Mary Anne Mohanraj

An Ongoing, Erratic Diary

26 March 2002, 10:46 AM
 
  Heather said, "Lately, I'm very annoyed with the psychosis most women have about their bodies..." -- which ties into something I've been thinking about a lot. I'm not exactly sure what my position is, so I'm going to ramble about it here, and see if something comes clear.

The Problem

The problem is, I hold two views, fairly strongly, and while they're not diametrically opposed, they do come into conflict a lot. They are:

  • My feminist (and humanist) sensibility is quite sure that the way society conditions women to a particular skinny aesthetic is not only silly, but actively harmful -- that in the long run, we should all know better, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that it's only skin-deep, that it will inevitably fade, that there are much more important things about people, that attraction does not equal love, that women in America today waste an appalling amount of energy and time on trying to be beautiful, which often equates in their minds to skinny, and that they're (we're) unduly influenced in this regard by the media, the actresses, and our insecurity about what men find attractive. (I'm going to leave lesbians out of this for now, and men too, for the most part -- I'm sure some of this pertains to them too, but I'll mostly try to speak for my own experience. I'll briefly note that as a bisexual, I worry a lot less about what the women I'm dating think of my body than I do about the men. Make of that what you will. I'm not sure if it's a widespread phenomenon.)

  • I appreciate beauty. And I want to be beautiful -- I want to be drop-dead gorgeous. I want men walking down the street to stop and stare and whistle. And if I can't have that, I want to be as beautiful as I can be, giving my basic body and bones and skin and hair.
Is the problem clear? I hope so.

Beauty as Power

I want beauty in some of the same ways that I might want to be rich -- because I know it will give me power and choices that I might not otherwise have. I want it because I know that humans respond to beauty, that being more beautiful will likely open doors for me. The wonderful guy whose attention is caught. The book tour my publisher offers me, or the tv spot. Even the academic job... Ignoring the effect of beauty, trying to pretend it doesn't exist, seems like self-delusion. And, unlike wealth (which some communist friends of mine might argue is inherently oppressive and immoral when you consider those less fortunate), my being beautiful doesn't actually detract from the person next to me. I think. Does it?

The feminist might argue that if I put tons of time and energy into looking beautiful, I help contribute to setting a particular standard that other women then have to measure up to if they want to compete in the job market, the dating game -- in the long run, wasting all of our time. Hmm... I'm reminded of a line from some movie or book, where a woman who grew up in the fifties is talking to a young woman today, saying how much harder it's become -- that when she was a girl, you pretty much knew you'd get a guy, and that it was just a matter of how good a guy you could catch. Whereas now, everyone's standards are so much higher that many of us just go around dissatisfied, yearning for something we aren't likely to find...

I can see that argument. I don't want to contribute to that. But I'm certainly not willing to make myself deliberately uglier. I'd rather work to expand everyone's definitions of beauty. Is that a fair compromise? Or is it just a cop-out? Should I be crippling my chances in the marketplace for the sake of sanity and fairness all around?

The Skinny, Young, Cookie-Cutter Trap

Even if I let myself strive to be beautiful, damning the social consequences, the problem isn't solved. What standard of beautiful do I use? It's very tempting to just aim for the socially-accepted norm -- which right now, is pretty darn slender. And yet I know that quite a few men (maybe most) don't actually prefer that. So that seems potentially counter-productive in the dating arena. On the other hand -- do they even know that? How much are they conditioned themselves? If their eyes are so trained by the cover magazines, tv shows, movies that they now automatically skip over women whose bodies and faces don't match that boyish mold...does it do me any good to know that if we were in bed, they'd actually really enjoy the curves? And aside from the dating stuff -- I know that in the job market, the book game, it'll help if I match the current standard of beauty as closely as possible -- won't it? (Or will I just blend into the slender background? Not so likely, given my ethnicity in those still predominantly white worlds, but if I were a slender white-skinned brunette, I wonder how that might change.)

I do know women who are emphatically not slender...and still clearly quite beautiful. Stunningly so, at times. And similarly for youth -- one of the most attractive women I know is in her forties, silver-haired already, with quite a few laugh lines on her face. Yet I could stare at her for hours... Are they just the exception to the rule? Do they simply possess some quality that the rest of us don't have access to? Or do they know something we could know -- do they feel themselves beautiful, have confidence in that, and thus *are* beautiful? I can't answer these questions.

Does Slender Equal Healthy?

I cannot deny that my doctor is pleased that I've lost fourteen pounds in the last year (eight between November and February, six between February and now). I cannot deny that my doctor would be pleased if I lost at least fifteen more. Twenty would be better. Twenty-five might be too much. There appears to be a pretty narrow range of what my doctor is really happy with. Does my doctor know what she's talking about? I generally trust doctors to know these things.

It's very tempting to push all these questions aside, to just claim I'm losing weight in order to get healthier. But really -- how much do I care about getting healthier? Isn't that just a convenient excuse which allows me to skulk around the real motivation -- getting more beautiful? What a hypocrite...

But it is convenient, that the two do appear to coincide. And it lets me put an end point on the weight loss -- thus far, no farther. Going to Ally McBeal weight is too far. I don't want my lovers to be struck by my skeleton's beauty. As long as I don't go below my doctor's lower limit, I can at least be sure that I'm not compromising my physical health for the sake of this pursuit of beauty.

What is it doing to my mental health? That's the question, isn't it?

Tentative Conclusions

I'm losing weight in a sensible way -- I started avoiding deep-fried foods and red meat some years ago, but I still eat them on occasion, when I feel like it. I cook very tasty dishes. I don't eat food I don't like (fat-free cheese, yuck!). Mostly, I'm just eating smaller portions, of a size more appropriate to someone who's only five feet tall. It startles me a little, how many years I spent eating meals the same size as Kevin, for example -- who is a man about 5'9", I think? I'm doing mild exercise, so as not to just lose muscle. I'm not keeping bread in the house, because I have no self-control where bread is concerned. I eat a piece of chocolate when I feel like it. I drink a lot of tea, and try to remember to switch to decaf after two cups. I'm rarely hungry for long, and I try not to do things which will make me feel deprived.

I'm happier being thinner, there's no doubt. I have more energy, for one thing. There's less of me to carry around, and I suspect my body works more efficiently. I like the way my body feels, when I slide my hand along the curve of waist to hip. More streamlined. Closer to a healthy animal.

I get more looks on the street, more smiles, more compliments. It's a little hard to tell if my lovers care, given that they were pretty attentive before. But I feel better in bed, more comfortable naked, worrying less about how I look with the lights on.

I'm planning to keep losing weight, if I can. Another five pounds by the summer would be lovely. Fifteen more pounds overall, perhaps in the next year, would put me back at the weight I was in college. It was a good weight. I was a size 8, which seems a reasonable size to be, for a woman my height. It all feels very sane so far, if somewhat self-involved.

I still feel pangs of guilt, that I might be contributing to the larger problem. Maybe it's selfish of me, to put those aside for my singular pleasure. I worry that even talking about all this in these terms might make some of you feel bad about yourselves. I don't want to add to the crushing weight of societal expectation regarding female beauty...

But it seems disingenous to just quietly lose weight for myself and not address the issue either.

 

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