Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How Do I Look?

Body image. Are you too fat? Is your butt sticking out like a natural landmark? Are your boobs saying hello to your belly button? Are your legs too short, your thighs full of thunder, your toes too curly?

Or are you too thin? Do people make snide comments about your anorexia or suggest that you spend time in the bathroom vomiting food out on purpose?

Body image is a funny thing. I'm not sure if the second paragraph describes an internalized body image problem, though the first one certainly does. Much of this problem has to do with outside opinions, and opinions especially aimed at women's bodies. There is a sense in which women's bodies are public property; commenting on them and discussing them is an acceptable pastime.

It's legal to make snide comments about men's bodies, too. But somehow men get off more lightly in this game, with much less discussion about nose hairs and large bellies and such, and only in cases where a particular man's body is very far outside the general perception of normality.

For women the allowed range of normality is so narrow that narely one person can stay in it comfortably. I was struck by this wholly unoriginal thought when I visited a blog called The Superficial - Because You Are Ugly. It specializes in body image problems and the fun we can all have finding fault in famous people. But just compare these two consecutive posts on the blog: The top one ridicules Jessica Simpson's clothing choices and body fat, the next one finds Nicole Richie far too skeletal. What would you say the acceptable range for women is, given these two posts? How much leeway does a gal have in staying uncriticizable?

It's the narrowness of the standards or ideals that is so odd. The same narrow and impossible-to-reach standards are applied to mothers. And not only is there a confusion between some unreachable ideal and what is regarded as "normal" but the standards are the same rigid ones for all women. So all women are supposed to have the exactly same ideal body ( in the U.S. very large breasts, no hips, long legs) and all women are supposed to strive towards the exactly same ideal of the Sacrificing Mother Who Lets Go The Minute It's Needed And Never Complains. It might be better if some gigantic factory rolled out perfect models of women, because real women will never qualify in the rigorous entrance examinations of the school of acceptable womanhood.

But many of us do try, especially in early life. Imagine what else could be done with all that energy.