Month: October 2012

The personal politics of body image

Long time readers of BCRL may be aware of a notable lack of posts, over the course of the past two and a half years, on one particular topic: body image. Considering that BCRL was, for most of that time, a self-professed style blog, this may have struck some of you as unusual. There are a number of reasons for my past decision to steer clear of the topic. First and foremost, my goal has always been to encourage women to embrace style free from any negative connotations relating to body image; style, unlike fashion, is not concerned with size or measurements. It is an extension of personality, which comes in all shapes and flavours. Secondly, many of my thoughts on body image (and reasons for avoiding discussing it) struck me as ill-fitting topics for as light-hearted a blog as BCRL aimed to be. Now, with the evolution of BCRL fully under way, I felt the time had finally come to get this discussion started.

Since any discussion of body image is inevitably going to become personal, I might as well get that part of it out of the way first. For most of my teens and twenties, my relationship with my body was, well, fraught to say the least. Put more bluntly, I had terrible body image. In this, I know that I am hardly alone. But it is ironic when you consider that, over the past two decades, my body has undergone many changes, with only one constant – my disappointment with its shape. I was miserable when I wore kids’ sizes (as a 22-year old woman), equally miserable when I wore size 12, and just as miserable at every size in between.

It took me a long time to realize this, but the problem was never my body; the problem was me – or, rather, the way that I perceived my body. I was nearly 28 by the time I stopped blaming (and punishing) my body for failing to live up to the ever-changing (always unattainable) standard I had created. By my rough count, that makes for sixteen years of daily, unnecessary warfare. There are few methods of self-sabotage more intimate and devastating.

In 2009, not long after I reached a place of equilibrium (physical and mental), I came across some writings by Susie Orbach on the topic of body image, which struck a chord. She wrote:

What I am seeing is franticness about having to get a body. I wish we could treat our bodies as the place we live from, rather than regard it as a place to be worked on, as though it were a disagreeable old kitchen in need of renovation and update.

This is what I wrote, then, in response:

[Orbach’s] point is that our bodies have become “site[s] for consumer activity”; we are being told that our bodies should be our products – a transformation that, in turn, requires the consumption of endless other products. I can see her point, and don’t necessarily disagree. Its implications are, of course, troubling. But I’m not sure that I entirely agree with what appears to be her answer: that we should treat our bodies as “the place we live from”.

I’ll start by making a clarification. Orbach’s language – “the place we live from” – makes me think that she would have us view our bodies as a ‘home’, for lack of a better description. That concept, however, is not necessarily at odds with the idea of the body as a product; a home is also an object (a house) not merely a state of mind, and the leap from that to a product is not great. There is no absolute mandate that we love our homes (and not, as Orbach herself points out, wish to renovate it). But this is not my only concern with the proposition.

Thinking about the way in which one relates to one’s own body is an exercise I would recommend to everyone. There are few relationships as important, though it’s a relationship that is accorded little conscious attention outside of therapists’ offices. I know that I rarely think about it. And the main reason, for me, is the fact that I think of my body as “the place I live from”. It’s a vehicle, a shelter, a tool. It’s mine, yes – but rarely incorporated into that pesky concept, “me”. I only think about it when some part or other is malfunctioning, or not performing (or presenting) up to my exacting standards. As for “me”, that entity resides somewhere within the physical body, true; but my conscious self would have me believe that it is no part of that pale, red-haired, frequently sniffling (damn colds!) specimen. That is, of course, not true. But it’s a fallacy that feels, well, not entirely implausible. Our consciousness appears to occupy a fixed locus; I will not, one day, wake up to feel myself thinking from my left pinkie. So, my relationship with my pinkie will always feel [somewhat] distant. [Perhaps distance from the locus of consciousness is the reason why I dislike feet so much. It doesn’t explain why I love shoes so much, though.]

Getting back to my point about Orbach’s message, what I wanted to say is this: actively thinking of our bodies as a “place we live from” is a form of dualism dressed up as panacea for our troubled relationships with our bodies. Dualism is not the answer to the growing disconnect between body and self that has spawned industries aimed at the rectification of imagined bodily ‘wrongs’. If anything, dualism would tend to perpetuate such disconnect rather than resolve it.

More than ever, I feel like this is a discourse that needs to be held. Regardless of whether you agree with Orbach or not, it is important to question the way in which you relate to your body, rather than passively accept the way you are told to relate to it. Because, essentially, what we are talking about is the way you relate to yourself. Of all the relationships you might have over a lifetime, this would be the one in which no one else gets to have a say. If you would not dream of having strangers dictate your choices of spouse, career, or political affiliation, why would you let them dictate the terms of how you view and treat your body? Is there anything that infringes more radically or directly on personal autonomy? Being pro-choice shouldn’t begin and end with abortion rights; it should encompass everything that concerns our body, starting with the fundamental way in which we perceive it. It is not a relationship, because that connotes the existence of two separate entities. The relationship with your body is your body; it is you. Don’t let someone else define who you are.

Terrible body image is not really about your body; your body is just a convenient vehicle, target, and repository for all the insecurities used to control and undermine you. Terrible body image means that your body is being used against you. Who is pulling the strings? Sure, the media might be the most visible culprit (and its motives the most transparent), but at this point, anyone who chooses to, can. The machinery is so entrenched in our society – and in ourselves – that it takes no marketing genius to push the right buttons. Calling a woman “fat” is just about the easiest way to “take her down a notch”, for any number of transgressions – being too happy, too confident, too outspoken, too pushy, too rich, too successful … too much of anything. “Fat” is no longer just an adjective; it’s a value judgment. So is “skinny”. Both can be equally derogatory, because when it comes to the war on our bodies, there are no winners – only casualties.

I would like to open up this discussion here at BCRL. I know it is not necessarily an easy subject to speak about with (relative) strangers, but I like to think that BCRL can act as a safe zone for intelligent, compassionate, helpful discussion. My goal is to take BCRL from a body image-neutral space, to one that actively celebrates and contributes to positive body image. So if there is a story that you would like to share, or a topic you would like to explore, please leave a comment or drop me a line. I would love to hear from you!

The Remix Challenge: week 3

Sunday, September 30: Sunday visit to grandparents

Jeans, paperdenimcloth; top, Gilmour (swap); cardigan, Mexx (swap); flats, Taryn Rose; necklace, Winners

Much more auspicious than the previous Sunday, this was a day full of fun adventures, not least of all a visit to the grandparents’ house. Luka wanted to get in on the action, until he realized that it meant nothing more exciting than taking photos. Blah!

Appropriately for the unseasonably warm weather, my nail polish was a summery, watermelon pink – China Glaze IDK. A quick note: my new point-and-click camera is driving me bananas. One of its many failings is the inability to take decent close-up photos – which means, no more nail shots. From now on, I will post the nail polish I am wearing in the outfit details (see pic). Sorry, peeps!

Monday, October 1: work

Skirt, consignment; blouse, Holt Renfrew (thrifted); cardigan, Joe Fresh; belt, Holt Renfrew (via consignment); shoes, Enzo Angiolini; bag, Marc Jacobs; polish, OPI Holiday Glow

This was a totally thrown-together outfit and I’m still going back and forth on whether it was a success. I got a couple of compliments on it, but I feel like it could still benefit from some tweaking. This is the skirt that “needs” a cream blouse, which continues to elude me in my shopping quest. This was my “in the meantime” compromise – what do you think?

Tuesday, October 2: work

Skirt, Pink Tartan; cardigan, J. Crew; belt, unknown; shoes, Bongo; bag, Marc Jacobs; polish, Dior Czarina Gold

This was an outfit I had put together a while go, using one half of my Pink Tartan, vintage-inspired suit. I love this suit so much, but it feels a bit too retro for frequent wear – it’s too much of a statement piece. The skirt, alone, is more manageable, and it also got me to wear a pair of platform shoes I re-discovered at the office. They were “loaned” to me ages ago by a dear friend, who seems to have forgotten about them in the meantime. Hehe! (Actually, considering she works two doors down from my office, I doubt that is the case; but she has been very gracious about extending the loan indefinitely. Lucky me!)

Wednesday, October 3: work and dinner

Pants, Gap; short, Joe Fresh; cardigan, Joe Fresh; belt, Kate Spade; shoes, LAUREN, Ralph Lauren; necklace, Banana Republic; bag, Mulberry; polish, Essie Turquoise & Caicos

Wednesday was my husband’s birthday, so we were supposed to drop off Luka at his grandparents’ house and go out for dinner. When we got home from work, Luka was napping (not at his usual time, I might add) – and continued to nap for another hour and a half. Bye bye, dinner!  So, no date night for us.

[And I apologize for the blurry photo – darn cheapie camera!]

Thursday, October 4: work and dinner

Skirt, Valentino R.E.D. label; blouse, J. Crew; sweater, Joe Fresh; shoes, Jules + James; bag, Mulberry; polish, Butter London Tart with a Heart (over China Glaze GR8)

Back to the grind, this time with a more girly outfit – and you can’t get any girlier than ruffles and florals. Initially, we had planned to re-schedule our date night, but we realized that there was just too much to do around the house, especially with a roadtrip planned for the weekend. Instead of dinner, we got some delicious Chinese take-out, and followed it up with a round of chores. Of, the glamorous life!

Here is a closer look at my accessories:

Brooches, vintage; citrine bracelet, street vendor (bought in Kaua’i); blue bracelet, Swarovski

Friday, October 5: outing with the boy

Jeans, Abercrombie & Fitch; sweater, Old Navy; trench, Gap; boots, Ecco; scarf, consignment; bag, Longchamps

I had to stay home on Friday to watch Luka, so the whole day was pretty chill – well, at least as chill as it can get with a toddler whose alter ego is the Energizer Bunny. We made it out for a quick trip to the grocery store to stock up for our road trip.

Saturday, October 6: shopping & family fun

Dress, Zara; sweater coat, H&M; leggings, H&M; belt, Betsey Johnson; scarf, consignment; boots, Ecco; bag, Longchamps

Late on Friday, we packed our little “tribe” (of 3) into the car and headed south to Calgary for a weekend of rest, mountains and lots of fun. We spent Saturday toodling around town and – I’m not going to lie – popping into a few stores along the way. [Sadly, Calgary shopping was disappointing this go-around.] For the record, I was still wearing the same polish since Thursday – a record 3 days in a row!

And that conclude my review of week 3 of the Remix Challenge. Share your thoughts in the comments!

Friday Flashback: Death and the Lotto

Today’s flashback post, “Idle Dreams, pt. 87” was originally published in December 2007:

Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment.

— Jorge Luis Borges, “The Lottery in Babylon”

The bad news is that I didn’t win the lottery. The good news is that I am, once again, unencumbered by fear. The fear of death, to be precise. There was a moment yesterday when, in contemplation of the wondrous possibility of instantaneous wealth, I was struck by the idea that those golden millions might come with their own peculiar anxieties. After all, I would suddenly have 28 million new reasons to fear an unexpected, untimely demise. The only thing a rich man needs, but cannot buy, is the time to enjoy his bounty.

Though it pains me to admit this, life really would be more precious if I had a few extra zeroes to my name. I despise relativism, but here too it seems inescapable. I want to believe that the subjective value of life is a universal constant, in the same way that I believe its objective value to be. The life of a pauper is ‘worth’ as much as that of a prince – but I certainly know that I would be fonder of my life as the latter. Fonder … and far more invested in ensuring its longevity.

This is not to say that I disdain my current (admittedly comfortable) existence. I have no death wish – but I’ve made peace with my death. Our peace accord is not conditional on any particular hope on my part that death will be considerate in its timing. I can honestly say that, whether tomorrow or in 40 years’ time, I am ready to accept the inevitable with good grace. My loved ones may rest easy in the knowledge that I don’t plan on hanging about in some unappealing ethereal form, throwing their best china around. Nor is my equanimity predicated on any expectation regarding the nature of the ‘great’ thereafter; my only wish is to disprove the theory of reincarnation, which strikes me as a version of Hell worthy of a Dante.

My relationship with my own mortality hasn’t always been so cordial. There was a moment, now lost in the hazy outer reaches of my childhood memories, when I first confronted the idea of death – and came away defeated by the very enormity of it. Tom Stoppard put it best:

Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering.

And so it was. But, eventually, I overcame that first, and most enduring, disillusionment of life. I reached a truce with my mortality. So it was rather an unpleasant epiphany to realize just how fragile that détente has always been. Throw a few millions into the mix, and my Zen-inness would evaporate before the ink on my resignation letter could dry. Death is all very well, but not when one might be enjoying life on a private yacht in the Mediterranean. Provided the money outlasts one’s ability to squander it, one might conceivably arrive at a psychological moment when embarking upon some Faustian bargain for the sake of a few more years’ decadence seems like a good deal.

Man’s fascination with the prolongation of life beyond its natural boundaries has always struck me as a craven instinct, an attempt to deny the fundamental nature of humanity. Though understandable in motive – the desire to transcend the human condition is a part of the human condition – the fight against mortality remains, to me, a childish paroxysm against the world’s ineffability. It pains me to admit that I’m far more susceptible to it, in the right circumstances, than I might have hoped.

So, to go back to the beginning – perhaps the good news is that I haven’t won the lottery yet. If real happiness comes from detachment, as some Buddhists might say, not being able to afford certain experiences means that I have no reason to fear their loss. [Though, as an aside, I do think that it would be facetious, as well as grotesquely unfair, to suggest that the poor are, or ought to be, the happiest people in the world.] This brings me to a dichotomy: what affords greater freedom? Most would agree that wealth can buy, if not direct happiness, an almost infinite measure of freedom – the ability to do as one desires, subject only to the laws of physics and the limits of one’s Swiss bank account – which is, arguably, a better deal. But at what point does that freedom become a golden cage? Maybe that’s a rhetorical question. Nestled in luxurious captivity, would you even care?


August 2012: Previously, in my more facetious moments, I used to say that dying was the greatest adventure known to mankind in the 21st century, since it would involve launching head first (or, perhaps, feet first) into the last unknown, un-chartered territory: the “great beyond”. Let’s just say that I have less zest for that adventure now that I am a parent. My death is no longer merely a personal matter. I do not live for my child alone, but I am responsible for him, and it is a responsibility that transcends almost all other considerations. The thought of death again terrifies, not for any personal reasons, but because of its consequences for my son. If the prospect of eternal life beckons as never before, it’s because of the opportunities it would offer to continue to observe my son (and his children’s children) live out his life in its fullness. Perhaps being a chronically over-protective ghost has its advantages. Still, I promise to leave the china alone.

When was the last time you had a fear of death?