If all you ever saw were daisies, being confronted with a rose might freak you out.
I’m thinking today about body image. My body image, to be specific, and the way I feel when suddenly confronted with photographs of myself taken by other people, showing my whole body.
The experience is one of immediate shock, often followed by a weird cognitive dissonance. My body doesn’t Look Right. Because apparently there is a Right Way for bodies to look, and whatever I’ve constructed in my head as that Right Way sure as hell has nothing in common with the photographic evidence of my squat, round, rather sticky-outy body.
Bodies, in my head, are supposed to be straight up-and-down, to have clean, spare lines and angles. The head should be a particular size in proportion to the rest of the body — not too large, or, in my case, too small. The feet should not be too long in comparison to the length of the legs; the shape from the front of the thigh to the back of the calf not such a dramatic S-shape.
And, for the love of all that’s holy, the whole thing should not be so damn big.
After the emotional reaction, I have to start thinking rationally again. That’s when I realize: hardly anyone spends much of their time daily considering images of themselves, especially not full-body images. Hardly any of us are constantly taking full-body self-portraits, or are surrounded by full-length mirrors. We don’t spend a few hours here and there watching video of ourselves.
We are too busy being in our bodies daily to spend more than a few minutes confronting how we actually look in them.
Then it occurs to me that all those articles decrying the apparent fat-person curse of Being In Denial of One’s Fatness are actually just restating the obvious: when you’re not spending all day staring at yourself, but do spend a considerable portion of your day observing media depictions of bodies that are not much like yourself, isn’t it natural that the part of your brain dedicated to constructing the Platonic composite of How Bodies Look will be mostly filled with images of sparse, clean lines, slenderness, and a particular head-to-body ratio?
Won’t you go through your day, in your body, almost implicitly assuming that it looks more-or-less like the definition of Body you have mentally constructed, based on the images and people you’re constantly surrounded by?
And won’t you then experience a cognitive dissonance when confronted with an image of a body that breaks all those Platonic rules — especially when you realize that it belongs to you, that it is, in fact, you?
Of course. Of course you will. Not because you are a stupid fat person in denial about your fatness, but because the culture we live in has erased fatness (and other forms of physical variation) from most of its artwork and entertainment.
If you’re like me, and fatter than about 97% of the population, you’re also not going to see a whole lot of other people like yourself in daily life. Most people you see, even the relatively fat ones, are going to be a bit less sticky-outy, have proportionally-larger heads, etc. You will also incorporate those impressions into your little Platonic file cabinet, along with the much thinner media impressions.
And your first reaction on seeing a photograph of your body will be one of shock, possibly horror, and an indefinable sense that Your Body is Wrong.
The secret, of course, is that there is no Right Body, no matter how hard our culture tries to define one. There is no Platonic Body floating in indisputable ether — only real bodies that exist in the real world, available in an extravagant assortment of shapes, colours, sizes, and conformations. None of them wrong or right. All of them just are.
And now I can understand that the experience of cognitive dissonance and disgust with how my body looks is an artifact of my cultural training, not a Real and Inescapable Truth About Me, requiring a dramatic gesture of repentant food restriction and mortification of the flesh through exercise.
If anything, the dissonance is a reminder that, because my body is different and even somewhat rare in this world, I must take special care to fill my Platonic File Cabinet with images that make sense to me, that I can identify with. That my own indisputable body shall now be the starting point for my definition of Body, and that I can spend a few minutes daily filling the file cabinet with pictures of me.