weighty issues

On June 2, 2016 by theseventhsphinx

It seems, lately, like I am often thinking about my weight. Not in a negative way, necessarily, or in a positive way, just that I am aware of it. Thinking about the fact of it, wondering what I think about it. Sensing the cultural pressure to be slender, seeing the cultural norm of not being especially slender (of consuming consuming consuming), watching friends and acquaintances care deeply about and suffer over their weight…it is a complex issue.

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Today I weigh 136 lbs. This fluctuates easily 3-4 lbs in either direction in a matter of days. I am conscious of wanting to weigh slightly less, not that the number is especially important – in a certain window the number is useless, and not indicative of how I look or feel – but I have a sense of heaviness and lethargy that I know I do not have when I weigh less. It’s incredible how sensitive the body is to these slight changes, we are talking a matter of 5-8 lbs, maybe.  I care about this (being healthier, stronger, more energetic), though not actually enough to try very hard to achieve it at the moment. Lately I eat a bit too much (I prepare too much, and then eat it, and also eat an astonishing quantity of bagels), and my body is getting used to it and now wants too much. To lose the weight is fairly straightforward for me (luckily), I need to drop my caloric intake and ignore the hunger signals my overindulged body will send. To ignore those signals, I just need a very, very good distraction.

Not that I am remotely overweight, here, which is playing into my lack of motivation. The last physical I had, the doctor recommended a goal weight of 125 for me. [And told me to exercise more. I should exercise more, it’s true, though exercising for the sake of exercising is to me the most boring, unsatisfying use of time, and I need to be more strategic.] I have been, at the lowest in adulthood, 123ish lbs, which I can authoritatively say is too low a number for me. I have been, at the highest, 155ish lbs, which is for me too high, though really I was healthy at those weights and all the ones in between, and felt attractive, had body confidence, etc. I am confident now, too, but I  still have a preference. Of the myriad human silhouettes, there are some I prefer over others, and I have  specific ideas about the shapes* I would like to be. I am currently aiming for an athletic 128ish lbs. These numbers are useless to anyone but myself but I give them to show their power (just that I know them, that I was paying so much attention – that you likely know your numbers as well, that we think about size in the confines of this one number rather than in some more useful, nuanced way), which is insidious.

*This plural is so important…perhaps another way to say it is I have specific ideas about the shapes I want at my disposal, my body being just one element of those shapes. Ehhh…I begin to get that feeling that no one has any idea what I am talking about…a topic for another time, maybe.

I give them, too, because it is so taboo to give them, so gauche to ask. This always confused me, the same as the age question taboo confuses me. The fact of the body is visible, the height, weight, age, roughly guessable, the exact number useless, uninteresting to anyone else but you and your mom and your physician and the people coming to your birthday party and such. I am 32, I weigh 136 lbs…who cares? I care, actually, in the sense I am interested in everything about myself (not in the sense that I am somehow ashamed, or think of this as critical secret information), but why should you? Do we want to know exactly how much we have in common? Exactly how much to approve or disapprove, or praise or disparage?

I do remember, as a child, liking when someone was my age. It was more relevant then, with my knowledge-base growing so rapidly from one year to the next. It’s funny, the sense of wonderful coincidence it sometimes had to discover someone was my age, as if there weren’t millions of us. It’s relevant too with babies, who we talk about in months or even weeks rather than years, so quickly are they changing. Perhaps we haven’t outgrown this feeling that it is important, that exact number? Hm. End tangent.

Like so many aspects of beauty and style, all of the anecdotes in the world cannot help me know what to do for myself, and most everything anyone else is doing, while perhaps interesting, is completely irrelevant to me.

I don’t have a point precisely, but I wanted to express that this is on my mind. I consider myself a healthy and body confident person…and still. It isn’t foremost in my thoughts, but it is there. I am so irritated with our culture for doing that to me, and so conscious of the deliberate force with which I have to rebel against the idea that my totally nice and healthy body needs improvement (I compromise by thinking it doesn’t need but could benefit from small improvements, so technically I guess I am still failing at this), and the pressure to be thin, the virtue of which, at the extremes promoted now in the fashion industry and the monster machine of celebrity, are illusory, and socially constructed.

Ideals of beauty are social constructs. Construct your own ideal.

x

mirror, mirror

On August 23, 2015 by theseventhsphinx

“Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face – the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man – all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us – we have died – what is there to be afraid of?

It answers them: But that happened so gradually, so easily. I’m afraid of being rushed.”
― Christopher Isherwood,  A Single Man

“Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action.”
― Virginia Woolf,  A Room of One’s Own

“Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror.”
― P.G. Wodehouse,  Right Ho, Jeeves

reflection

Mirrors are undoubtedly strange. Common, so we get used to having them everywhere, at least in privileged areas of the world, but for me they never lose their strangeness.

There is the strangeness of the mirror-image itself, the version of the self most familiar to the self, yet bizarrely wonky when compared to a photograph (or reality), the version of the self most familiar to others. Like the discrepancy between your voice as you hear it and your voice on a recording. I have a staunch loyalty to my versions, feeling a shame that the world only gets these diluted, misshapen versions of me.

There is the strangeness of knowing what one looks like at all, the technology for mirrors—and especially accurate, clear mirrors—being relatively recent in human history. There’s a bit in the mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows wherein the vampires, who cannot see their reflections, ask one another to draw their likenesses so they can see what they look like. The drawings are comically bad, which is the bit, but it rings true that they would want to know, and take any scraps of information they could. I want to know. I want every scrap of information.

Then the strangeness of making eye contact with oneself, and seeing (almost seeing) what other people see. And the strangeness of knowing that, because you can only be yourself, you aren’t necessarily seeing what other people see at all, not noticing what they might notice. And so, in a way, you are not able to see yourself at all. I often have this thought with clothing, when I can’t quite decide how it fits. Sometimes I’ll take a photo, and look at that, but what I really want is to see a body identical to mine but not mine wearing the same thing. Then, it seems, on some other being/mannequin/stand-in, I would be able to judge it properly.

I have a suspicion that I spend more time than the average person in front of the mirror. Likely due to some combination of having a lot of mirrors around, giving my skin a lot of careful attention, doing a fair amount of making up, wanting to check on things generally, not trusting my hair to be where I last put it, and liking the act of looking at myself.

This last reason is not, it is important to clarify, because I think I look so great.* I am equally or perhaps even more interested in looking at myself when I look awful, or just unremarkable, which I mean in a matter-of-fact way, sans negativity.** I mainly look unremarkable (that is, normal). Still, I don’t seem to tire of inspecting my reflection, as if it might tell me something.

*Though I do sometimes think this, or something like this. It is more that I now and then have a glad feeling toward my face, like I might toward at anything that pleased me in the moment.  Not necessarily because it is ‘pretty’^ in that moment (not because it’s been made to look so-called pretty), but because I just like it, for whatever reason.

^Pretty is a problematic term, no? I use it but as a commercio-cultural construct it’s difficult.

**Negativity is aimed directly at various blemishes and scars to maintain a good relationship with the face as a whole.

reflection

My face and body, though in a sense random, genetically random, don’t feel random. They feel integrated. Not significant, exactly, not as if they mean anything, but influential, yes. Perhaps this is only my attachment to the material world.

 

reading: confidence, feminism, motherhood

On July 11, 2014 by theseventhsphinx

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The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Naomi Wolf — OK, this is going to be long, but this book is good, and important.

Wait. First, have you read The Feminine Mystique? Clearly a mother-text of Wolf’s book, as it is to so many. Go read that (especially if you are American but I suspect it would be interesting either way). Read the first 3 pages, and if you don’t want to keep reading, well… then I just don’t know what to do with you. Despair of you, maybe.

Here’s Wolf’s outline of what the beauty myth is, which is then systematically dismantled and its component parts dismissed. There is so much critical data here that there is no point trying to summarize – better to see the whole picture:

“The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual, and evolutionary: strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless.

None of this is true.  “Beauty” is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.”

“Since the women’s movement had successfully taken apart most other necessary fictions of femininity, all the work of social control once spread out over the whole network of these fictions had to be reassigned to the only strand left intact, which action consequently strengthened it a hundredfold.”

Here’s an extended excerpt of just one example I found powerful:

“Before women entered the work force in large numbers, there was a clearly defined class of those explicitly paid for their “beauty”: workers in the display professions – fashion mannequins, actresses, dancers, and higher paid sex workers such as escorts. Until women’s emancipation, professional beauties were usually anonymous, low in status, unrespectable. The stronger that women grow, the more prestige, fame, and money is accorded to the display professions: They are held higher and higher above the heads of rising women, for them to emulate.

What is happening today is that all the professions into which women are making strides are being rapidly reclassified – so far as the women in them are concerned – as display professions.

What must this creature, the serious professional woman, look like?

Television Journalism vividly proposed its answer. The avuncular male anchor was joined by a much younger female newscaster with a professional prettiness level.

That double image – the older man, lined and distinguished, seated besid a nubile, heavily made-up female junior – became the paradigm for the relationship between men and women in the workplace. Its allegorical force was and is pervasive: The qualification of professional prettiness, intended at first to sweeten the unpleasant fact of a woman assuming public authority, took on a life of its own.

The message of the news team, not hard to read, is that a powerful man is an individual, whether that individuality is expressed in asymmetrical features, lines, gray hair, hairpieces, baldness, bulbousness, tubbiness, facial tics, or a wattled neck; and that his maturity is part of his power [..] But the women beside them need youth and beauty to enter the sames soundstage. Youth and beauty, covered in solid makeup, present the anchorwoman as generic – an “anchorclone,” in the industry’s slang. What is generic is replaceable. With youth and beauty, then, the working woman is visible, but insecure, made to feel her qualities are not unique. But, without them, she is invisible – she falls, literally, “out of the picture.”

[..]

The message was finalized: The most emblematic working women in the West could be visible if they were “beautiful,” even if they were bad at their work; they could be good at their work and “beautiful” and therefore visible, but get no credit for merit; or they could be good and “unbeautiful” and therefore invisible, so their merit did them no good. In the last resort, they could be as good and as beautiful as you please – for too long; upon which, aging, they disappeared. This situation now extends throughout the workforce.”

One key observation, if you never read it: “The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.”

 

The Confidence Code, Katty Kay & Claire Shipman — So, so interesting. They approach the definition and exploration of confidence from both genetic and cultural directions (it’s about as complicated as you would think, and I really recommend checking out the book). They took many years to research and write it, and it shows. Really great data that underscores the issues of confidence for women (ex. on the whole men are more likely to shrug off criticism, and are more willing to fail, women are more likely to ask for a promotion when they have 100% of the qualifications, men when they have something like 40%, women are more likely to underestimate their abilities, men more likely to overestimate them) at the end giving explicit advice about how to be more confident. The one that stuck with me is to try more, and fail more, and grow to be comfortable with failure as an (often inevitable) intermediate step to something better. I would say I am a very confident person, yet after reading this I could see immediately how much more so I could be, and wanted to share the book with friends who are less confident (women and men alike).

 

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Judith Warner — A lot of the observations here tie in directly with issues that come up in The Beauty Myth (and so, of course, The Feminine Mystique). I’d say it ties in pretty neatly with The Confidence Code, too. That reading alignment did not happen on purpose but the parallels are frequent and glaring. Extremely interesting and relevant to…American women in general (a lot of the issues are specific to American public policy and culture), women who have babies or are considering having babies, men who like women who have babies or are considering having babies, men who have babies, parents in general…

This excerpt should give you a good idea:

“I do not think most women can be happy in our current culture of motherhood. It is just too psychologically damaging. 

I think the kinds of “choices” women must now make, the kinds of compromises, adjustments, and adaptations they must accept in the name of “balance” and Good Motherhood, the kinds of disappointments and even heartbreaks they must suck up fore the sake of marital harmony, do them a kind of psychological violence. Too often, they end up anxious and depressed[…]

And this is not just a problem of individual women and their privately managed psychological pain.

Women today mother they way they do in part because they are psychologically conditioned to do so. But they also do it because, to a large extent, they have to. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility – for children, for families, for anyone, really – and so they must take everything onto themselves. And because they can’t, humanly, take everything onto themselves, they simply go nuts.”

 

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott — I’m not that interested in memoirs abstractly,* but go on kicks once in a while where I want to learn about a specific kind of experiential knowledge, and turn to them. In this case I will even read (or try to read, or skim) quite mediocre memoirs, just for the data. Lamott is known for her excellent memoir Bird by Bird, about her writing life, and this memoir is similarly entertaining and perceptive. I would not quite call this excellent, as parts of the personality presented were too annoying or off-putting for me, but interesting, especially for single mothers.

*with the exception of memoirs/autobiographies/biographies by and/or about writers I like.

 

Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, Rebecca Walker — Extremely detailed (this primarily covers the course of her pregnancy), a little short on observation, a faithful portrait of someone stressed and confused with the interest of elements like that of her being mixed race (black, white, Jewish, about which she evidently has another memoir), and her partner being a Buddhist monk, etc. I would say, if you are prone to anxiety, this book will only make it worse, and without being very useful or original to make up for it. Not very good but a quick read and one that presents what seem to be classic points of anxiety re: motherhood.