I was listening to yet another podcast today and some of the things the guest mentioned really irritated me. It’s a viewpoint that I hear now and then, and each time it really makes me what to stand up and shout at someone: it’s the idea that women are emotional over how their bodies look because they are most often judged by their appearance. As I said, this point of view really lights my fuse because it’s a freaking stereotype! Of course, that does not mean that it isn’t true: a lot of women get very emotional over gaining weight and all people are often judged on their appearance. This entire idea that women are generally ashamed and emotional over their appearance is one of the few things that makes me angry, and frankly, I am pretty slow to anger.
This whole stereotype confused me for a long time while I was growing up. I have been told all my life that I am an atypical female. (In our gender-fluid modern culture, I should clarify that I was born and remain a heterosexual female.) Maybe because I was mostly raised by my dad, I have been told that I lack certain ‘female’ mannerisms (like primping and flirting); that I tend to shop like a man (I go to the store, buy what I came for and leave), and that I approach problems like a man (offer a solution rather than commiserating). I’ve read a few essays on the way men and women communicate and think (my favorites are by Deborah Tannen) and I have come to the conclusion that I have a male-oriented outlook about a lot of things. This means that when men get confused or irritated when their wives/ girlfriends cry “my butt is huge!,” I am just as confused and irritated as they are: “so, what am I supposed to do about it? You’re the one who keeps buying the chocolate cake/ pasta/ frappucinos.” I don’t mean to sound callous, because I have also looked in the mirror and said the same thing: “damn, my butt is ginormous!!” but usually it’s without the wail of “this happened to me against my will.” When I acknowledge my butt/ thighs/ ankles/ whatever is fat/ huge/ not looking the way I would like it to look, it’s usually accompanied by irritation at myself, because I am the reason it doesn’t look the way I want. I don’t want someone to tell me what isn’t true- that my butt is not ginormous when I can clearly see that it is- but a few good ideas about how to make it smaller might be appreciated! Of course, this is not what most women want; they want to be reassured they are still worthy of being loved, because for some women, their self-worth is wrapped up in a small butt and other assorted body parts.
For most of my life, my own self-assessments regarding body size were also accompanied by feelings of helplessness, disappointment and more than a little confusion. Why wasn’t I able to make the changes that I wanted to make? In most cases, it’s simply because it was hard work, but even when I did do the work, I didn’t get the results I wanted (I’m still blaming those 11 daily servings of ‘healthy whole carbs aka grains’ the USDA advised me to eat but whatever…!) I mostly missed the whole emotional stigma of being seen as ugly or unattractive by the rest of society, most likely because I have been overweight almost all my life. The constant criticism grew to be just more background noise in a sea of noise constantly telling me how I didn’t measure up to what ‘society’ says women should be. I wasn’t ‘girlish enough’; I made guys feel inadequate by being smarter than they were; I was too independent. Geez! How dare I base my feelings of self-worth on my independence, intelligence and judgment! I was lucky: these were the things that were valued in my family. My dad never said he was disappointed my sister and I weren’t boys: he took us camping, shooting and fishing just the same. Nor did he encourage us to be “girly.” He did encourage us to read, make our own choices and do what we believed is the right thing to do. Most of the women in my family are strong, opinionated and independent, even my maternal grandmother, who was not one of my favorite people. The men in my family treat them as equals, and although there were some traditional roles that were respected, it was never about ‘the women not being equal.’ No one in my family was judged on what they looked like, whether it was genetic (shortness and glasses run in my family) or whether it was about their weight (we have all sizes): any judgments were made on their choices. If you chose to party all night and blow off your midterms, you really screwed up and they would let you know it! Being overweight, wearing glasses, being 4’10”, losing your hair, or being tall and thin- it was just a fact of life! You are who you are!
So whenever I hear people complaining about how ugly they look, how overweight they are, how some body part doesn’t look the way it’s “supposed to look,” I get pretty irritated. I believe it perpetuates the idea that we all need to fit into stereotypical roles and if we don’t fit, we get dinged for it. Somehow, we screwed up and we should be ashamed of ourselves. I think it’s a little funny that if we don’t feel ashamed for not fitting it, we should be ashamed of not being ashamed! More evidence of our ongoing shortcomings! I was reminded not too long ago that most people don’t like being made to feel different or be made fun of. Kind of obvious, but when being different is your way of life, you tend to forget that others are sensitive to it. In one way, it’s made me pretty stubborn and independent, and in some ways it’s made me callous and insensitive to others. While I’m pretty sure ‘independent’ is good, I’m not so sure about the others.
We are ultimately a combination of our choices, our genetics and our environment. We are born with certain dents, and we collect more either through our own decisions and those life dishes out. I don’t know anyone who has turned out the way they thought they would when they were kids. We can either cry over the bumps and lumps or we can keep going despite or because of them. Yes, I have a ginormous butt and I can either cry about it, do something about it, or learn to live with it. Right now, I am doing something about it, and while I am, I choose not to cry over it. Not too long ago, I paused to look at my reflection at the gym before I got in the pool and I realized my saggy skin is really looking saggier than usual. Periodically my mom asks me when am I going to talk to my doctor about it. Usually my answer is “I don’t know.” I still wear short sleeves and tank tops and shorts despite the saggy skin. I worked hard for those wrinkles and I am not about to let someone else’s opinion deter me! (This is where ‘stubborn’ is good!)
I think we all need to meet somewhere in the middle ground: I can certainly work on being more sensitive and less stubborn, and I think those who are too concerned about their self-image can work on being a little more independent and self-reliant. We can all benefit by being more concerned about others’ feelings and having more confidence in ourselves. We are more than the physical body we see in the mirror, and the people who love us do so despite our failings, physical and otherwise. None of us are perfect, physically, mentally or spiritually. We can all stand some improvement. It’s how we grow and remembering that our own bodies are as imperfect as everyone else’s might make us a little more caring and empathetic when someone else is feeling the sting of being different.