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The truth about body love

April 26, 2012

I wrote this post originally on Dead of Winter because I keep hearing misconceptions about what it means to love one’s body and I feel that I needed to clear the air about some things. I’d like your thoughts about it. Thanks!

In a previous post, I highlighted and refuted criticisms of body love that I did not feel held water. Without addressing a specific person, I will continue in that vein.

I have heard people criticize body love on the grounds that it teaches people, especially young girls, that appearance is paramount. Instead we should turn our attention to what’s on the inside. I understand this criticism, but again, under closer scrutiny, it doesn’t hold up.

Can people be vain about their appearance and worship appearance above all else? They most certainly can, but people can be just as vain about accomplishments, social status, athletic prowess, health and disability status, personality, or whatever that person has that the have-nots have not.

Exhibit A:

  • Look at you! Singing opera by the age of 15! I couldn’t do that until I was in my 30s!
  • You’re going to college to be a doctor? Good for you! My kid’s stuck at community college doing automechanics. I told him to get better grades!
  • Okay, you ran a mile in ten minutes, but you need to do better than that if you want to stay in shape.
  • Wow, you have, like, the healthiest lunches I’ve ever seen! I’m glad SOME teens are responsible enough to care about their health!
  • Let’s see, you’re outgoing, you have lots of friends, you’re always getting involved, and you always have a smile! Why shouldn’t people like you?

Discussion:

  • In the first example, we are reinforcing the idea that people who do not develop as quickly or who don’t have the same type of voice and musical talents are less than. We are also reinforcing the idea that OH EM GEE, you need to do it while you’re young or else it’s hopeless.
  • In the second example, we worship money and high status (which are attained by attending prestigious colleges and getting professional jobs). We look down on those who don’t have a brand name on their degree, who aren’t rich, or who pursue trades instead of professional careers, dismissing them as being less hardworking, less skilled, and less intelligent.
  • In the third example, we are teaching young people that if you don’t have the body of a runner, or if you aren’t gifted at it, then you are out of shape. It reinforces the idea that everyone can, and should, be equally physically fit, and that not having this type physical fitness makes you lazy, stupid, and defective.
  • In the fourth example, we send the message that your health and lifestyle determine your worth as a person. If the person is disabled, it creates a double-standard. In order to be a “good” disabled person, you must do everything possible to maximize health and look able-bodied. If you have the nerve to actually be disabled, then you are not trying hard enough and not worth as much.
  • In the fifth example, we are operating under the assumption that in order to be desirable to others you must have an extroverted personality. It sends the message that your ultimate goal in life is to be desirable to others, and it operates under mistaken ideas about what introversion is about.

They all create pressure on young people to perform at their best, push themselves to the limits, at younger and younger ages, and in all possible areas. Otherwise? You’re a waste of space, full stop.

Are any of these statements substantially different from complimenting someone’s appearance and placing expectations on them to maintain it? Are they any better?

Hardly.

Furthermore, does commenting on someone’s appearance, or paying attention to your own appearance, always have to be shallow? I don’t think so.

Complimenting someone in a way that reinforces existing prejudices is unquestionably shallow. Complimenting a fat person on their weight loss is prejudiced in this culture. Complimenting an African on her newly straightened hair may be prejudiced, but not always. Complimenting someone on their fashion sense or the way they carry themselves isn’t such a bad thing. Our appearance can communicate a lot about ourselves, including what culture, religion, class, and political party we come from. It can tell us about our emotions and hobbies.

Not only our clothes and our accessories, but our bodies can communicate things about us. That is why body modification is practiced in so many cultures in various forms. It is a permanent mark on your person that signifies something important. Scars and deformities are unintentional body modifications that tell stories. Unmodified bodies can reveal information such as what race, culture, or nationality we came from. Posture and facial expressions identify emotions.

Physical features “act” differently. An Asian smile and a Slavic smile look different. Dark skin against bright colors look different from light skin against dark colors. When we combine our unique features with modes of expression like makeup, fashion, etc., it gives us a unique character.

Physical features act as symbols (e.g., fat = fertility). Are they accurate 100% of the time? No. Can the body as symbol have negative connotations? Yes. Can the same feature mean different things in different contexts? Yes. Nonetheless, appearance serves a cultural and aesthetic purpose as symbolism, and we would do well to reclaim it in a positive way.

Because appearance is the first thing we notice about someone, it is popular to demonize groups of people by pointing out undesirable physical features. Jews were often portrayed as having hooked noses. It was an easily identifiable feature that separated the Jews from others. Their noses were distorted to look monstrous, and the feature became synonymous with monstrous qualities such as greed, parasitism, and treachery. The proper solution to that isn’t to say, “Hey, our hooked noses don’t define us.” That allows THEM to control the discussion. You need to reclaim it, make it your own, and make it good.

Our minds may take precedence over our bodies, but they are not separate from us. Our souls LIVE in our bodies. As long as we use our bodies to think, act, and live in the world, our bodies matter. As long as our bodies are the first point of recognition (“Hey, look, it’s Joanna. I can tell the hat!”) then bodies matter. Taking care of them certainly matters, even if you don’t like the way it looks or acts all the time.

Love your body because it’s YOURS. Love it because it is the one possession that no one can ever take from you. You know you live in a totalitarian society when your body is no longer yours. Bodies do matter.

Love it. Love it enough to care for it and peacefully coexist with it. This is your one body and you will live in it forever. There’s no sense not making the most of it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. The Real Cie permalink
    April 26, 2012 4:11 pm

    I wish I could learn to love my body. I guess at least I tolerate it a little better these days.

  2. Happy Spider permalink
    May 5, 2012 10:04 pm

    That is a pretty impressive selection of back-handed compliments. I think the key is that the speaker turns the discussion away from praising the listener to deriding the listener (you sing opera? That’s not such a big deal, I did it myself)(you’re a long ways from being in acceptable shape), to insulting some other group (too bad other teenagers don’t care about their health), or to coercing the listener into comforting the speaker because the speaker feels inferior (you’re going to great school while my son isn’t! Poor me!).
    However I don’t understand your objection to the last one(“You’re outgoing.have lots of friends,, why shouldn’t people like you?”). You say that’s no good because the speaker is implying that in order for the listener to be desireable to others she must have an extroverted personality. I don’t hear it that way. I hear that the listener was feeling unattractive so the speaker was trying to cheer her up by mentioning specific postive traits of the listener. That’s a good compliment. Mentioning specific traits is much better than some sort of general statment like “you’re a wonderful person so of course people like you”.
    Praising someone for having various positive extrovert traits is not at all the same thing as insulting introvert traits. YOu might as well say that praising someone for being a good athlete is the same as insulting people who play chess. The definition of extrovert here seems to be somebody who enjoys being in the company of lots of people versus somebody who likes to be alone, so let’s go with that.
    Praise for an extrovert often goes along the lines of the compliment you gave.
    Praise for an introvert often focuses on the fact that just by definition an introvert spends A LOT of time alone with her own thoughts. So she gets things like “It’s always so fascinating to talk with you. You have such an interesting perspective on things. You always give me new ways of thinking about things. You have so much depth.” Since introverts prefer one on one interactions to being in a group she get sthings like “you’re someone I can have a really long conversation with.” There’s an idea that although an introvert doesn’t like to have lots of friends (she doesn’t want to devote that much time to social interaction) she really treasures the few friends she has so she gets compliments about being a loyal and dedicated friend. That one’s a little tricky though, because praising an introvert for the high quality of her friendships pretty easily turns into sneering at extroverts for the superficiality of their friendships. Which would be both mean and untrue.
    When I was a kid I was very negative about extroverts. That’s because I always focussed on how awful it must be to be an extrovert. They are always surrounded by people. When do they get a chance to be themselves? How can they think? How can they have a soul if they never think? Doesn’t the unending noise just crush any sense of their own selves? And they’re so boring! They don’t read 10 hours a day so you can’t discuss books with them and they just don’t seem to think about ideas. They just gossip and talk about other people or fashion or other boring things. I can see there is a great advantage to being an extrovert in terms of finding friends and jobs and spouses and so forth but it all comes at such a terrible price!
    Well, I learned better. The point isn’t that I myself should be an extrovert but that extroverts are good. it’s nice to have extroverts around.
    Consider the extrovert in a work setting. There I am, alone in my cubicle, my thoughts running in circles like some cursed gerbils on a cursed wheel because my fountain of ideas has run dry and somehow it just never ever occurs to me to go have some interaction with other people to stimulate my brain. So the extrovert comes by. “What are you working on?”, he says. “How interesting. Why, that reminds me of something told me the other day.” “Hey, told me something really neat. Let me tell you about it. May we should go over to together since he would explain it better.” “Man, and I have run into something that really stumps us. Maybe you’ll have an idea about it.”
    So the extroverts keep us all sailing smoothly down the path of fruitful exchange of ideas instead of smashing up on the rocky extreme of everybody sitting alone in their cubicles and staring at the computer while the cursed gerbils go round and round in their heads. I guess the other extreme, the extreme of too many extroverts, is the extreme of everybody being sucked down into just hanging out and gossipping instead of working.
    Similarly for the extrovert in a social setting. Or any other setting that occurs to you.
    I think part of my hostility as a kid is things were presented to me as if I was in competition with the extroverts. The extroverts get all the attention and friendship and love because they are outgoing and thus more noticed. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. If I don’t become more outgoing myself than the extroverts will take everything and leave me with nothing! I must overcome my undesireable introverted tendencies right away before there is nothing left! It’s an emergency! Life is a rat race.
    Being told over and over again to be less introverted really makes it hard to come to a proper understanding of my relation to extroverts which is something like,”My complement! Together our range of strengths will allow us to deal with any situation!”
    So my point is, you can praise someone for being extroverted or introverted without implying that the complementary personality trait is bad. Similarly, I don’t think praising someone for having one type of beauty implies a sneer at people who don’t have that type of beauty. There are so many different positive traits that a person could have that it would be ridiculous to think that one person could have them all (which is what’s implied by thinking that lacking a certain trait is bad), not to mention that many traits, like various introverted/extroverted traits, are mutually exclusive.
    I think when you said that the speaker of the compliment “misunderstood what introversion is about” you meant that she’s not going by the definition that introverts gain energy from being alone while extroverts gain energy from being in groups. I do find that idea interesting and it is interesting to contemplate the person who really loves parties but gets so tired out from them that she can rarely attend them. Or the philosopher who just loves pondering her own thoughts but can’t do it for long stretches of time at once. But, really, I think it is fine also to talk about the person who loves being involved with others versus the person who just wants to be alone. Even if we now don’t exactly have a word for it because of extroversion/introversion’s subtle change in meaning.

    • May 5, 2012 10:12 pm

      I appreciate your comment and I agree with most of it. I just want to clarify the introversion issue. There is certainly nothing wrong with being extroverted or showing extroverted traits when you’re an introvert. What gets to me is that most people, when they make comments like that, WOULDN’T ever make comparable compliments to introverts. I rarely hear, “You’re so reflective.” Or something else that applies to an introvert. In a society that values introversion, the compliment wouldn’t rub me the wrong way, but it does.

      I also find that even when a person really isn’t outgoing, really doesn’t have a lot of friends, or whatever, we try to convince them that that they are outgoing and that they do have friends. It often sounds to me like when someone says, “But you’re not fat!”

  3. June 1, 2012 8:35 pm

    , Introversion and shy are not the same thing (although to an outsider loiokng in, the behavior sometimes looks similar, as both the shy person and the introvert may sometimes retreat from more social activities). And I’m glad you pointed out that there’s no reason to want to change, if you’re an introvert. It’s a lot like being right- or left-handed. Neither is right or wrong. And there are advantages and disadvantages to both (just ask tennis players how challenging it is to play against a lefty!). As Pat noted, we use both sides of our personalities, just as we use both hands in many activities, even though one side is dominant. So it’s good advice to appreciate and celebrate your authentic personality and learn to capitalize on your strengths.

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