Body BeautifulPosted: December 13, 2013
I have spent the bulk of today in a meeting in the North of England. Actually that’s a lie, I spent two hours in the meeting but the travel time is 4 hours so it still counts. Why not do it by Skype? Nothing’s as good as meeting someone face to face to make sure you all understand what each other needs. Anyhow, enough of the meeting, all that matters are the introductions when I first arrived. I walked through the door and the guy I was there to meet greeted me with a smile, shook my hand and said ‘Wow, you’ve lost weight. You look good!’. It was meant as a compliment and I took it as a compliment but somewhere in the back of my mind wheels started turning.
My bodily appearance is especially prone to variance. Today I am just overweight but my stomach is not particularly protuberant and I feel healthy (I am apple shaped, my weight shows up on my stomach). A year ago I weighed nearly two stone heavier (about thirteen kilo’s), my belt size was four to six inches larger and I had a tendency to lean slightly backwards when I walked, to bring my centre of gravity in line. Four years ago I still weighed two stone heavier than today but I was running marathons and, although I was technically overweight, the weight was predominantly muscle (which is denser than fat although I’m not sure the difference accounts for the entire observation) and so my belt size was lower than today even though I am now significantly lighter than I was then. Ten years before that I was so underweight that my doctor advised me to eat high calorie snacks whenever I could. In total it’s a seven stone (fourty five Kilo) variation throughout my adult life. Add to that the fact that I bloat when eating certain foods due to IBS and the variance is notable.
Through all of the above body change, maybe even because of it, I’ve never particularly felt that my weight was part of who I was. Rather it felt almost as if my weight were something I did or an accoutrement that I chose to wear. On me but not of me. Other things were relevant of course, if I felt unhealthy, got out of breath climbing a hill, that would worry me. But the weight itself and the appearance that went with it was never of overriding interest to me. It appeared to be of great interest to others however – in this society it is completely acceptable to mention someone’s weight change (especially weight loss) and to judge weight loss as a good thing. I would get comments regularly, positive or negative depending on my direction of travel.
In this society it is increasingly unacceptable to judge on skin colour, age or sex but it is still OK to judge on the basis of weight and the appearance of weight.
It’s long been observed that western society treasures physical thinness above almost any other attribute. It’s an obsession taken to extremes for women but vies with a second ‘ideal’ in men – that of muscularity. As such men are judged by their thinness but they need to be careful not to get too thin or the lack of muscularity starts to extract a social toll. This gives men a useful get out in that as long as we do not wear form fitting clothes (and few but runners and cyclists choose to wear spandex) we can at least give the illusion, the possibility, that we have a well balanced thin/muscular body beneath. As far as I can tell women are just encouraged to starve or develop eating disorders to be acceptable. We are all striving for a societally sanctioned norm that has a strong negative effect on men but an even stronger and more harmful effect on women (I don’t know enough to comment on the effect it has on other genders but I’m prepared to bet it isn’t good).
I wont try to explain how this societal norm has formed over time – I don’t have sufficient understanding of it and others are far more qualified than I am to theorise. Suffice it to say that every culture and every era that I am aware of seems to have imposed a norm of some sort. However, rarely has a single norm been so dominant as the current drive toward thin (a fact that I perhaps naively attribute to the globalisation of anglo-american culture and ideals) and rarely has the ideal been so at odds with the realities of medical knowledge. To be morbidly obese has severe health risks but to be as underweight as the current media ideal has far greater risks associated with it.
A great deal has been written about the effects this has on people and I want to be careful to talk about and theorise upon my own experiences. All of this is my own experience and as with any experience of an individual it does not encompass the whole. However, it is a part of the whole.
So, what of men and their internalised understanding of physical desirability to a partner. To many, including me, physical desirability is strongly correlated with the possession of a ‘six-pack’ (protruberant abdominal muscles, not the arrangement of beer cans). To have a six pack a male must have less significantly than 10% body fat and be engaged in strong abdominal exercise on a regular basis – the average male has about 25% body fat and (in the west) works in a seated position for eight to ten hours a day. Therefore, to meet the societal ideal of attractive most males would need to be on a strict diet and spend a significant proportion of their free time exercising – an option that is simply not realistic, nor healthy, for the vast majority. What’s more the possession of so little body fat makes a person ill suited to stamina based exercise, it is rare you will find a marathon runner with so little body fat because some fat reserve is actual vital to sustained performance. I find it unlikely (although I do not know for sure) that the majority of women are actively seeking partners that spend so much time in self-interested exercising or that cannot partake in a full and pleasurable diet – even if those women do buy into the media norm of the attractive and desirably muscled male. Therefore males are feeling a strong pressure to sacrifice elements of their personal health in order to achieve a societal norm of attraction that is not actually attractive to the majority of people they are attempting to impress. Physical appearance aside the mental effects of this pressure to conform with the near impossible and the emotional ongoing damage caused by failure is huge. The equivalent occurs with females and I believe that to be even more damaging due to their lower status in western society and the fact that their ‘ideal’ is even more physically unhealthy.
I have observed an indication of the falseness of societies ideal of female attractiveness through discussion with male friends (predominantly white and outwardly identifying as heterosexual). It needs to be made clear at this point that I believe a persons weight is their own business and shouldn’t be dictated by anybody else. However a great deal of advertising attempts to equate thin with sexually attractive to the opposite sex and this is especially true when directed toward females being attractive toward males. So, this observation is offered in an attempt to highlight an interesting dissonance between this advertising and reality.
When outwardly heterosexual men are together (or at least when they’re together with me) and conversation strays to partners and what we are looking for in relationships it is very unusual for somebody to express desire for somebody based on an appearance of being under-weight (indeed general appearance, whilst relevant, is not normally high on a man’s wishlist for a long term partner – this appearance obsession seems to be more for teenagers or individuals with self esteem issues who need a ‘trophy’ to shore up what they perceive as their precarious position in society) . Many times I’ve heard people make comments along the lines that ‘[insert currently popular super-thin model] is beautiful to look at but I want my partner to be a real woman’ or even ‘I prefer a partner that I don’t feel will break when I squeeze them’. These comments raise a plethora of questions that I cannot begin to address but two really hit me. Firstly, the idea expressed by these men that a ‘real woman’ is not extremely thin is extremely dehumanising to women who, by choice or otherwise, are thin and secondly there appears to be a significant disconnect between what many men find beautiful or sexually arousing in the media and what they find beautiful or sexually arousing in person.
I am not convinced that these points can be disentangled from each other. If these men genuinely find super-thin women attractive within the sphere of the media but not in reality then there is some kind of dissonance present whereby they cannot consider what they see on the screen as being real. Perhaps through a process of desensitisation they cease to be affected by the unreality of the ideal they are witnessing in the media every day. What then when they are confronted by a particularly thin female in reality? Can she be considered to be real or is she a non-human in the same way that the televisual images are non-people, to be desired but not to be allocated human rights and considerations? This strikes me as an extremely dangerous space to inhabit.
So, to achieve societies ideal of beauty and to therefore unburden himself of the negative comments of his peers a man must heavily control his diet and spend unhealthy amounts of time exercising to build muscle that he either doesn’t need or that actively impedes him. Probably making himself less desirable as a partner to the majority of women.
A woman must reduce her body mass to such an extent that she endangers her health and well-being whilst simultaneously reducing her attractiveness to the majority of men. Furthermore her relatively low status compared to men mean that she must exist in a potentially dangerous culture of dehumanisation that may put her, and all women, at significant risk.
How did we allow this mutually harmful disconnect between perception and reality to form? I don’t think anybody truly knows but my suspicions are that the perception is connected to the fact that it’s easy to sell product to people who are chasing the unobtainable. The desire for new things can only be based upon dissatisfaction with the present status quo and a need (real or perceived) to improve that situation. What could be more powerful, and more lucrative, than to convince people that one of their deepest and more basic requirements, the desire for companionship and procreation, is dependent upon their acheiveing and maintaining an unobtainable ideal. Now every new product that comes out can be hooked to this desire and made saleable to a population desperate to overcome their perceived failings.
I don’t see a conspiracy, I see the natural progression of the market toward the creation of a sustainable demand for the purchase of multiple product categories. I see the unforeseen physical and mental fallout of creating a self-sustaining desire to strive to achieve something that for the majority is unachievable. Whether by desire or by happy accident today’s marketeers have created the perfect conditions for perpetual sales and perpetual human dissatisfaction.