Body Image Philosophy

Let’s talk about body image.

For me, this is a weird topic because I have troubles with dissociation. I am frequently not connected to reality, and, in the same vein, to my body. I understand on an abstract level that I have a body, but I don’t relate to it that well. When I look in the mirror, I don’t immediately think “that is me”, but something more like “that’s the body my brain is operating”. That doesn’t mean I don’t have preferences for what I put on that body or what sort of shapes I want my body to have, but I don’t truly make the connection with it being me. So body image is odd, to me.

It didn’t used to be that way. I think that as I’ve gotten older and I’ve had some mental ups and downs, I’ve become totally detached. But I don’t feel the need to reconnect that bond—I’m comfortable with seeing the body as something I happen to own instead of something that is me and determines the person I am. I feel that it actually gives me more control over how I take care of it, how I dress it up, and how I feel about it. When I don’t equate myself with my body, I don’t judge my worth for how my body looks.

If I had it my way, we’d all be floating brains, but that won’t happen.

I digress, though: I don’t really have a solid body image because I don’t relate well to the fact that I have a body. Here: I see my body like a vehicle.

Let’s elaborate on that comparison.

You have only one car. You were given it like a ration and will never have another one. It works—it runs, it has headlights that mostly work, it has a solid set of tires, and so on. It is the only car you can ever use; you can never trade your car with someone for theirs. It’s just the way it works. But it’s still a good system because your car works and you use it to do amazing things. You can go to places you never could otherwise. And sure, sometimes you need to change a busted headlight, and maybe the car decides that it will no longer go quickly up hills, but it’s what you have. You must accept it. Change what you will, but at the core, that is your car.

Well, for me, the body is the same way. My brain is the driver. My body is the car. It does exactly the same things other cars do: it’s just the driver who’s different. So no matter what kind of body you have, it might be helpful to think of this analogy. You are not the body you’re in. It forms a part of you and informs your experiences—maybe you don’t like hypothetical hills because your hypothetical car makes strange and terrifying noises when you go up—but the car can never be the driver.

Bodies are secondary, in my imagination, but I understand that this is not how everyone sees it. I am privileged that my “car” is one that allows me to pass by, unnoticed, but others do not have that privilege. Body image can impact how the driver feels; it can change how you drive; it can mean that you frequently get your tires slashed because people hate your car, or you only drive in your own neighborhood because you’re embarrassed by your car, or that you drive all over the place with the windows down and music blasting because you think your car’s the best thing in the world. Body image is related to many other things that don’t quite have their own scenarios in my car analogy, either, like race, disability/ability, religion, politics, and media influences.

People are sold widely on the thin, white woman with bountiful breasts, a perky butt, zero stretchmarks or cellulite, and the whitest teeth on the planet. This is the media standard of beauty, and this is a problem. This is also a problem because I am privileged to fit parts of these standards: I’m thin, white, and busty. I often look like the lingerie models (if they were shrunk down a foot, probably). So I benefit in many ways from racist beauty standards. One of the best things you can start doing, if you also benefit, is to acknowledge that you do.

Here is a quick comparison I learned a few semesters ago in a General Women’s Studies course—in fashion, women of color are barely represented as models. If you see runways for designers, the models will mostly be thin, tall, and white. When they are black, it is very likely that they will be dressed up in animal prints. This harkens back to old stereotypes that equated people of color with animals. In the US, this especially harkens back to slavery when female slaves were basically valued for being “breeders”. Compare this to the white models, who are dressed in a huge variety of (often) strange contraptions, or, you know, somewhat regular clothes.

Writing that is very depressing, but when you start to understand how subversively other people are being condescended, you can’t turn that off. They can’t, and neither should you. I’m not going to claim I fully understand the body image plight of women of color, but I’m not going to claim I fully understand the body image plight of any other woman in general. I can only offer a bit of my thoughts and listen to what other people think.

I also understand that body image is not solely something women struggle with because men are also sold beauty standards—impossible muscles on a thin frame seems to be the general idea. (If you’re a man, please tell me if I’m wrong because I want to know how you see it.) They have different body issues that are not so much about the worth of them as people, but the worth of them as pillars of manliness. Women are, in my opinion, told that their beauty is their ultimate value. Femininity is assumed, yes, but their beauty is the real “goal”. Men, on the other hand, are told that being very masculine is their ultimate value—and not having that muscular, hairless build is not as big of a deal, so long as they behave in the masculine ideal. There are obviously two different stakes, here, but body image is still there.

But that is if we only consider two sides of a wide spectrum—feminine and masculine. I think most people are in between the extremes, in reality, and I know many people have said “FUCK THE SPECTRUM” and don’t find anything of themselves within those parameters. And I think body image is a different beast for them, then, because society still has gendered beauty standards. If you’re a biological woman, they want you to wear figure-flattering clothing; if you’re a biological man, they want you to look the part. If you’re a female-bodied man, they cannot believe you’d throw away your “feminine beauty”. Similarly, if you’re a male-bodied woman, they often retaliate more violently because you have, in their eyes, taken a huge shit on masculinity.

I want to say this: I promote body positivity, and I encourage others to be comfortable in their bodies. If you need to change it, in reality, that is neither negative nor positive—the driver is not the car, and the car is not the driver. Whatever you change will not change the core: you. You are the only constant in that analogy; you may decide to change the routes you take or you may decide that your car should be vivid pink because that suits you, but you are always the driver. But I understand that people rarely get a glimpse of the driver—in reality and not in my hypothetical alternate reality, I’m tailed all of the time because of my old and shitty car whereas they do not tail me in my mother’s “newer” ride. Sometimes the fact that the outside world judges from surface standards means that you are inextricably connected to your body, especially considering prejudice, transphobia, or racism. I recognize that I have not had to deal with the world that same way—the “worst” discrimination I face as a white girl is that I like Starbucks and can’t dance. I have never worried that my skin or my body type might make me a walking target for ridicule or prejudice (aside from the “run-of-the-mill” sexist remark), and I am privileged for that. And I did nothing to deserve that privilege.

If you want a new coat of paint and you have the resources, paint your car the color you’ve been thinking about. If you want new rims and can afford it, do it. If changing your vehicle pleases you, the driver, and makes you better able to face the world, I support you. But please know that I do not think your worth is determined by the vehicle at all, but that I understand how important the vehicle really is for daily life.

What is your stance on body image?

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