Throwing shapes (and insults)

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Josh Holloway filming for the Davidoff Cool Water ad campaign (Picture from The Sun website), then the completed magazine ad, presumably airbrushed? (which is frankly ridiculous)

My post on Lovable Bods last week really brought out the frustration in a couple of commenters. Obviously, the victimisation of our bodies is something I feel very strongly about (see tag cloud to the right – “curves” is one of my hotter topics) and it is something both men and women suffer. As I said in reply to commenter Roisin, I recall Josh Holloway (Sawyer in Lost – I guess this would be a really inappropriate time to say Yum??) in an interview about his role as eye-candy, complaining that Brad Pitt’s stomach had “ruined it” for men everywhere, that they couldn’t possibly compete. As if competing  were the sole purpose of our having bodies, not to be able to, I dunno, DO stuff. At all.

On Sunday I was lap counting at a charity swimathon. There were teams of all ages and abilities, local kids’ training teams, volunteer teams from local and national companies, semi-pros and disabled swimmers, all hanging out poolside in their trunks, cossies and bikinis, raising cash for charities. Some swimmers were elderly, some were just children, some were thin, some were fat, some were very clearly regular swimmers who liked to work out. Some had six packs. Some had beer bellies.

Inbetween relays I kept glancing around at these bodies, trying to determine by Hollywood standards which were beautiful. If any were beautiful. And I couldn’t. I looked at some of the larger swimmers and tried to work out what “fat” meant, and the word seemed to have no meaning. I couldn’t work out who was fat and who wasn’t – or how I was supposed to decide. I tried to work out what it is some people felt repulsed by about a big belly or jutting shoulder blades, and it just wouldn’t make sense. All these people – somewhere in the region of a couple of hundred in total – were healthy and warm and generous, giving freely of their time. They weren’t beautiful and they weren’t not beautiful, and at the same time they were all beautiful. They just were.

Maybe I should say they were just real, as I think that’s where the idea of body beautiful falls down. It’s not about the fact that the Hollywood ideal is unachievable – it isn’t if it’s your full-time job to look that way, although lighting, body make-up and airbrushing obviously help – but about the fact that Hollywood stars are not real people. The people we see on shock documentaries about 32 stone teenagers aren’t real people either. Not to us, at least.

This is what brings out the schoolyard bully in us, putting them down in order to boost ourselves – an innate retaliation to feelings of inferiority that we have to learn not to indulge. In the playground we put a stop to such bullying to save other children’s feelings, but these unreal celebrities can’t hear what we’re saying, so can’t be hurt by us. The celebrity gossip magazines, with their “too thin, too fat, circle of shame – look she sweats!” (I’m seething as I type that – man, I HATE them!) play to that inferior child in us, encouraging us to acknowledge their regular, ordinary, human imperfections as defects, arguing that they do so to make we mere mortals feel better. When in fact they just give us higher standards to live up to (“what if that guy over there is looking at my tummy the way I was looking at Charlotte Church?”) and make accomplices of us all.

Meanwhile, the overweight and underweight people we know personally, see in the flesh so to speak, are more than just the sum of their parts. Who they are strips away their (perceived) physical flaws and imperfections. Even if we don’t like them very much, once they are known to us they become their name and their actions, not their body. Their physical beauty enters neutral ground the minute they become real.

Of course, once a person we know becomes a person we love it is inevitable that we will once again begin to notice their body shapes as an indicator of factors unrelated to beauty. I see my friends and family’s waxing and waning stomachs – as they see mine – as an indicator of their happiness and stress levels. One friend loses weight to extremes when she’s miserable. Another, like me, comfort eats when she feels unhappy or stressed and out of control. When my slim friend’s back bone is protruding it does turn my stomach, not because it is unattractive to me, but because it signifies the extent of her unhappiness. I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations here, and I know there are numerous other reasons, biological, circumstantial and environmental, for weight gain and loss, but a lot of my friends are emotional eaters and, as well as a visual documentation of their health, their bodies testify to their mental wellbeing.

I think what I’m trying to say is that our bodies are about so much more than beauty. They are about freedom and action, health and vitality. Their subtle changes can tell those who see them a million things about how you’re feeling, how you’re coping – that you need help. And as I realised on Sunday, the more we see this, the more difficult “body beautiful” becomes to pin down.

Maybe I said the word “beautiful” so many times that it lost it’s meaning. They do that sometimes. Or maybe thinking about the concept of “beautiful” too deeply had the same effect. Either way, we need to take one of two steps for our collective sanity: either make the term more inclusive, or exclude the body from the confines of such an abstract altogether.

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5 thoughts on “Throwing shapes (and insults)

  1. This is quite the hotbutton topic for me, so I will try very hard not to get as angry as I did when I was commenting before! This was very thoughtful and thought-provoking and I agree entirely with you. Beauty is about so much more than appearance, and by fetishing bodies so much we forget what they are actually for – which is to house all of our emotional and intellectual processes, and to enable us to get through life. As I said in my previous comments, what bothers me is the way in which we are constantly encouraged to feel disgusted by our own bodies and the bodies of other people. And it is so easy to get sucked into it. I glanced at the cover of a copy of Heat a few months ago when I was waiting for my train, and that glance resulted in a good week or so of me worrying about my body. The cover had Kerry Katona in a bikini, she had apparently put on some weight. Next to it was an unrelated picture of her eating something on holiday and the caption that she ‘dreamed about beef curries’. Well, I’m not going to comment on what she looked like but I went home thinking that I would probably look pretty chubby in a bikini and maybe I should feel disgusted with myself, and I spent a fair few days trying hard to get over this worry. And the thing is, I know better, and it still made me feel self-loathing, you know? And I had just glanced at the cover. What right have Heat magazine, or anyone, to encourage me to feel that way, or to ridicule anyone in the public eye in that way?

    As I said earlier, our bodies should be our own business, and it is utterly hateful that this constant stream of comment is allowed to continue. And what it does is reduce the person to just a body, or just a flaw. Who cares that Kerry Katona is a person with problems when we can just point and laugh at her stomach? Who cares that Michelle Obama is a talented and accomplished woman who is working hard to influence politics for good, when she has muscular upper arms?

  2. Can I just lower the tone a bit and say – yum yum and yum Josh Holloway..but not to his deformed post airbrush body:(

    I have just stopped dieting as I realised that not only was I becoming obsessed with what I was eating, and had stopped enjoying food but that actually, apart from a bit of toning in places, I am mostly happy with my size/shape (I’m a 12 or 14), but those mags you discuss tell me I should be disgusted with my flabby stomach and obeseness!! Because sadly anything past an 8 is just disgustingly overweight 😉
    I seethe when I read those magazines, especially when it is somebody who has recently given birth and they *shock*horror* have a bit of a belly and they have a big arrow pointing to said ‘flawed’ part….we are only a step away from the article header shouting how dare these people step out in public!!!
    Like you said our bodies are for doing stuff and mine has carried and delivered 4 frankly massive healthy babies that I was able to nourish and I thank my body for that and if it now offends folks then tough!!
    ooh bit ranty there…my apologies!! But I think you get my drift??;)

  3. i agree with you claire…bloody magazines picturing all these ‘fat’ celebs when they just had kids…I’ve had one kid and am content with my size 12 jelly belly than you :0)

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