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Pure As the Driven Slush (Personal Journal)

May 4th, Two Thousand Two: It's been a while, and the massive feedback (cripes, it hit some news wires, which is pretty bizarre for a journal entry) about the body image entry has been wide, varied, and really interesting.

It's left me with a few things I think are worth talking about that I didn't mention in the initial entry. Who knows, I may keep revisiting this for quite some time.

Some of the commentary on it had to do with curves being womanly, being sexy, being what "women are supposed to look like." While, yes, certainly a great many (especially North American, European and African women) women ARE naturally built on a curvy mold, to greater or lesser degrees, not all are. I think this issue is what "women" are "supposed" to look like, but really, how your own body is built. Some women are built on a more linear mold, and some women who may not have been take on that form due to athletic training, or hell, even due to illness they CAN'T help, not due to dieting or starvation. And if those curves aren't there, I think saying they aren't womanly, or saying that those women aren't looking as they should is as disempowering a message as saying women should NOT look curvy. And we should -- not just the proverbial you, me too -- be careful in how we talk about body shape and size in this regard because while physically we don't really have to worry much about harming someone when we're talking about very average sizes (most people are not going to be less healthy by gaining 20 pounds), emotionally we're in a different arena. I could not, no matter how much healthy weight loss or gain or physical training NOT be curvy. That is my build. But in the same respect, a woman who is built like, say Wilma Rudolph or Michelle Kwan, both clearly physically healthy women, most likely could not, save plastic surgery, BECOME curvy or change her actual build, rather than her size. And neither of us should hear that that impossibility renders us more or less female, more or less sexual, or more or less attractive.

Bear in mind, the initial piece was a journal entry, not a major article -- I primarily talked about my size because it is the perspective I'm really most qualified to speak from and about which I can speak with the most experience and clarity. In my mind, ALL women are "real women." All women are "womanly," and thank goodness, that doesn't mean just one thing. Gender identity is a very, very big field in which we all get to play. Sexuality is only a part of it, and our bodies are likewise only a part of our sexuality.

Which leads me to something else. It's always a bit tough when you're a writer or an artist to truly express what you're trying to get out there in a way that guarantees a certain interpretation. And to some degree, that simply isn't completely possible, in my mind. But, when some of the letters said things like "well, men have always found me sexy," or "I may not like my body, but my husband does, so it must be okay," I'll be honest and say that I found that really disheartening.

I'm not going to play the village idiot and say that for nearly all of us, our self-image is not bound up in some respect to how we are seen by others. I'm also not going to deny that for most of us, our sexuality, our feelings about our bodies and that sexuality, often have something to do with our physical appeal to others, especially if we're interested in partnered sex. I'm also not going to say that I'm not glad to hear that a lot of men -- regardless of their orientation -- can view women as sexually or aesthetically appealing who are healthy, physically and emotionally. But in my heart of hearts, I'd hope all of that came secondarily to a woman's own self-image, and my gut and my experience tell me that to have a really sound base for positive self-image, that has to come second, not first. We have to love our own bodies first -- not just for how they look to others, male or female, and not just for their sexual appeal -- but as extensions of self, as bodies for ALL the things our bodies make us capable of doing. And you know, the truth is, there are better people than I to send that message, because due to my vocation, appearance has a lot to do with how I present myself, and appearance is one of the major functions of my body right now. And again, given what I do, a lot of that is tied into sexuality.

But I know a major pinnacle for me in getting to a more positive body image is being able to ask myself how I feel about my body completely divorced from how anyone else in the world feels about it. In other words, if I turn off ALL of the positive and the negative feedback about my body from others -- from fans, from lovers, from friends, from family -- how do I really feel? Can I appreciate all of my body, accept all of my body, and realistically evaluate my body and how it affects me without that? The answer I usually come to is: sometimes. Sometimes I can, and sometimes I can't. But oddly, even the positive input doesn't always do positive things. It's easy, for instance, to forget that one's body is far more than a magnet for Eros when a lot of the input one gets is tied into the erotic. And it's easy to neglect positives of the body other people don't mention in favor of those who do. For instance, my fans don't see my yoga or boxing form, nor often get to watch me go do a day's work of lifting, and things like that are an integral part of my body image. Or, on the negative, viewers of my work that involves my physical form who don't find me sexually appealing, and are approaching my body from that standpoint only, may not stop to look at me through another lens. In teaching, I often ran into odd conflicts because I have a very curvy body, which is seen as sexual, so if my clothes were clingy enough to show those curves, it was sometimes seen as a problem because no one "should" be thinking of a Kindergarten teacher as a sexual being.

A rare few of us will ever be able to really turn off all of the input we get on our bodies, from friends or from strangers, from those intimate with us, or from larger collective messages like the media, but I do think it's important to try and do that, and to try and be able -- at least sometimes -- to function outside of that and have a real feeling about our own bodies separate from that input.

That includes some feedback from women, too, on both sides of the coin. I know many women who have friends who are less fit than they are, for instance, or who have very negative body image. And for a lot of people, starting to do bodywork, or get healthier is more than the physical. It's a lifestyle change that often has a lot of positive effects, but when those folks start off heavier, and lose weight or change shape because of that work, it often seems to create very real problems with their friends or lovers who have NOT opted to change their lifestyle in that way. Again, that mindset of women being in competition with one another is the killer. And when it gets to the point where we can't even feel good about our friends doing things to not only make them feel better about themselves, but to become physically and emotionally HEALTHIER, it's beyond time to start question what the hell is going on.

Again, I think what this all boils down to is getting to the individual and collective point where we can accept an incredibly diverse range of healthy shapes and sizes as perfectly okay, and aesthetically beautiful in a broad way, though I don't think any of us can say someone needs find this type or shape or that one sexually or aesthetically appealing -- we just can't assign those sorts of things, neither or them is that simple and are, to some degree, pretty fixed in a person. But the big difference there is I-statements. It is a very different thing to say "Martha is too fat," or "Joanne's breasts are too small," than it is to say, "Martha just isn't sexually appealing to me," or "Bigger breasts are just what rev my engine." And people are awfully quick to do the former -- most likely half out of thoughtlessness or conditioning which tells them that their tastes ARE everyone's tastes, and half because their OWN self-image is such that they need to feel the validation of having tastes which are the tastes to be having. And it isn't just others who make that error. Most of us do it ourselves all the time. We look in the mirror and we say things like, "I'm too fat," or "My legs are too big," or "My butt is too flat." And rarely do we go just one tiny step further and ask ourselves, "For what?" Are we too fat to do things we want to do comfortably, or to fit into a given size? Are our legs too big for this designer's cut of pants, or are they too big to look like our ideal? Are our butts too flat to make sitting comfortable, or to be strong enough for skating all day, or are they too flat for what we think another person might desire? And just asking those questions offers a whole lot of perspective, because it helps us figure out if those feelings are really valid or important. If we are too fat or thin to be healthy and to do the activities that are involved in our lives, that is very worth looking at and finding solutions to, if they exist (and they don't always exist). If we are too fat or too thin to sexually appeal to someone else, or meet a beauty standard, or wear this brand of clothing, that is another matter entirely, and really demands a very different approach: namely, working to change our mindset rather than our bodies.

Despite disagreeing with a good deal of what is being said in a radical feminist discussion of the body image piece (though the entire discussion has really been very enriching for me, agreement or no), there are a few sentiments I very much agree with, the big one being that objectification can be a real problem when it comes not just to body image, but to identity and self-acceptance. I don't think it's just men that do it; I see women do it all the time, to themselves and to others. Objectification and lookism are certainly a very real problem. And I don't, even at my most optimistic moments, think that we can, in our lifetimes, change how very much that pervades our culture to the point that it no longer exists. I think the most pragmatic approach is a combination of working to change it for the better, getting as many voices out there as we can, especially those who have had very little visibility, while vehemently rejecting the negative messages out there right now. I don't think it's so simple that we can wake up one day, say "I love myself and my body" and make that all happen with the wave of a wand. But I do think if we start saying that every day, combined with saying "...and I accept and love his body and her body and him and her for what they are," too, we're going to make a lot of headway and feel a whole lot better in the day-to-day. And my bet is that a lot of that has to do with starting with ourselves, not with others, or what we feel all around us.

I'm in a better position to talk about that approach with things other than my body or appeal, because to be frank, overall in my life -- I'm not taking about media, I'm talking about in my life -- my body HAS been accepted and revered by most people I come into contact with; not just for how it looks, but for all that it does. While in a given time period I might be a little too heavy or muscled for this ideal or that one, or a little too short or old for this one over here, let's face it: I'm Caucasian. I have an hourglass figure and what are interpreted as visible "signals" of fertility. I'm pretty evenly proportioned. I have thick, fair hair and what has been over time, for the most part, a generally classically "beautiful" face shape and features (though my nose may only have been revered in Siciliy). I'm basically healthy and physically able. In other words, I do not stray all that far from most physical or sexual ideals over history. There are people who may find they do not fit into ANY historical ideal they can find, or who have overwhelmingly met with a lack of acceptance about their bodies. I am not one of those people. I have my own challenges with my body (with liking its variances aesthetically, with dealing with the physical disability of my right hand that can be limiting, with my health, with varied things), on many levels, but in the grand scheme of things, I would not classify them as major life challenges.

On the other hand, I opt, and have, nearly all of my life (excepting that bizarre period of my childhood when I felt I must beat up every boy in my path) to practice nonviolence, to not support war of any kind in a culture which reveres it and has for all of its history. I have lost friends over that stance, I have been called more nasty names than I care to mention. I am also queer. I have also always lived below the poverty level, I am a working female artist, I refuse to work for anything even remotely corporate, what have you. I have never found it easy to simply ignore the pervasive messages out there telling me not only to be otherwise, but placing values upon me due to my own; questioning my integrity, questioning in some cases even, my right to be who I am and believe those things which I do and live as freely as the next person does. But what I have found is that when I make a point to review the importance of these things to who I am, to what I do, and when I commit very fully to them, it makes all the difference in the world to see those messages, accept that they are there, but reject them outright. But I earnestly doubt I could do that without some support from others around me who are like-minded -- or at least respect my stance, but respectfully disagree -- and so I also have to make an effort to find those people and that community.

And I -- and you, if all of this is important to you -- need to make damn sure that I do the same for others, and it's no mean feat, and I've no doubt that I err at times and even fail miserably at that now and then. But I think all too often it feels like, and we're told that, we have to make a choice between working for ourselves, on ourselves, and helping or supporting others. And if we see it that way, I think we're making a very crucial error because doing both all at once, always -- and learning how very much they compliment each other and contribute to each other -- seems to me to be what we really need to start doing in the microcosm to ultimately improve and alter the macrocosm.

I recognize this entry is a bit haphazard -- there are so many things surrounding this I want to address, but they'd make up a whole book or dominate my journal completely. But I suppose the underlying thing I'm trying to say here is that dealing with anything like this is twofold: it's about what we do for ourselves, AND it is about what we do -- and how we do it -- for others. Unless we're living a completely solitary life, I think we and those around us -- most notably those we are close to and are in our immediate communities, real or virtual -- are inexorably intertwined. I think while we can look around and blame (and in some cases it isn't invalid) the media, blame the patriarchy, blame capitalism, blame consumerism, blame the fashion industry, blame the diet industry, blame this culture or that one, this person or that, that at the heart of all of this is interbeing. Now, given, this is what one would expect to hear from a Buddhist. But that bias aside, it is what my heart tells me, it is what my eyes and ears tell me, it is what all those warped messages out there tell me when I try and figure out why they are there: we are too disconnected from one another. If we were truly connected, if we really understood how to inter-be, and we did so, ideally, in every moment, we wouldn't be able to knock someone else for their size or shape. We wouldn't be able to see someone else as a body and nothing else. We wouldn't be able to objectify our own bodies and divorce ourselves from them to the point that we felt like aliens living on the foreign planet that is our flesh. I think compassion and interconnectedness -- or a lack of them -- lay at the heart of everything, and certainly at this issue.

And that said: whoever you are, whoever... I love your body. And I love my body because I love your body, and love your body because I love mine. I may not always be able to really feel that deeply, or able to keep it in the front of my mind as I should, but that connection is there -- and is all too often there in the inverse, as in "I hate my body because I hate the body, all bodies," in some respect; our hatred of our own flesh in this culture is so deep-seeded and ingrained it is completely psychopathic -- and we get to choose to accept it or deny it. But I don't think denying it is doing any of us any good. I do think accepting it not only gets us to a place where we really can be positive, but where we can love our bodies enough to understand that they are not all that there is, nor just what they appear, but one integral part of a whole.

That whole is the REAL work we need to be doing, and we'd all be kidding ourselves if we didn't confess that a lot of the reason why we get stuck on one part of it, like body image, is because it's a lot less smaller, and a LOT less scary.

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