what exactly is body image, anyhow?
October 4, 2004 11:54 AM

Periodically, an issue pops up and is suddenly everywhere all at once. Over the past week, it's all about beauty and body image. We got into beauty and diet stuff on one of the LJ communities, my colleagues were talking about it, my friends were talking about it, my internet circle were blogging it.

I don't know why this happens. It's possibly just an effect of my own viewing of topics - I see them a couple of times, then they filter everything I see. Or maybe it's the cascade of a topic from one person or group to another.

In any case, it makes complete sense that Alison should be asking about it on WHB.

She'd like to know:

How is your body image?
What do you do to maintain your body image?
How do you cope with medias fixation on what your body image should be?
What do you think of diet plans where exercise (and in fact healthy eating!!) are a side factor of losing weight?
How about the current round of makeover and plastic surgery shows?
And, if you have a negative body image, how does that impact your feminism?[Read the discussion.]

I'll add a question to the list: how much attention should we feminists be spending on body image and events like NOW's Love Your Body Day (which is October 20, by the way)?

I have an idea of my body built more on function and feeling than on appearance. My appearance in mirrors other than the ones in my house tends to freak me out; I frequently don't look like I feel. I feel better than I look in photographs, for instance. It's a positive sort of dysmorphia that a lot of fat people seem to build for themselves. I've been told it's a reaction, conscious or unconscious, against the "bad" things that fat represents, but I also think that it comes - for people of any size - from becoming more kinestheticly at home.

That kinesthetic sense, for me, is more resilient than answers I might give to the "how do I look" question.

When I was a kid, I would weigh myself twice a day, each time sucking in my middle bits and studying the side and front views in the mirror. Same thing every day. I stopped doing that some years ago, after destroying the bathroom scale and dropping it out a window (into a dumpster). That was one of many things I did to get out of the dieting cycle and get rid of the abusive "fat & ugly" language I'd been using about myself since - oh, since I started weighing myself, come to think of it! I should write at some point a list of the steps I took to stop hating on myself; it's a long list, and not everything actually worked, but it might still be a reference for someone looking to do the same thing.

I'm still not possessed of a constant positive attitude towards the appearance of myself, though I'm feeling good enough that I don't want to spend a lot of time on this one aspect of self. Having fun movement in my life helps, as does eating tastily and healthily and drinking loads of water. None of these things, by the way, have made me remotely thinner. I think I weighed between 220 and 230 lbs a bit over a year ago when I started daily exercise, and I weighed 224 at the doctor's office a couple of days ago. That, by the way, was great proof to me that weight is a crap measure of health and that weightloss just doesn't happen for some people. I feel great; I'm still fat. Whatever.

I find it interesting that media involvement with our bodies has actually gotten to a point where there's more than just a message of how you should look - there's also an undercurrent of how you should feel about how you look. Like feminist involvement in the beauty myth has been turned into products telling you to feel good about yourself whatever you look like, made by the same companies who sell you the idea of what you should look like. Argh. There's a positive effect of this, though - I think more and more, people are going to get frustrated and turn to picking out only the personally useful aspects of these products a la the self-styled Atkins dieter who buys no products and is simply no longer eating white bread. That's the only practical personal approach to any media attempts at involvement in your relationship to your own appearance - ignore it. There's also the political approach, which is to counter it, expose lies, etc.

Losing weight is a lousy goal. Most people who take on this goal fail (or they succeed, but success is temporary, as the body is designed to rebound from starvation). Weightloss itself, divorced from the positive effects of eating or exercising healthily, has little usefulness. Why bother? I think all weightloss oriented diet programs are lying to you. People don't change size without changing the way they eat and expend energy on a long-term basis, and even then, it might not mean weightloss.

Makeover and plastic surgery shows make me cry. They are, as much of the body image discussion is, too, about making your physical self an obstacle to your actual life.

Which brings me to the role feminism plays in all this. I am of two minds on this. Feminism has encouraged women particularly (but all people, really) to think of themselves as beautiful and worthy. And yes, one strategy for coping with a culture that emphasizes beauty as representative of worth is to redefine beautiful to include yourself. That makes the observer-dependency of beauty more obvious.

A disadvantage to this, though, is that you end up with people spending just as much time as they might have on dieting or clothing or surgery, but now turning that effort to "why can't I lurve my body?". It can turn, as I alluded earlier, into another demand placed on you. I know some folks who've rejected this and choose to define themselves as ugly or simply not put effort into this; it makes a lot of sense and sure seems to take a lot less time.

Right. So, what feminists need to be doing where body image is concerned is two-fold - first, broadening the norms of beauty to include damn near everyone (understanding that individual people have preferences, but those don't need to suit a cultural norm) and second, questioning the valuation of people as beautiful/not beautiful in the first place. I think we do okay on the former, but the latter really only comes into play in theory and academics.

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your wicked thoughts

Well, I was going to comment, but holy crap, you said it all. I would link to this but I have this feeling it would be more effective quoted, at least in part. I'm just so angry at the constant fighting and misery I see my friends put themselves through...

these are the thoughts of Kim on October 5, 2004 10:56 PM

You are so right on! Frankly, what does it matter what we look like? If our partner loves us and finds us attractive, why should any other criteria that are applied to us, externally, matter? And if we don't have a partner then we can love ourselves, goshdarnit! I'm frustrated by supposed feminists who encourage us to feel better about ourselves by improving our appearance. It's what we do and think and create and share that makes us feel good. As for the media, just turn it off. It only poisons our minds with clutter.
[Living on Less]

these are the thoughts of asfo_del on October 10, 2004 02:13 AM

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