Monday, January 07, 2008

Some thoughts on thoughts on body image.

Yesterday, I went bookstore browsing briefly, planning to buy the second book in the Twilight series. It wasn't available where I was, so I just got something else. I picked up the book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, which I have been meaning to read ever since it came out, and which has gotten rave reviews in a variety of circles, read the blurbs on the back from folks like Arianna Huffington, and put it back down.

I think the problem is that with all my education, it feels cliche to be worried about eating disorders. We all know what we are supposed to think about our bodies. We are supposed to love them. We are not supposed to feel bad about them. We are supposed to eat when we are hungry, give into that craving, exercise because it feels good. But the truth is that's really hard to do, and there are about a million factors going into how we feel about our physical selves. I remember a time when I could write honestly that I didn't feel inferior when I looked in a magazine and saw nothing but slim models. That time, unfortunately, is long gone. Somewhere in the middle of college, it disappeared. I'm still wondering how exactly that transformation took place, but sometime in 2002 I became yet another woman in this world who doesn't see food or an exercise machine or a thin girl in a coffee shop for what they are, but for what they mean for me.

So I think part of the reason I've been putting off reading Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters is that I feel like I know the score. And that is just another way of saying that I'm in denial. Part of me doesn't want to read about the tyranny of the diet industry because I still buy into it, or to read about how fucked up our society is about weight and beauty and thinness, because I am afraid of how much that will reflect my own beliefs. I thought about this yesterday as I gingerly replaced the book on the shelf, and instead picked up a copy of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia.

This morning, I read a short excerpt in the Utne Reader from Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. I do think parts of it are the old saw. But I am really trying to think about it, and I think we need the old saw. I hate it when I see my smart, funny, beautiful women friends reading shit like Glamour and Cosmo, even though I forgive myself for reading Lucky and Self. (Because, you know, these are body-positive magazines in my head.) I hate feeling ambivalent every time I eat a meal. I hate that my male friends think it's weird when I talk about this, but all date thin women. I hate that for women, our bodies are inseparable from our shopping habits, our social lives, our careers, whatever. I hate that this is considered a "women's issue." It all drives me crazy. So I am going to go back and buy that book and read it, and hopefully it challenges me as much as I hope it will.

Our all-or-nothing nation is built on foundations of fantasy. Our imaginations are harnessed to America’s favorite adolescent fantasy: how much prettier, thinner, richer, and more successful we will be one day. This perpetual American daydream is written in the language of “somedays.” Someday whispers us to sleep at night, gets us through a boring workday, makes our little lives bearable. The hundreds of ads the average American sees every day brainwash us into believing that we need more shiny, new things and, of course, food—glorious piles of chocolate chip cookies, decadent ice cream, burgers the size of elephants. “Someday” soothes insecurities, numbs discomfort, and keeps perfect girls running obediently in the hamster wheel of preoccupation with their weight. Someday we will be thin. Translation: Someday we will be happy, loved, and powerful.
--Courtney E. Martin

(from the Utne Reader, via Feministing)


Kim said...

Have you read Unhooked by Laura Sessions Stepp? It's not really about body image (it's about girls and the culture of "hooking up"), but the tone of your post reminded me of the book. It's quite good.

Emily said...

I haven't read "Unhooked," and I have issues with Laura Sessions Stepp; here is why:

(also here:

In light of that, I am actually really interested to know what you mean about my tone... I sometimes wonder about the stridency of my writing when I talk about stuff like this; I worry that the tone overcomes my point, and that therefore my point may be misconstrued or seen as simplistic because I don't go into major major detail. Just curious.

D said...

is it just a female body image thing? don't women look at fat guys differently than they do slimmer guys? I think so.
And I don't see people being any more accepting of guys with heft as opposed to women with said heft.
Just thinkin...good post Em

Emily said...

Dad - Definitely not just a women body image thing, but I do think it ends up being worse for women, perhaps just because a lot of things end up being worse for women. Still, that's part of what bugs me about it... I feel like it is a) dismissive to the guys who have similar body image stuff that they're up against and b) because, niched as it is as a "women's issue," it can more easily be dismissed or ignored.

Kim said...

I think there's a very gray area (no pun intended) about the whole thing. I guess everyone thinks about the topic differently, and in general I think everyone is a little sensitive to his/her own personal experience with the subject. Example: I was reading that first post and getting very defensive and angry. I read the book and felt empowered in an "I wish I had read this my freshman year of college" way.

To each his/her own.

Anyway, what I meant about your tone wasn't so much tone I guess but opinion. I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts, and I thought they were well-put. Your writing in general seems to me to be very thoughtful, and I like that.