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The Body Image Paradox

Disclaimer

(a) This post is about body image.

(b) This post is not about body positivity.

(c) I care about both.

(c) But there is a difference.


6:30 AM   My alarm goes off. I slither from my bed onto the ground, where I engage in an intense, hateful staredown with my sneakers for an unspecified amount of time. Then I sit up and pull on my sneakers. It appears I suck at intense, hateful staredowns.

6:35 AM   I click open my “u ate too much ice cream fall quarter and now u can suffer the consequences” YouTube playlist, muting the volume because my roommate probably does not want to wake up in the throes of the early morning to “SQUATS WITH BABY KICKS, READY? LET’S GO!”

6:47 AM   I survey my surroundings and wonder what my life has come to. Here I am, squat-kickright-squat-kickleft-ing in near darkness and utter silence. It feels like I am doing soundless zumba in a coffin.

6:53 AM   There is a brief moment of panic in which I trip over a pile of dirty laundry and almost break my head open. This creates a disturbance in the zumba coffin. My sleeping roommate stirs and I freeze.

6:54 AM   All is well.

7:45 AM   Post workout and post shower, I set up shop in front of the bathroom mirror, where I engage in an intense, hateful staredown with the mirror for an unspecified amount of time. Then I begin my makeup routine. It appears I still suck at intense, hateful staredowns.

7:46 AM   I dab some color into my lips and cheeks, fill in my eyebrows, smear on an arbitrary amount of eyeshadow, accidentally jab myself in the pupil with my mascara wand, accidentally jab myself in the nose with my mascara wand, accidentally jab myself in the tooth with my mascara wand, clean off my mascara scars with a wipe, and then apply mascara to my actual eyelashes.

7:53 AM   My right eyebrow has decided to masquerade as a diseased caterpillar.

7:55 AM   Upon un-caterpillaring my right eyebrow, I notice my left eyebrow now looks too thick in comparison.

7:56 AM   Upon thinning my left eyebrow, I notice my right eyebrow once again looks like it is a diseased caterpillar.

7:58 AM   I consider my makeup stash, look at the clock, and wonder how many words of my biology paper I could have written in the time it took for me to tame my pre-pubescent-butterfly eyebrows. Maybe I could have cured cancer or solved world hunger. Instead, I was painting chemicals onto my face. I sigh loudly. This also makes me wonder what my life has come to.

8:06 AM   Don’t even get me started on the hair.

8:30 AM   Breakfast.

9:00 AM   I have successfully made it to the library, where I sit down to write my biology paper.

9:01 AM   I decide it is a good time to take an online life expectancy test to remind myself of my own mortality.

9:12 AM   [See Below]

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9:13 AM   I consider writing my biology paper.

9:14 AM   I open Wordpress.com instead.

…which brings us to where we are now. Me, with an unfinished biology paper I could have started in the time it took for me to type up a detailed play-by-play of my morning. You, with some sort of unfinished task you could have started in the time it took for you to read through a detailed play-by-play of my morning.

You and me both, my friend. You and me both.

So, this morning play-by-play is a Sparknotes of sorts for this blog post. It references how much time I spend obsessing over my body image, whether I’m doing squats with baby kicks, tweaking my brows, curling my hair, mulling over an outfit, or aggressively attempting to shove my belly fat towards my upper chest area (note: this is not, apparently, how the human body works). It also references the fact that I’m allotted approximately 88 years to frolic upon this gigantic planet filled with a gigantic number of undiscovered treasures and an equally gigantic number of undiscovered people. 88 years, guys. Every itty bitty second counts. Every itty bitty second is one itty bitty second closer to the day my time runs out.

Yet I still spend time thinking about how I look.

It doesn’t make sense. All I need is a decently functioning body to frolic away my 88 years and make each itty bitty second count. I mean, when you’ve got such little time, shouldn’t your body image end up being astronomically insignificant? We’re all going to get old and wrinkly and saggy in strange places. And then we’re all going to dissipate back into nonexistence. So how come we diet? How come we keep Sephora in business? How come we spend precious time and money on fake tans and plastic surgeries and nose jobs?

Go ahead and tell me you don’t care about your body image at all, and that this entire post is biased because I am just excessively vain, or even insecure. I will go ahead and say that that is great for you, but neither of us are representative of the whole human population. I know for a fact there are people who care more and less than I do about body image. I know girls who diet, fuss over hair, and blow itty bitty seconds staring at themselves in the mirror. I also know boys who diet, fuss over hair, and blow itty bitty seconds staring at themselves in the mirror. Some care more, some care less. But in the end, we all care. In conclusion: the prevalence of body image is worth writing about.

NOTE

When I say “body image,” I am referring to everything you see in the mirror. This includes but is not limited to: your actual body, your face, your outfit, your hair, etcetera and etcetera.

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In the very beginning of this post, I slipped in a disclaimer—that I am writing about body image, not body positivity. I have no interest in discussing how and why you should love your body. I’m not saying you shouldn’t love your body, because frankly, loving your body is one of the most important things you can learn and do on a daily basis. It’s just not what I want to discuss today. What I do want to discuss is what I’m seeing and feeling with regards to body image, whether or not it’s something we want to acknowledge. And so the first point I will make today is as follows:

Looks do matter.

Which would be why we care so much about body image.

In life, looks matter.

Take the most simple case. Statistically, it is much more likely for an attractive person to score modeling gigs or supreme celebrity dictatorship (or, more importantly, free drinks at the bar). Physical attractiveness is, in some sense, power. Now, I’m not saying you can only be successful if you are attractive. An equal amount of power resides in other equally important traits like kindness, determination, and wisdom. But physical attractiveness is included in this list of important traits. Back when I was objectively unattractive, I couldn’t walk into a dinky Chinese restaurant, smile at the cashier, and walk out confusedly with a free soda and a job offer. But it appears that now that I’ve figured out how to not be objectively unattractive, things like that happen. So naturally, I worry about my body image, because I’ve experienced firsthand that small dollop of power you get from not-being-objectively-unattractive.

I’m not proud of what I just said. Please don’t take me for some cold, manipulative, free-soda-craving bimbo. Please.

Moving on.

I’ve overheard enough broversations to gather that, unsurprisingly, a large portion of them are girl-related. Here are some real-life excerpts:

  • “She’s kind of chunky.”
  • “She has a really nice bod, but . . . not the face. Bad face.”
  • “I’d never go for that.”
  • “HER BOOBS ARE HUGE.”
  • “Booooobs.”
  • [Sends Tinder screenshot to groupchat] “Booooooooobs.”

For me at least, it kind of hurts to hear these things. They’re reminders. Reminders that people are watching, and people are talking.

Okay, so I didn’t mean to throw the entire male population under the bus. There are plenty of respectable guys who frown upon and shut down such conversations. Additionally, girls discuss guys too. Here are some real-life excerpts:

  • “He looks like the king of butterflies.”
  • “There was a god in my math class today.”
  • “His face kind of reminds me of an eraser.”

(I would like to point out that the real-life excerpts I have provided for girls are in no way indicative of what most girls think. And when I say no way, I mean not at all. Things that come out of my mouth are generally not things that come out of most people’s mouths.)

Right, so we’ve established that appearance matters, if only on a surface level. Looks make life easier, and looks contribute largely to first impressions. But what about one level deeper? Does appearance play into lasting opinions, i.e. friendships and relationships? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Let’s hone in on the latter example: relationships. Everyone says personality matters, and it does. But whether or not you admit it to yourself or to anyone else, so does appearance. Even if it doesn’t matter once you’re already in the relationship (i.e., at this point I would not break up with my boyfriend even if he spontaneously went bald or permanently dislocated his nose), it matters as a precursor. I remember this one guy, when asked what makes him go for a girl, said something around the lines of, “It’s the appearance that causes the initial interest, so I’ll talk to her. It’s the personality that makes me like her more, so I’ll stay around.” This speculation has been validated through experience. I was asked to freshman homecoming by a guy I’d never talked to before. He came up to me with a bouquet of roses and said, “I know we don’t know each other, but I think you’re pretty, so will you go to homecoming with me?” (This was followed by the most awkward hug and ensuing homecoming week in the history of awkward high school encounters.)

There was also once a guy who got my number because he found me somewhat attractive. Then, months later, he asked me out because he found my personality somewhat attractive (well, hopefully). Here’s a hypothesis, though: had I looked like a potato on a stick that fateful day, he would have introduced himself, carried on a polite conversation, and moved on without a second thought. (Presumably, of course. This is only a hypothesis. Perhaps I am wrong, and he would’ve been interested anyway. Who knows.) This isn’t to say that you are doomed to live with four cats and a goldfish for the rest of your life if you look like a potato on a stick. One of my best friends initially found her boyfriend quite unattractive. And now he is her boyfriend.

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So there. Looks matter, despite everything we can do to tell ourselves otherwise. And who can blame us? Everywhere we look, we see perfect people. I open YouTube and am immediately accosted by a thumbnail of Taylor Swift’s spidery long legs. I scroll through Facebook and come across an utterly unwarranted selfie of Kim Kardashian’s boobage. Magazine covers in CVS flaunt women with glowing abs and men with smoldering pecs. That’s eyes-wise. Ears-wise, I can’t think of a single pregame or frat party or awkward high school dance that didn’t play a song which somehow mentioned curvy hips or curvy butts or curvy chests or curves in general. Society very, very obviously glorifies certain types of bodies. Guys are supposed to look like Justin Bieber’s underwear shoot. Girls are supposed to be either model-thin or Nicki-Minaj-curvy. Society tells us that looks matter, and then we try to tell society to shut up and get a life, but unfortunately society is bigger and stronger than we are, and so we get caught up and knocked around a bit, and in the end, we are greatly concerned about body image. Because looks matter.

Unless . . . they don’t?

The second point I will make today is as follows:

Looks don’t matter.

Which would be why we shouldn’t care about body image.

In life, looks don’t matter.

We interrupt this broadcast with a relevant anecdote. Remember how I said I used to be objectively unattractive? Well, that was five years ago. And when I say objectively unattractive, I mean ugly. As in, butt ugly.

Like, I’m not being modest when I say I was, at best, the butt-ugliest child in the entirety of the Kilmer Middle School population. It was the express type of ugly which makes me wonder why my parents ever let me out of the house, and also how I walked the streets without being accidentally confused for a wild animal and shipped off to a nearby shelter. Bushy eyebrows, pink and blue braces, flowery glasses, knobby limbs, and the poor, unfortunate impression that simultaneous stripes and plaid was a socially acceptable fashion choice.

If I looked like that now, I would probably dig a hole in the ground large enough for me and my laptop. And from the safety of that hole, I would proceed to set up a gofundme for a lifetime supply of face-sized paper bags.

Here’s the thing, though. When I was butt-ugly, I still went to school every day. I still went shopping at the mall and ate out at fast food restaurants. Life occurred without a hitch. Whereas when I try to imagine myself butt-ugly now, I can only see myself relocating into a hole in the ground.

Currently, when I look in the mirror, I see a perfectly decent girl. But you know what? When I looked in the mirror five years ago, I also saw a perfectly decent girl. So the way you feel about your body image remains constant despite the fact that your actual body image does not. Relative to time, objective looks are actually subjective.

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Looks are also subjective relative to the beholder. (Yes, this is a badly executed paraphrase of a badly overused cliche.) The most basic example of this concept is The Aesthetically Appealing Male Celebrity Pick-and-Choose Round Table Sleepover Game. Sometimes, girls will do this thing where we ask each other, “Who is the most attractive celebrity?” I am here today to inform you that, in all the years of round table discussion, we have never reached full consensus on a single Aesthetically Appealing Male Celebrity. Someone will think Ryan Reynolds is hot stuff, and then I will point out that his face looks like a lopsided Q-tip. I will offer up Henry Cavill (only the part of him from a 4:00 angle) and someone will shudder and whisper to themselves, Butt chin. Likewise, one of my guy friends thinks Anne Hathaway is outrageously gorgeous, but one of my other guy friends thinks she is merely outrageously average. So, in this world, there are both people who find you attractive and people who find you unattractive. Seriously. This theorem holds no matter what you look like. Put simply, different people are into different things. Some people like thin bodies and some people like bigger ones. Some people like facial hair and some people don’t. I guarantee you that the body image you see in the mirror is not equivalent to what every single person around you sees. For every person who happens to find you a 1/10, there is someone else who finds you a 9/10.

And remember when I told you about that friend who initially found her boyfriend quite unattractive? Well, now she can’t believe she ever did, because as she got to know him, he literally became more attractive to her. So looks aren’t even subjective amongst several beholders. They can be subjective within a single beholder. It is absolutely true that someone can become more or less physically attractive as you get to know them.

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It’s a paradox. Objective looks matter. But objective looks are actually subjective, so they don’t actually matter.

So, what does this mean in terms of how near and dear we should hold our body images? We can’t just not care about how we look, because it looks matter when we are applying for jobs or seeking lifelong partnership. We also can’t obsess over how we look, because life is short and seconds are precious. Thanks, Body Image Paradox. There’s another line I get to add to my ever-growing list of identity crises.

After careful consideration, I ended up deciding that we should let body image matter, but only on one condition: we do it for ourselves. What does this mean? It means we work out because we want to be healthy, not because we want to look skinny for other people. It means we fix our hair every morning because it makes us feel good about ourselves, not because we want to be objectively attractive to other people. It means we care just enough about our body images to impress ourselves. Not to impress others. Just ourselves.

With that being said, I still feel like I care a little too much. So maybe I need to lower my standards for the girl in the mirror. Maybe that’s what we all need to do. Lower our standards for the reflection in the mirror. And stop talking about other people’s reflections in the mirrors too, because honestly, that’s the only thing that’s making looks matter. If we stop talking about them, they will shrivel up and eventually drag themselves off into a land of doesn’t-matter-ness.

And with that being said, I am going to go get started on my biology paper. Thank you, and God bless America.


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Special thanks this month to George Saieed and Rachel Vasta for helping spread the word. Here is a small piece of my soul. You may keep it forever if you’d like.

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