It’s My Body and I’ll… Oh, Who am I Kidding?

If I was walking around with a piece of cake now, no one would even notice. But before…

I was getting ready for bed last night with the TV on as my ambient light and volume down. I didn’t know what was on and didn’t care much, since I wasn’t planning to watch. As I walked past the dresser to get to the bed, I saw this sentence come up on closed captioning and stopped. The story was about a young couple who had undergone bariatric surgery and lost tremendous amounts of weight.

It’s ok. I understand about when the tummy can’t handle it.

Last week, at a conference, I ordered a water in a brew pub where I was having dinner with a friend. The waiter replied with the quote above, giving me a sympathetic look that swept across my bald head and general appearance.

I like makeup. It’s like coloring, but on your face.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post reviewing some makeup brushes. My opening sentences positioned my interest in makeup, and I wonder (but know) why I felt the need to do that.

You don’t eat that stuff. That’s why you are so thin.

A colleague of mine, both interested in and baffled by my dietary choices, makes this comment to me with significant frequency.

What do all of these have in common and what do they have to do with yoga and veganism, you might be asking? Well, for that second part, I’m not sure that I’ll get to the answer in this post (though I’m going to dance around it some), but I can answer the first. All of these situations have in common the assumptions we make about people, based solely on what they do – or don’t do – with their physical form.

I’m working on a scholarly research piece about this right now (well, right now I’m actually blogging instead of working on that research piece, but I’m using this to help me get my thoughts sorted… yeah, right, that’s it!). We have such an odd relationship with the physical form in the U.S. (honestly, I would say most Westernized cultures, but I don’t have quite enough first-person experience to say that so boldly). We celebrate it like mad in our mass media (who knew that you had to see so much flesh to get the idea of a beer) and even give out prizes to those with the best bodies. Even when we say we are being more body inclusive , like in Dove’s Real Women campaign, the bodies we celebrate are the ones that are still darn close to the physical ideal.

At the same time, we say that the body isn’t important, the “soul” is, and we press the point of the unimportance of the physical appearance in our explicit body messages, treating attention to physical beauty as suspect or shallow. Losing weight is important, we say, due to health (not appearance). Tattoos should be “meaningful” (in some way that reflects social values – like love for a family member), not just pretty.

It’s quite the conundrum, isn’t it? The message seems to be that it’s important to look beautiful and have a beautiful body, but you should get it naturally, not be too attached to it, and we should all pretend like it doesn’t matter even while we celebrate the beautiful.

And so, we judge people – often – based on body and body choices. And by judge, I don’t even mean always harsh or negative judgments. Sometimes the judgments are positive. But, they are still attributions about personal “non-body” characteristics made on the basis of appearance. A person who is thin with a big plate of food has a good appetite. A person who is heavier with a big plate of food is a lazy glutton. A bald woman is certainly ill, unless she is in a cult. A woman who isn’t “naturally beautiful” and doesn’t “improve” her appearance with cosmetics and hairstyling is either lazy or socially inept. A woman who really likes makeup is shallow. A raw foodist is nuts and a vegan is weird/misguided/judgmental.

It’s a lot of information we glean from just looking at those around us. And it points to something about our sense of social ownership of the body. Out loud, we will say that people’s bodies are their own. But a quick look at media messages, social messages, and political messages makes it relatively obvious that a lot of us don’t really believe that. Oh, we may believe that our “own” bodies should be ours to control, but we are pretty sure we know better how others should care for their bodies.

The pull of this way of thinking is almost inescapable. I can describe this all to you and tell you what is problematic about it, but I still do it. I am vehemently pro-choice (in SO many ways), but I’ll still admit that I entertain thoughts about what other people should do for/to/about their bodies, or judgements about who they “are” due to those bodies. Oy.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not something we can really get around. Maybe it’s part of our human mammal nature. I suppose that other mammals make some judgments about each other on the basis of appearance, and perhaps the same great big brains that allow us to think our great big thoughts also lead us to make attributions about things like body almost constantly.

I know that most of us find it frustrating, even while we do it. I was asked yesterday to join and possibly help administrate, two facebook groups related to female baldness. A strong underlying theme in both is a desire not to be judged based on that body element.

Is it that we don’t want this kind of judgment to apply to us, but it’s ok for others? Is it that (as attribution theory points out) we tend to attribute our own, or those of the people in our “in-group,” negative behaviors to forces beyond our control and our positive behaviors to the self, while with those in the out-group we do the opposite? Is all of this inevitable or changeable?

Do I have an answer? Nope! But I’ll be working through it more in the coming months as I work on this article, so you may hear more of my ponderings on the subject. What are yours?

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9 Responses to It’s My Body and I’ll… Oh, Who am I Kidding?

  1. “I am vehemently pro-choice (in SO many ways), but I’ll still admit that I entertain thoughts about what other people should do for/to/about their bodies, or judgements about who they “are” due to those bodies. Oy.”

    This sentence really resonated with me. The other day I got to wait for the tow truck to pick up my spouse’s car. The tow truck driver was a friendly guy and we had a nice conversation about a wide range of subjects while he was loading up the car. But I made (hopefully internal) judgments about the driver based on his choice to have a swastika tattooed on the side of his neck.

  2. Dina says:

    You are SO right. People say out loud that it’s what’s inside that counts and that inner beauty is more worthy than outer beauty. But then they walk away thinking the total opposite. And it’s not always a conscious thought or a mean-spirited one, but just a reflection of how society has us trained to think. Before I had weight loss surgery, I would get told that I had such a “pretty face.” Which obviously translated into the rest of me being not so pretty. And it was said in a tone of regret or disappointment, like, “What a shame, you have such a pretty face. If only…”

    “The message seems to be that it’s important to look beautiful and have a beautiful body, but you should get it naturally, not be too attached to it, and we should all pretend like it doesn’t matter even while we celebrate the beautiful.” How true is that???? So if you’re overweight, it is obviously a fault of yours in some way and if you find you need a little help to lose weight, well then that doesn’t count because you didn’t obtain it naturally. And if you are lucky enough to actually lose that weight, don’t get too proud of yourself, because it’s really what’s inside that counts and none of that matters anyway.

    These kind of assumptions carry over into every aspect of physical appearance. I’ve heard it said that the current fight for marriage equality is the last great fight against discrimination we have to break through. I disagree. There will always be something that people take for granted (and determine to be “the norm”) while simultaneously criticizing others for not having it and belittling their struggling attempts to gain it.

    • theveganasana says:

      Dina,

      It makes me sad, but I agree with you. As human animals, we seem to have a need for doing this prioritization of X people over Y people. I fear that it will continue.
      I hate that you dealt with it in that way, but it doesn’t surprise me. 🙁

  3. Tatiana says:

    Hi Lori,
    You are right, it’s not just the US, but the Western world in general. I grew up in Russia and I know a bunch of people who live in Europe. There is a lot of social pressure relating to how we should and should not look.
    I may be wrong, but I think it’s plain biology that makes us judge other people by their appearance… Physically fit (I’m not talking about extreme fit here) people are healthier, there’s no way around this. So we are more attracted to them.

    • theveganasana says:

      I missed seeing your reply, Tatiana. Thank you for reading.
      I think there is probably some sort of biological imperative, but we’ve layered a lot of social on top of that. How a woman does her hair or wears her makeup, or the style of a man’s clothing, are not about the appearance of health. Yet, still we judge.

  4. Lynn B says:

    Oh yes I think about this often, probably too much. A few months ago there was an image going around Facebook asking “when did THIS become more beautiful than THIS” which compared women like Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren with current famous women like Kate Moss and Kira Knightly. Obviously trying to say that the thin women of today were less beautiful than the curvier women of yesteryear. But why can’t they all be beautiful. And what about the naturally thin women who have a hard time maintaining their weight let alone gain to appease societies new standard of ‘strong is the new skinny’?

    Another issue I have is the self-help trap…for some of us, if we keep digging we will always find something about ourselves that we need to ‘fix’, never taking into account that maybe we are okay as we are. While I do believe in always trying to be a good person and working on making an effort to do and be a better person, the self-help “gurus” out there would have us believe that we are never acceptable…our hair can be shinier, our eyeshadow smokier, our tummies tighter, our cooking tastier, our houses cleaner, our children smarter, our thighs thinner, our eating cleaner, etc. It’s exhausting to try to live up to these expectations that we end up imposing on ourselves.

  5. Maria Simone says:

    I’ve been feeling this more and more over the past few years, with the training that John and I have been doing. Now, that we are moving toward vegetarianism, the judgments feel overwhelming at times. I most dislike it when I’m told that what I do (either with training or eating isn’t healthy for my body. I feel a strong connection between this post and the guilt, fear, shame post. They go really really well together. Hmmmm. A book, perhaps?

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