Posts Tagged ‘body image’

I’m still pondering beauty – observing it, listening to it resonate in my soul. I’m wondering what constitutes beauty, and am fascinated by what seems to be the sheer necessity of beauty in our lives. As well, I’m stunned by the power feminine beauty in particular.

The difficulty comes for some of us when this power is paired with beauty. None of us begrudges beauty that is unattached to persons. We appreciate it, treasure it, spend money to obtain it, and enjoy it – for the most part. In fact, beauty in nature, art, fabric, movement, the beauty of an idea, or an elegant solution to a problem, a poem – all of these things we can enjoy without complication.

But when it comes to the beauty of the female form, we’re scarcely aware of being under a spell. KT Tunstall says it most profoundly in her song, Suddenly I see:

Her face is a map of the world
Is a map of the world
You can see she’s a beautiful girl
She’s a beautiful girl
And everything around her is a silver pool of light
The people who surround her feel the benefit of it
It makes you calm
She holds you captivated in her palm

Suddenly I see (Suddenly I see)
This is what I wanna be
Suddenly I see (Suddenly I see)
Why the hell it means so much to me

I feel like walking the world
Like walking the world
You can hear she’s a beautiful girl
She’s a beautiful girl
She fills up every corner like she’s born in black and white
Makes you feel warmer when you’re trying to remember
What you heard
She likes to leave you hanging on her word

Suddenly I see (Suddenly I see)
This is what I wanna be
Suddenly I see (Suddenly I see)
Why the hell it means so much to me

And she’s taller than most
And she’s looking at me
I can see her eyes looking from a page in a magazine
Oh she makes me feel like I could be a tower
A big strong tower
She got the power to be
The power to give
The power to see

Suddenly I see (Suddenly I see)
This is what I wanna be
Suddenly I see (Suddenly I see)
Why the hell it means so much to me

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I’ve spent the better part of four days observing the phenomenon of beauty, wondering whether to start a thoughtful series on the subject. Then I turn to Karen over at Cheerio Road and she’s already there with an encouraging word and a couple of great videos to share. It must be a sign, I think. So here goes.

I’ve become a rabid fan of Stephen White, writer of some pretty great psychological/crime fiction. His main character is a psychologist in private practice in Boulder. This is a treat because I get to peek at the therapeutic challenges of another practitioner, as well as follow his adventures in one of my favorite places in the world, the People’s Republic of Boulder. I’ve now read my library’s entire collection of Stephen White, which is sadly short of what’s required.

It’s Stephen White that got me started thinking about beauty, while reading his 2004 bestseller, Blinded. Here’s how one of his characters describes another character named Gibbs Storey, in several passages:

Gibbs Storey was gorgeous, okay? I mean make-me-nervous, shift-my-weight, avert-my-eyes kind of gorgeous. The girls-guys-like-me-don’t-even-get-to-talk-to kind of gorgeous.

Not pretty.

Gibbs was movie-star stuff.

If she hadn’t been so pretty, or maybe if I had just been constitutionally more adept at being around someone so pretty, I might not have blurted out what I blurted out next. But she was, and I wasn’t.

then later:

What I didn’t say was, “My God, woman, your options are limitless. I know twenty men who would bow down and lick clean the ground you walk on.”

I took a moment to look away from her and give myself a pep talk. I told myself that I could look her in the eye and not be weakened by her beauty. That my resolve wouldn’t dissolve in her loveliness.

When I looked back up at her, I was pretty sure that I’d been wrong.

White weaves the theme of female beauty throughout this novel in a way that rubs the sore spot on the psyche of many an unresolved high school wannabe. It made me cranky, I admit.

The sheer power of a certain kind of feminine beauty, as described here, is stunning to me. What can it mean, I wonder? Beyond the obvious factors: our sex-infused culture, the media, inadequately socialized boys, improperly socialized girls?

What does it mean? What does it represent?

I’ll be wondering this all week. Stay tuned.

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Chapter 8: Reunited

I’m not a girl anymore, that’s for sure. So soon old, so late smart, they say with a shrug. I’m tempted to feel regret, and yet mostly I feel grateful to be at this point in the struggle. My body, my oldest friend, my most faithful companion, has stayed true, has told the truth to the world, even as I ignored her. I can’t tell you how incredible that feels to me. And now I can find a new way to live – together with my body at last, happily ever after.

This will require a new set of skills, as well as a shift in attention. The committee will be relieved of its managerial duties, and I will need to learn to listen in a new way. After 47 years of warfare, I will learn to listen to the wisdom of my body somehow, and I will learn to trust her with all the courage I can muster.

Even as I’ve been doing this I’ve been aware of a stubborn determination to cling to the old paradigm. Maybe now I can lose weight, I think. Maybe now I’ll shrink down to size. Perhaps at last, as reward for gaining wisdom, I’ll slim down.

Perhaps I will. Maybe I won’t. That’s up to my body. My job is to listen and obey. To trust and to love. To value the wonderful gift of being…how can I put it?…of being defective, I guess. Of being flawed in the eyes of the they’s and the them’s, the keepers of the rules of illusion. The story makers. The liars.

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Chapter 7: Head Trip

I am a student of human nature. I have a Master’s degree in psychology, so it makes sense that what goes on between the ears is fascinating to me. But like most professional students of human nature, the fascination comes from a desire to sort out the craziness in my own head. We professionals just like to do it the long way, by pretending to help others!

The thing that makes humans different from animals is the special ability to be at war with ourselves, and the entire discipline of psychology is built around understanding this war.

Last month I got a glimpse of the war I was fighting inside my own head, trying to keep my conflicting imperatives alive:

Be as small as you can, don’t take up space


Stand tall and don’t be ashamed, step into your full power.

That kind of conflict will make you crazy in no time, but for me, since it was all under the surface, it just created a perpetual suffering of the self. So I studied psychology in order to reduce the suffering of others. Brilliant.

However. Along with the ability to be at war inside ourselves, humans are also gifted with the drive to move toward integration. Despite our best efforts to the contrary, there are forces at work inside the psyche that move us, however feebly sometimes, toward the truth. Toward wholeness and health. It’s stunning.

My feeble effort came in the form of a narrative, a personal story which I could tell myself in order to organize my sense of self, articulate my dilemma, and give myself a problem to work on in perpetuity, without actually having to change.

I suffered a lot, that’s for sure. Suffering is just evidence of how hard I’m trying to heal, I thought. Here I am, stuck in this unfortunate body, for which I’ve suffered way too much shame. Shame has impaired my ability to be who I truly am, I thought. I lack the confidence to really succeed the way I want to, the way I feel I’m destined to. See, I feel made for greatness, but I keep defeating myself with my lack of confidence and self-esteem. That comes from a childhood of not really being seen, you know. Of being a child in an adult’s body. Of having an absent mother and a more absent father. Blah, blah, blah, you get the picture.

Then a month ago I had a conversation with a man who said he didn’t believe my story. The one about feeling so small and powerless on the inside that I was afraid I would shrink away and ultimately fail to step into my destiny, whatever it may be, on the outside. “I’m not buying it,” he said.

Excuse me?

“Your body is telling a different story. And your body doesn’t lie. You could never shrink away and fail, you’re not built that way,” he said with the confidence of 25 years of experience as a psychologist, yogi, body worker, and life coach.

Well shit.

No one ever refused to buy my story before. I’m very good at telling it, selling it everywhere I go. I consider it the height of compassionate respect to honor a person’s story, and the biggest betrayal not to. Especially when it comes to me. How dare you not believe my story? And who says it’s a story anyway? It’s the truth, dammit.

And yet. By the end of the day, pieces of myself came together into one coherent piece of magic, one I feel at a loss to describe. I almost heard the clap, the two pieces of myself finally coming together. Wham. Whole. Just like that.

My story was just a story I devised to keep the conflict from resolving itself. But my body knew the real score. It kept shouting to the world – don’t believe the bullshit she’s telling you! She’s a strong and powerful and beautiful woman. Don’t believe her self-doubt. Don’t buy her smallness.

But I couldn’t give up the dream of someday waking up to be Jana Gerken. – someone who could be cared for, someone who could be free to play, someone who wouldn’t have to suffer the loneliness of being too big for the world.

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Chapter 5: A Compromise of Sorts

Dear Laura gave me a lasting gift, for every time I tried it on, it fit perfectly. Every time I stood tall instead of hunched over, every time I held my head high with my shoulders back, I felt whole and fine, like I’d come home.

The boys were still scared shitless, of course, especially the ones I was inclined to obsess about: the blond-haired, blue-eyed trumpet player who stood all of about five foot five, and the upper-class football player/track star who, although he had better bulk than the trumpet player, was still a good inch and a half shorter than I. But I digress…

I began to be ruled by two conflicting imperatives. They went like this:

1. Stand tall, don’t be ashamed, throw your shoulders back and flaunt it.

2. Don’t be too big to play. Don’t take up space. Keep it small and maybe you won’t be alone.

Eventually marriage offered me the perfect compromise, one I deliberately chose. I fell madly in love with someone who offered me the best of both worlds. He was of average height, which for some reason I preferred, but he wasn’t scared or put off by my stature. He was mystified that it bothered me at all. This gave me the green light, if I wanted, to throw my shoulders back and flaunt it.

On the other hand, he generated a large presence. He took up a lot of space in a room. He was energetic and confident, enthusiastic and goal-oriented. He was going places, and he wanted me to come along. And best of all, he was perceptive as a tree stump. He didn’t get subtlety, nor did he feel inclined to read minds. Not one to ask, “what’s wrong, honey?” he was easy to hide from if I chose. I remember when the advantages of such a relationship began to dawn on me. I could be adored, but not scrutinized. I could go ahead and stand tall, but be as small and invisible as I chose to be, whenever it suited me. I remember thinking, “I could hide anything from this guy. Huh…” as the wheels began to turn…

Poor guy, he was set up from the start to play the foil in this inner drama of mine. He never stood a chance. Luckily he’s made of some pretty tough stuff.

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Phyllis George, Miss America, 1971 Phyllis George, Miss America, 1971.

I was there, cheering her on. Well, not there in Atlantic City, but there in our living room, caught up in all the excitement. I was riveted to the pageant that year, fascinated that such a lovely creature could be named Phyllis, same as me. It was inspiring, I think. Or not. I didn’t really know what to feel. I knew I could never be as beautiful as Phyllis George, but I was relieved that someone not my grandmother’s age could represent the name Phyllis with style. I struggled with my name, too, in case you didn’t pick that up. (Why couldn’t I be a Debbie, or a Julie? I really liked the name Julie.)

I was mesmerized by Phyllis George. Another perfect creature, and I couldn’t help feeling envious as well as a little proud.

Sometime during her reign, I read a mini-interview with her in a magazine. During the interview she admitted she often felt awkward about her appearance, saying she really hated her nose, and often wished it were different.

I was stunned. Incredulous. Phyllis George had just been crowned the most beautiful woman in the country, and she couldn’t be satisfied with her appearance.

I knew then that if Phyllis George couldn’t feel beautiful, there was very little hope for the rest of us.

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Chapter 2. Egon Dzintars and Jana Gerken

When I was a child I never saw one of those height and weight charts the doctors were quick to show me for my own children. The one with the percentile scores based on age, height, and weight that they show parents during regularly scheduled well-baby exams.

In my era a visit to the doctor meant something was wrong, and there wasn’t money to pay for it. We’d never heard of health insurance, so I doubt very much if my mother was privy to the height/weight percentile chart, since well-baby exams weren’t a regular part of her universe. But she didn’t need a chart to recognize I was big for my age.

“She’s big for her age,” was a sentence I heard at least a hundred times during my school years. Mom said it to friends often enough for me to notice. It might not have carried any significance with me later – after all it was just my mother’s opinion – if it weren’t for Egon Dzintars and Jana Gerken.

Egon was the biggest kid in our grade, the standard bearer for the upper limit. I’ll bet anything Egon rode on the 99th percentile, if not higher, on the height and weight chart. By all accounts he was a big kid. I was mortified by Egon because from kindergarten to the 6th grade, for each of our 7 years at Meadowbrook Elementary School, I stood next to him on the bleachers at every performance. Every Christmas program, every choir concert: me and Egon, side by side in the back row. Me and Egon, same size.

Humiliations galore.

Egon became the icon of my hidden distress, so of course I was forced to despise him.

(Egon is a great guy, by the way. He had his awkward moments in grade school – didn’t we all? – but he weathered it well. I enjoyed visiting with him at our last high school reunion. He’s a doctor with a lovely wife and some beautiful kids, a good sense of humor, and I think a boat. Whatever suffering he may have incurred from my disdain didn’t leave any obvious marks).

And then there was Jana Gerken. She came to our school in the 5th grade. With her long, perfectly straight, perfectly blond hair, her little fishnet stockings, her miniskirt with go-go boots, and her petite little child-like frame, Jana was the poster child for perfect – in my world, anyway. She was everything I wasn’t. If Egon was the icon of my distress, Jana was the icon of … well, my distress. I remember looking at her perfectness one day and marveling at the injustice of the universe. But that night as I went to bed, I prayed, “Dear God, let me wake up short (like Jana Gerken). Amen.”

Bookended by the twin icons of my distress, I was trapped in my own private, pre-pubescent torture chamber.

Lord have mercy on all the children.

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