When I sat down to write about body image, I found myself mired in writer’s block before my fingers even touched the keyboard. Where could I begin to talk about this issue? It’s intimidating in its vastness, and thousands of articles on the subject have already been written. So many of us struggle with our self-worth where our bodies are concerned.
What came to mind first was the following incident:
When I was in Arizona, I had a boyfriend whose family lived in a large house in a semi-rural suburb. The lot on which it sat had a modest expanse of lawn and a scattering of shrubbery fringing the perimeter around the front yard. Though it could have used some work, the yard was by no means ill-maintained; still, the neighbors took it upon themselves to show up one day with hedge-trimmers, weed-whackers, gardening shears and the like. They stood on the front porch (I was there to witness it), ready to work. They exuded good intentions with the sort of self-satisfaction that goes with donating precious resources to a charity case.
You see, that yard just had to be brought up to “standards,” and if the occupants of the house weren’t going to do it, then by god, someone else had to. The yard was an eyesore, they figured. It was bringing down the neighborhood. Maybe the appearance of the yard would even decrease the value of their homes. This is all speculation; I don’t know what they were thinking, exactly. People can be persnickety.
My boyfriend’s parents were mortified. They stood on their side of the security screen door at a loss for words. “Thank you,” they murmured… because what else could they think to say at that moment? What do you do with unsolicited volunteerism to correct something of yours that you never knew was wrong?
Good intentions aside, the neighbors came across as critical, maybe even judgmental, and their collective action seemed more insulting and intrusive than akin to a random act of kindness. They actually took time out of their weekends to impose their aesthetics on someone else’s house. “We thought we’d get together and work on your yard,” their spokesperson announced in so many words, full of vim and vigor. I couldn’t believe the nerve. Plus, the yard really wasn’t that bad. In fact, I’d thought I’d seen the same or worse here and there throughout the neighborhood. It wasn’t like this was a shabby yard surrounded by “perfect” ones.
So what about this memory brings to mind the issue of body image? The concept of aesthetic “standards.” Other people’s standards, and the pressure placed on us to meet them.
In this era of obsession with physical perfection, very few of us feel that we look “good enough” to count as worthy. So how to overcome the persistent messages that being attractive (according to other peoples’ definitions) should be a paramount goal in life? How to become impervious to the messages of society-mandated physical perfection plastered all over the media? How to not care?
I thought about it. For me, I found that the answer lies somewhere in this truth: My body is my house, and it’s prime real-estate… because it’s mine to do with as I please. It’s the only thing I truly own, me, by myself. I live here, I want to shout to the tentacles of the media. Get off my lawn!!
The space I inhabit within my body is the same as the space I inhabit within my home, and it’s no one’s business what I do with those spaces. Those spaces are sacred to me. I’m not okay with “good neighbors” on my doorstep telling me what’s wrong on the outside, and I’m absolutely against the idea of intruders coming in to dictate what will happen on the inside.
It seems that we’re fixated on altering our bodies for the gratification of others and to match the innumerable images of what “desirable” looks like. Though men aren’t entirely exempt from the bombardment of these subtle and not-so-subtle directives, women remain the central targets. Focus on women’s bodies far exceeds the focus on men’s bodies. Feelings of physical inadequacy aren’t quite the equal opportunity demons they should be.
My thoughts keep returning to that house and its yard. How the neighbors came with their gardening tools to trim, shape and prune the vegetation until its contours resembled their own ideals of not only acceptability, but desirability. When did it become permissible to judge the exteriors of our homes to the point where others will come to impose their ideals on us? The problem is that when any space we inhabit is regarded with a critical eye, it’s difficult to avoid self-consciousness… and self-consciousness brings us down. It can lead to irrational thinking about how we can “fix” ourselves. It can lead to self-starvation and self-mutilation in our quest to comply with the beauty ideals of our time.
It’s like comparing our living spaces to those of others. We find ourselves examining the walls that surround us, becoming as critical of them as our critics… maybe even more so, since it’s true that we’re often our own worst critics. Suddenly, what we have isn’t good enough. Where we are isn’t good enough.
Then we think about it. We take stock of what we need, compare it to what we have, and then realize how lucky we are. We have a functional structure in which to live.
We have somewhere to lay our heads when we’re tired. Somewhere to bathe our bodies. Somewhere to sit and think and be alone. Somewhere to spend intimate time with others when we don’t want to interact in public. Somewhere to store, keep, admire, use and enjoy the things we have.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could feel this appreciative and secure within the homes that are our bodies?
Now that current economic realities have somewhat stifled the “keep up with the Joneses” mindset that influenced our sense of self-worth in the extravagant ’80’s, why can’t we nudge ourselves out of that same mentality where our bodies are concerned? Why continue trying to “keep up with” anybody in terms of how we look?
There’s just no point in comparing ourselves to others.
So I ask myself this question: If make a list of things I need in order to feel good about myself, what would it look like?
I came up with this: Lasting harmony, growth and passion with my life partner. Mental, spiritual, physical and emotional health. Contentment and joy. Accomplishment and satisfaction. Triumph and progress. Acceptance and dignity.
The list isn’t without its “oh my god impossible” factor, but it’s invigorating nonetheless. I feel motivated for the right reasons. It’s time to separate my body from my self-worth, and I can start by trying to shrug off the bullshit messages of our body-centric society. In doing so, I’m freeing myself to nurture and enrich other areas of my being and my life. I’m happy with my aspirations to focus on interiors, rather than exteriors.
For one thing, I know that when I look in the mirror, there are more terrible things I could see than my physical “imperfections.”
I wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and see money I don’t have, and feel poor. I wouldn’t want to see what’s gone from my life, and feel a desperate vacancy. I wouldn’t want to see what’s been taken away, and find ghosts where my reflection should be. I wouldn’t want to see the pride I can’t swallow or the temper I can’t control. I certainly wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and find a guilty conscience in the aversion of my gaze, because above all, I have to be able to look into my own eyes. That is where I should see beauty. And that’s where others should see it, too.
What feels healthy and good on the inside diminishes the importance of what people see on the outside, and that renders them impotent. My self-worth becomes immutable.
So this is the strip-down, the way I see it. I’ll make a point of baring myself to the elements every once in a while, just as a reminder of the value of what’s really there. I could stand in my entryway completely naked while I’m at it. Come and tell me what needs to be fixed. I might hold a mirror up to your face before I quietly close the door.