Today is my first post over on Gingerbread Feminists, all about body image. I’ve decided to post it here as well because a) it’s my blog and I can shamelessly self-promote if I so choose and b) this post is a bit of a milestone for me in being able to write about things other than baking and books. Honestly, I’m as surprised as anyone to be talking about body image. I thought body image writing was only for the beautiful or the confident. I may not be able to contribute to the construction of the current ideals about beauty or handsomeness, but my voice and my experience matter a little in trying to question and change it. Body image is, I reckon, a conversation that anyone and everyone should be able to participate in.
As part of an exercise on resilience for my work, I was asked to fill in a list of my most basic tolerations – the things in my life that bothered and were easily fixable but that I never got round to doing. ‘Easy’ being the focus here – we’re talking putting up a picture frame, watering some plants, sending that email: they shouldn’t be things that you need to figure out an action plan for, but things that you already know how to tackle.
To my surprise, my top five tolerations were about my image and appearance, and there were another five more in the whole list. I’d never thought that I was stressed about my appearance; frustrated yes, but not stressed, especially in comparison to other issues at work over the past year that have caused tears and sleepless nights. I guess that’s the virtue of these exercises that you have to do-so-fast-that-your-conscious-mind-can’t-edit-it-out. So, why should it be such a surprise to me that anything about image and appearance made the tolerations list?
I’d love to say that I wholeheartedly believe beauty and image to be a feminist issue that requires reflection and debate – not just about the media or political sphere, but also for where I have taken to heart and to mind the myths and contradictions about beauty and image. The issue is that whilst I do believe this, I know that I also still believe in the myth that image and appearance isn’t really that important, that it’s only for the beautiful few, or that it’s vain to do so. I still live in the dichotomy that women should make an effort with their appearance but that, at the same time, they are shallow for doing so. In all honesty, then, it surprises me that appearance came so high on the list because I thought more ‘important’ things would be there; I thought that my worries would be about ‘significant’ or ‘deeper’ things. I was wrong, but only on one account – that my appearance and self-image truly cannot be separated from the so-called ‘deeper’ things that I work for and concern myself with. How do I know this? Because they made the list: these things affect – at a more than superficial level – my ability to feel that I am exercising control over my life, the stress I feel when I do not, and my overall ability to be resilient.
Realising that the session on tolerances was about power and control, what really surprised me about putting these things about my appearance on the list was that I saw them to be changeable when I treated them as insurmountable. Embarrassingly, I’m talking about really simple forms of change here – things like hair and glasses when I’m very well aware of the existence and indeed location of hairdressers and opticians. Let me give you a really basic example about, of all things, my ear (probably because it’s easier to start talking about ears rather than, you know, bellies, thighs and other jiggly bits when you are new to writing about body image.)
I have a wonky ear. Something went wrong when I was about five, resulting in me having to have half of my left earlobe lopped off. Surgically, I mean – not some kind of playground punishment for breaking a toy during circle time or anything sinister like that – no, no it was all above-board stuff. And it’s not like I have a cauliflower ear. It’s very neat – I just have a missing earlobe and as such, have always said that I can’t wear earrings despite thinking that they are pretty and would make me feel more stylish. (Which is probably a lot to do with dangly earrings (as opposed to piercings being coded as feminine-decorative in our culture.) The thing is, it’s not like I haven’t been aware of the existence of clip-on earrings, or the possibility of trying to get in pierced in a different way, especially as every single person I have moaned to has helpfully suggested such.
The same is true of other image-based tolerations: I know that other options are available than the status quo. So why, with such easy steps available, do I end up tolerating and moaning about bad hair, wonky glasses and hateful clothes for months, years, and even two decades? Why do I bar myself from steps that I know would make me feel more in control of my image, especially when I know precisely what those steps are?
I was about to say that it is because I’m lazy, but that’s not strictly true, or at least not in the ‘not bothered’ way. It’s that I’m lazy about challenging the image I have believed about myself. I’d rather stay safe with my tolerations because it is easier to give in to those beliefs than have to think for myself and be responsible for my own appearance and what I have believed about it. Thinking about it now, the state of my left earlobe has always been an excuse rather than a reason, an excuse not to have a try and take charge of an aspect of my own image. The same goes for not bothering to find a hairdresser or optician, or wearing skirts or red lipstick or colours or having the right to wear more damn eyeliner that I really ‘should.’ It’s always been a good excuse to stick with the beliefs about ‘not being able to because I have big thighs/wonky ears/bad skin’ or ‘not being worth it’ and to deny taking charge of my appearance and looking as I wish to, rather than to risk the possibility of being mocked or accused vain/frumpy for doing so.
What has surprised me most about these two sets of myths is that they are not mine. True enough, I have taken them to heart and re-imposed them on myself, but I doubt that they originate with any of my own feelings about myself. I’ve taken a lot of flack from people in my time, but also praise, so I think this has probably lead me to believing in a skewed picture of myself. I end up hiding my believed flaws and flaunting my believed assets based on a composite of others’ gaze. I hear their voices, and those of popular media, commenting on my appearance when I look at or even think about myself, and I have not had the strength or resolve to discover me for myself, to see myself through my own eyes. I’m not saying that we can extract ourselves, or even how we see ourselves, from our relationships with others and with culture, but I do think that it is important to challenge what views of ourselves we have inherited from others whether that is about our image and our bodies or about our brains, spirits and competence.
I don’t believe that this will come through haircuts and wardrobe makeovers, through wearing earrings or accepting my bereft lobes. I don’t believe it will come through focusing on body parts or appearance either. After all, I doubt that it’s my lobes, my face, my belly or my whole body that are the problems I’ve been tolerating at all; what I’ve tolerated is what I believe about myself – my mind and my body – to be capable of, and how I’ve treated myself as such.
What about you? Where do you want to start challenging the myths you have believed about yourself? What’s on your tolerations list?
*Images via the feisty female.