try harder or work out more or eat less or stand up straighter or insult her or cut her or anything else. You could like her. You might even love her. What a relief that would be.
So, this is all part of telling the truth, I guess. It’s part of telling ourselves what we want. So, find yourself another person. You know, that person who has signed up to be a member of the “You Historical Society”. That person who loves you no matter what you look like or smell like in the morning. And, if they love you after you’ve puked up Mexican food, then you know that they are a Lifetime Member. And, tell them what you want for yourself concerning your body–how you would like to feel about it, how you would like to feel in it, and what would have to change so that you could be happy with it. I’ll post the first excerpt from Psychologies Magazine tomorrow.
By the way, this is a photograph of the first plus size supermodel Emme taken by Theo Westenberger in 1994 for People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue. Ingres’ “La Grade Odalisque” was recreated for the shoot. Her soft hips, tummy, and arms were not altered or airbrushed, and she is clearly very beautiful and sensual. Emme is a size 14.
**A note to readers: Please continue to the next post. It’s very short, but I wrote it as an addendum to this one wherein I discuss the great importance of La Grande Odalisque in 19th c. Paris, and what we can learn as post-modern woman from the 19th c. Parisians’ viewing of that painting. As usual, French woman are a few steps ahead of us where beauty and love of self are concerned.
I was reading an article today taken from a magazine entitled Critique: A Ransom Fellowship Publication, and I want to share part of the article with you.
“Today the notion of God’s judgment tends to prompt discomfort rather than assurance, a reason to disbelieve or to modify the meaning of St. John’s vision (the Book of Revelation) to something a bit more to our liking. It is hard not to be cynical about any notion of final justice in a pluralistic world. What would it look like? More to the point, is there anyone capable of such a wonder? Besides, even if at some point the brutal criminals of all time are found guilty and punished the suffering of the innocent still would cry out from the blood stained pages of history. Though this would be better than the insufficient justice of our world, it would be of limited value to the victims who were torn, body and soul. For many, what they knew of life was defined by suffering.
St. John’s vision, however, provides an understanding of reality that breaks through such cynicism. Of all the world’s religions, at this point Christianity is unique in providing a hope that is qualitatively different. C.S. Lewis spoke of this great mystery, as what can only be described as “heaven working backwards.” Timothy Keller sums it up this way:
The Biblical view of things is resurrection–not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. That means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater…Just after the climax of the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings (by J.R.R. Tolkien), Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead (as he thought) but alive. He cries, ‘I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?’ The answer of Christianity to that question is–yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost” (“None Other Lamb, None Other Name, In A Broken World, A Quiet Confidence” by Denis Haack)
The idea that “everything sad is going to come untrue” encourages me to no end. I would point out that this is not just a Christian idea. Other spiritual traditions believe this as well. Redemption is a universal idea–a universal truth. Yes, it sounds like a fairy tale, but I have always loved fairy tales. It gives me hope and energy to keep going in the face of adversity and hurdles that look just a little too big, or a lot too big. This was the thought I wanted to leave with you today.