Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Shape of Things

What is it like to grow up as a woman in a culture obsessed with perfection? 

Really, honestly, truly. What has it done to you?

Seems like a girl can't eat a carton of rice pudding these days without feeling a bit guilty about it. Does anyone remember when you could eat bread without worrying about this thing called CARBS? Those were the days. I'd come home from a long day at college and put together a delectable pb & j and never bat an eyelash at the white bread I was consuming each week.

What daily voices are in your head telling you that you need to change? At what point in your life do you finally stop falling prey to the luring magazine covers that represent the ideal body and life? What is it doing to all the women in America? What toll has it taken to hear the constant message that there is ALWAYS room for improvement? That's a loud and clear message being shouted from many directions each day.

And it is killing the souls of our beautiful sisters.

I see my students struggle with body image. I see the boys clinging to the ones that are skinny and well developed, I see the chubby ones, the ones with braces, the ones with intelligence, the ones with the senses of humor, the ones with acne--all getting ignored, ignored, ignored. I tell myself it will change, and it usually does. But it's so hard for them. They are constantly hearing the message  that men are more visually stimulated than women....and you MUST be attractive to find love!! Man, High School is rough, but hopefully boys figure out that they'd also like to carry on conversations..and eventually these girls will come into their own beauty.

But what about those women who just can't get past this search for perfection? We all know them, maybe we have been them...maybe we are them. Through my years in life I have known and seen the struggles of an eating disorder. I see daily the girls who can't meet anyone's gaze, I see the sadness at not being good enough glimmer in the eyes of girls who should be finding and rejoicing in their power. What a waste. And for what? Things have GOT to change.

No one is immune. You all have stories, don't you? I was eleven years old when I first started skipping meals because I was worried I was too big (I was a five foot ten inch swarthy sixth grader for pities sake! And I had glasses. And I had crooked teeth...let's talk about bad body image). I remember that at the time I was developing into a young woman, a new wave of ideal beauty was coming into fashion. It was the large lips, big eyes, and small nose of Julia Roberts. When the ideal beauty began to change, I would look into the mirror and I knew I didn't measure up. My features were too tiny, my lips too small, my eyes too nondescript. I would actually spend each night trying to stretch out my lips. I don't know if I really thought it was possible, but I was willing to try anything. At 14 and 15 I would pull on them, stretch them, try to make them into a fashionable pout...to no avail...and now these young women of today have Angelina Jolie and Keira Knightly to compete against! Seesh! We have GOT to do something. 

To me, the effect of this quest for perfection is having CATASTROPHIC effects on the women of our world.

The portrayal of the "ideal" woman today is usually that of a size 0 or lower, measuring at about 6 ft tall and weighing in at around 90 lbs. With so many of these unrealistic women being portrayed by the media, an epidemic has developed of women slowly killing themselves through such problems as low self-esteem, manic exercise, and even starvation.

I ask myself, can this REALLY be happening? 

Yes. It is. More than many of us realize.

I have often wondered what changes in the world could be made if so many women weren't worried about what they looked like or ate or needed to buy to feel better about themselves and they simply started putting that energy elsewhere. What if all the women who obsessed with their weight and outward appearance suddenly started volunteering in adult and children literacy programs? What if all that angst that was spent in counting calories and silently judging those you found lacking were actually spent in feeding the hungry, visiting the widows, serving your family and friends? What if all that energy was focused and bright and pure, instead of drowning and dark and ugly?

When I was 22, I listened to a speaker who told me that women were the Lord's secret weapon. That women hadn't realized how powerful they could be, but God knew, and he wanted us to start focusing that energy. That woman was Sheri L. Dew, and she was and still is, a HUGE influence in my life.

Imagine what would happen in this world if every morning millions of women prayed and asked God who he needed us to reach out to that day. And then imagine if we did it! Imagine if we consecrated our energy and our focus en masse to the greatest service of all, that of leading our sisters and brothers to recognizing their full potential. I am convinced that we would see the awakening and arising of a sleeping, slouching giant.

Is it possible, today, for you to make a difference in someone’s life, especially the members of your own family? None of us have to reach everyone. But what if we all reached someone? And then someone else? And so on. Can you imagine? Can you? Do you see it?

Luckily, I think most of us, as we age and grow, finally become accepting and loving of who we are. I've gotten into the habit of loving myself, something that didn't come so easily in my twenties. I've always just sort of taken people as they are, I've never felt a big desire to change others. When I read Morrison's The Bluest Eye for the first time, I remember going back over and over the part where she said that the idea of physical beauty is one of the most detrimental ideas in the world. I happen to agree with her. 


jomama said...

i've actually been thinking about this stuff a lot lately...well, forever, really, but a lot more recently. have you seen the movie "the women?" when i was celebrating my birthday a couple of weeks ago i made my husband take me to see it because i figured i should use my birthday power of picking the movie to see one that he'd never go with me to see otherwise.
i had seen the play and the thirties' movie version and was interested to see how they would interpret the movie for our modern times.
one of the first scenes was of annette bening walking through a department store. a saleswoman says, "do you want to have a facelift in a jar?" or something to that effect, and annette says, "this is my face. deal with it."
i thought this movie was a perfect representation of the mixed messages that we as women get sent on a daily basis. that first line was great, i thought, but then later in the movie candice bergen gets a facelift because "she looked around and there were no more sixty year old women." great reason. and then meg ryan, playing her daughter, says something about "i hope that when i'm sixty years old and getting a facelift..." like of COURSE she's going to be getting a facelift.
the whole movie was mixed up like this for me.
i think you're right. i think that we do get filled up with angst for a lot of reasons, but i think your solution is great: to channel that energy into something else. this is something that for me, at least, will be a constant struggle. and i think a lot of other women too.
it's hard to get those voices out of your head, y'know? but i think until then i'm going to keep running that line through my head. "this is my face. deal with it."
and i want to say kudos on yet another well-written, thought-provoking, amazing post.

Rowena said...

This is a big issue. I am 5'3" and anywhere from 115 to 135. I don't diet, but my body goes up and down according to stress and season. I've worked hard to make peace with my body. I can't grow any taller. These thighs, really, aren't going to get much smaller. I've had two kids, this belly is not flat. S'okay.

When I was growing up, the ideal was tall, boobly, no hips or thighs, and blond, tan and blue eyed. Here I was a scrawny underdeveloped black haired, brown eyed pasty skinned kid. Doomed. I couldn't even find a doll that looked like me. I thought I was fat at 16 as soon as I started to develop womanly curves. Took me another 15 years to accept them.

When I was a teacher, I did media studies with my kids, and had them study images of masculinity/femininity in the media. That was a great project and the kids really started to pay attention to the messages they were getting. I wonder if it influenced the way they felt about themselves? Maybe I should find them on facebook and ask. That would be weird.

ophelia rising said...

I have a lot to say on this subject. It's a very complicated one.

I have always been on the thin side, but after having kids I have had trouble getting back to the way my body was before. I have struggled with this a lot, but lately have come to realize that I just never will be that skinny 21-year-old again. So that extra 10 pounds will have to be embraced, and accepted.

That being said, I have always detested the way the media portrays women. Even being on the thin side, I was affected by the media, and was always aware of my weight and how I looked. Terrible.

I remember being in college and being (good-naturedly) teased by my roommate and other friends about my skinny legs. They used to call me, "Missy Bird-legs." So, you can't win. You can't be overweight. You can't be skinny. You must be perfect, right?

I am reminded of the Harvard study that looked at young girls in Fiji, and which uncovered the ugly truth about women portrayed on TV. It seems that there was not a lot of TV-watching in Fiji, and the women were not concerned about their weight, or how thin they were. Indeed, the majority of women were overweight, by US standards. But once television was introduced, suddenly anorexia, bulemia, and dieting became prolific, and young girls were obsessed with body image.

Society does girls a great disservice - young girls who are so much themselves up until perhaps the age of 10, perhaps sooner, when all at once they are hit between the eyes with these impossible standards of beauty. Impossible, because these body types that we see in the media only belong to about 5% of the population. And the rest of us? Are made miserable trying to live up to that.

Knowing this, I still find myself telling my little daughter, "oh, that looks beautiful on you!" "You look beautiful today." "Let's see how you look in this hat," etc. The other day, I caught myself doing this, and said, "Liv, you know that it's nice to feel beautiful. But let me tell you something. It's what's on the inside that counts most. You must be beautiful on the INSIDE. And kind. And smart. The other stuff is only extra." She looked at me and nodded slowly, and I thought, What are you doing? She's only two! But if I keep saying it, I think she'll get it one day, and understand it. I know she'll get wrapped up in her looks inevitably, but maybe she'll get MORE wrapped up in the kind of person she is, and who she is inside. This is my hope.

There's more - (I could write a book on this subject)! But I'll spare you. Suffice to say, it's an issue that won't be going away anytime soon, so we have to do our best to address it every day, and to combat it as best we can - for ourselves, and for our daughters.

Olivia said...

honestly, I don't think that being that skinny is healthy. I think your healthy norm is different for everyone. My weight naturally gravitates to a certain point...as long as I'm eating "normal" that's what I weigh. How sick is it that there are women out there who will comment on how little I've gained this pregnancy, and when I tell them how sick I've been, that I've lost weight, and that when I had Anjali I weighed 20lbs less than before I got pregnant, they then tell me how lucky I am! Yep, throwing up for nine months is apparently better than gaining a little baby fat. That's how sick our world is. Of course, with eating "normal" my twenty pounds came back in a few months, and I honestly feel I look better and feel better with those pounds, even though it made me what society now considers fat. Who's to say in 20 years that won't change? Doctors keep changing their mind about what weight is healthy. They use to tell pregnant women to gain 40-50 lbs during pregnancy, in my grandmother's day she was told 20. Now they say 25-35, depending on your prepregnancy weight. C'mon, really? Just as every woman is different, so is every pregnancy. And as I've learned, you can gain "too little" and have a healthy baby, and I've had friends freak out about gaining "too much" and their bodies and babies turned out fine too. So far I've sheilded Anjali from Barbie dolls and other beauty role-models little girls pick up, but for how long? That's my biggest fear. I'm fine with my body, I can laugh at the ads myself, how can I teach her to?

G said...

oh god...
this is one of those subjects that I just have too many words and none of them adequate enough.

so instead I'll just say THANK YOU for posting this... I really needed it.

Dottie said...

I remember on my honeymoon when Mau and I walked the halls of the Ringling Museum of Art. The intimate portraits of the women around the 1700's and onward were so different than what we see today. I remember Mau stopping and examining this one painting. The woman was laying on her side. She was chubby according to today's standards. His eyes grew big and he jumped back and pointed at the painting. "IT'S YOU! You're my model!" and from that day on he would call me 'his model'.

I really do feel that this is simply another tool from satan, or whatever other name you want to tag on it, to supress women from reaching their full potential. As long as you can find a way to seperate a woman from her natural ability to nurture and attune herself to the goddess within her, then she will not be able to fully reach her creative capabilities. Our physical bodies provide such a distraction and at the same time are a very good indicator at how we are distorted we are feeling emotionally about ourselves and our lives.

I do agree with you. We do need to spend more time and energy helping others and doing more good and at the same time be more loving unto ourselves.

I think one of the hardest realizations I had was when I was super sick I hated my body. I hated that it wasn't functioning 'right'. I would pray to God all the time to bless me with a new body. Then the idea came to mind that God wasn't going to give me a new body until I learned to appreciate the body I already had. Why would he give me something new if I didn't treat what I already had as a sacred gift - no matter how disfunctional it was?

Kate Lord Brown said...

Great post D'Arcy - an issue I am so concerned with when my six (yes SIX) year old discusses 'fat tummies' with her friends. The world is mad. Every woman is beautiful in her teens, as a young adult, mother, grandmother. Teenagers are naturally rebellious - perhaps if we call them to arms to rebel against the lies they are being spoon fed we can raise a different generation from our own, more savvy and aware that every image which reaches us has been touched up and airbrushed. Fit, confident, healthy beauty over airbrushed lies or junk-fed obesity - that's the road I would love our girls to follow.

Sugar said...

Okay, disclaimer right up front... I saw the Eva Mendez cover and the first question and then just scooched on over to comment....

Eva Mendez used to have a bodacious body. She used to have real woman curves. And she was gorgeous! But somewhere, someone told her that she would get more roles if she was thinner. So she went on this harsh Hollywood training regimen and completely changed her diet. She got a few more roles, but all I remember is one commercial for a movie she did with Will Smith. What I remember more is how I used to admire her curves and her real beauty. Now I just feel sad for her... for believing that she wasn't good enough.

And I hope her Mexican family got all over her ass and forced some yummy menudo down her throat while saying, We love you, mija, just the way you are!

Steve and Jenn Fletcher said...

Don't even get me started on this topic!!!


To all of those girls on those covers of those magazines:

Help us out, here! Come on, Women, let's all stick together!

G said...

oh Jenn, your comment totally remined me of ani difranco lyrics; "I had to leave the house of fashion, go forth naked from it's doors, 'cause women should be allies and not competitors"

well... ya don't exactly have to be NAKED... but we really can be our own worst enimies, and the worst enemies of our sisters, huh?

I wish the mags would get a clue and do a month of covers with attracitvely photographed woman of all shapes and sizes, and photographs of women who have amazing BRAINS and HEARTS (not sure how to photograph that... but you get the idea)

mapelba said...

The Bluest Eye broke my heart! And unsettled me. There I was in college and I was thin, tall, blue-eyed and blond. I kept reading how this was the ideal. Men wanted this. But since I couldn't get dates, men didn't call...I went one entire year with one date. I concluded that something must really be wrong with the way I look and the way I act.

I know so many women want to be thin and all that, and so when my friends complained I stayed silent. But they had dates. Boyfriends. But I knew that being thin and blue-eyed was not enough.

If we could stop judging ourselves on how well men see us, it would be a great world.

smiles4u said...

We have discussed this recently as I have shared my struggle with things of this nature. Since I have come out of the closet so to speak with this issue, I have come to realize that I am not alone in these struggles. Many of us women battle these demons of perfection. I am continuing to battle and work my way towards self acceptance.

I am working on changing my daily voice...of changing my idea of perfection. I too, question what it will take for us women to stop this crazy cycle. I think your suggestion of taking the focus off of ourselves and put it on other people...reaching out to others...to those around us, is a good idea. Yet, I think it's still important for us to get to the root of this issue at the same time. For years I have poured myself into other people...giving of myself in many ways. For the most part that is not a bad thing but part of it is, in the fact that it kept me from dealing with issues I needed to deal with. I think in a big way, I hide behind doing for others so that I don't have to focus on myself. For me, it is finding a balance as I work through this issue and yet continue to give to others. And yeah D 'Arcy I am working towards loving myself more every day...thanks to you and others who have openly shared with me, supported me and been my friend. Thank you my dear friend...you have written another great post that I needed to read today!

Beth said...

This is something that I have continuously struggled with...

I think, honestly, that most women have.

I try and just be happy that I am healthy and strong. I try to tell myself positive things when I look in the mirror.

But it is so hard when guys just reinforce what we tell ourselves; that we aren't pretty enough.

I've noticed, though, that most issues on the outside are connected to issues on the inside. Whenever I feel the worst about my appearance, I'm not being the best person I can be in the things that really count.

Like what you talked about, D'Arcy. We need to realize that we are beautiful, and strong, and intelligent. We need to go out there and help people, and be happy.

Guys, and media, be hanged.

Pseudonymous High School Teacher said...

Amazing, awesome post. I teach 10th graders and recently their writing prompt was in response to a quote from a book, "I was one of the innocents who knew what was happening. But I did nothing and therefore became one of the guilty." They responded by discussing something wrong they have seen or experienced and what could or should be done to make it better. The two most moving repsonses were from two of my students who are bigger girls. One wrote how when she was in elementary school, while walking home, kids would tease and bully her. A group of boys would push her into the street and say "die, fat girl, die." It was heartbreaking.

I'm going to try a media literacy unit next quarter.

Marie said...

I like that you touched on not only the sadness that these evil ideas cause in women (which many people talk about), but also the wasted energy and imagination it represents. I think about that a lot. I was fortunate that despite being a tall, homely, somewhat chubby ballet dancer in my adolescent years, that I always loved food too much to develop an eating disorder. Rare have been the times that I didn't wish I were a little thinner, but now I'm able to honestly say that as long as I know I'm within the healthy range and am treating my body well I don't give a *%&! about what the mirror or anyone else thinks -- there are just too many other wonderful things to think about to waste effort and brainwaves doing anything more than just being healthy. I happen to think that people who are not professional atheletes who work out (by which I mean engage in physical activity that accomplishes nothing more than just making you more physically fit) more than a couple hours a day are just a more fashionable version of the same problem. I think of this the same way I think of our obsession with media -- the content of what we're being fed is a problem, but the core problem is the actual obsession. If we just refused to be obsessed and first saw and then feasted on the other things life has to offer us, we'd lose most of our appetite for those fruitless obsessions, no matter how alluringly they are offered to us.

Oh, and one other thing -- I get so sick of that "men are more visually stimulated" adage that you referenced being parroted by people, and especially Mormons in church settings, as if it's just something we just have to accept and cater to. Yes, we are taught that there is something called a Natural Man, that he is real, and he has real cravings. We're also taught that he's an ENEMY TO GOD and that if we yield to God he'll help temper the cravings of the natural man into something godlike; He'll teach us to crave the things He craves. Not that women should let themselves go just to test men's depths, or that the beauty of good health isn't a good thing, but the lack of imagination and sight that comes from buying in to these "God just made us this way" ideas impoverishes us all, and our families and society.

Anyway, thanks for the posting. Well thought out, and well said.

Jessica said...

Fabulous post. I like that you mentioned the girls who do come into their beauty.
I just went to my 10 year HS reunion and it was awesome to see all of my smart friends (lawyers and doctors now) who were a little awkward in HS and are now stunningly beautiful, in their own ways, who are still smart and articulate women.
I hope that many of your students find this to be the case for them as well.

D'Arcy said...

Yes. We all think about it. We all stress about it. We all are victims of it. I don't know if there is a total escape, like you all say. I think we find ways to deal with it, but I don't know anyone who can claim immunity to many of society's expectations. This from a girl who just spent the week in NYC--home to the most beautiful women on earth!

Jo-- I love that--This is my face, deal with it! I can see myself having that same attitude. Of course, Benning is a beauty, but not one that is completely conventional.

D'Arcy said...

And looking at photos of you Rowena, I think you are stunning. I guess I never thought that most girls wouldn't want to be short and thus have this tall dashing partner. But, being 6 feet is just as extreme....oh well, this is my height, right? Deal with it!

D'Arcy said...

Ophelia---That "I can't win" mentality is hard, isn't it? You are doing an amazing job with Liv. I can tell. I am in awe. When i have my little girls one day, I'll be calling you for advice.

D'Arcy said...

Olivia--completely sick that people would think you were lucky at not gaining weight during your pregnancy. It makes me sad.

You are beautiful, and so are your daughters!!!

D'Arcy said...

G--you are welcome.

Dottie--it is wonderful when you find those people who love you and don't hold you or your body to any worldly expectation, isn't it. I wish I could have known Mau.

D'Arcy said...

Kate--the world is mad.

D'Arcy said...

Sugar!!! I know! I see it with her, with Anne Hathaway, with so Jennifer Hudson...so many.

I hated that every interview around "Hairspray" had to deal with Niki Blonsky's weight. How she handled it, how she got that way, how she was happy anyway (good grief) and all of that stuff. It was like, they couldn't ask her (or her costars) about anything else. And while the girl has got talent, there just won't be a future for her in the industry unless she does lose weight. Blech.

D'Arcy said...

jenn and g--girls can be their own worst enemies. So much of the judgement and hatred and isolation and alienation comes from other women...not men...but women. We need to stop that madness.

D'Arcy said...

smiles4u--yes, we've talked a lot about this. This topic isn't going anywhere soon, but like you, talking about it seems to keep you on track with what the sane approach to life is.

D'Arcy said...

marie--I agree with everything you said! I always do.

Jessica--if these girls could just tap into their power earlier than they do, the world would change.

Ninny Beth said...

power. we give it up to so many things...but I agree that it's time to take it back refocus it and be women of beauty. not aesthetics. BEAUTY. thanks for the reminder.

Ann said...

After you left a comment on my blog, I came over to browse around and have been reading through.

As a person in recovery from an eating disorder (and btw, someone is pretty much in recovery for the rest of their lives) - I found this post particularly profound and interesting. I could write a novel, but let it suffice to say that I absolutely agree with you.

I'm horrified by what we've come to believe about and require of women's bodies and of beauty, it's appalling. Heartbreaking.

D'Arcy said...

Ann, thank you so much for stopping by. I appreciate your thoughts and sincerity. It is heartbreaking, but I believe that power to change what is happening to women is up to us as women and hopefully we are all doing are part to spread the word. You are beautiful!!

HappyWifeHappyLife said...

I just had to come add a comment on here tonight....
I don't watch much TV but my daughter (who is an impressionable 11 years old) loves to watch "Dancing with the Stars".

Which, up until tonight, I thought was harmless drivel. WRONG.

Tonight, they had the "Pussycat Dolls" on as guest "artists" (and yes, I'm using that term VERY loosely).

Needless to say, my daughter will not be watching "Dancing with the Stars" anymore.

I was horrified at these girls. Maybe they should change the name of the show to "Dancing with the Ho's?" (And I'm really NOT an uptight person.... D'Arcy knows.... !)

But I found it really distressing that these ("pussycat") girls are SO eager to turn their bodies into COMPLETE sexual objects.... really really really sad. (And equally sad that the crowd just ATE IT UP....

It starts all over again.... every generation deals with this issue.

D'Arcy said...

HWHL--I know, I hate it too. Will my daughters not even be able to watch any television at all? It seems like that's the way things are going. Somehow we are so educated, and yet we keep doing the same stupid things.