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!

2 Comments on The personal politics of body image

  1. I’ve always swayed from “ok with it” to “I need to exercise”. The exercise excuse is I need to be fit, underlying it is, darn, all these people looking much better than I do. I was awkward growing up, tall and big boned. So hard to buy clothes/shoes where I grew up. Ever since moving here, it’s much better but there is always that nagging thought… drop 30lbs…drop20lbs… drop 10lbs.. damnit, just single digit now.

  2. You should start a “Campaign for Real Beauty” like Dove. Then you should start a misogynist, sex-drenched campaign for body sprays aimed at teenage males to promote demand for an idealized, wet-dream female body archetype. Oh right! Unilever did that.