Monday, November 16, 2009

Body Love

The other day the New York Times ran an article on the dubious practice of digitally altering fashion photos of models, already dangerously thin to begin with, to make them appear slimmer. The article featured a picture from a Ralph Lauren ad of a woman whose hips were smaller than her head (see picture, below). The next day a friend of mine posted a rant on her blog about such images (the specific image she was responding to was yet another photo-shopped Ralph Lauren ad showing a freakishly skinny woman posing in jeans, a shot that has raised considerable ire recently and drawn defensive remarks from Lauren lawyers). The model in both ads, Filippa Hamilton, was later fired by Lauren for being too fat. She is 5’10” and weighs 120 lbs. Being only a 1” shorter myself, I can say that I have never weighed this little in my adult life.

I think it goes without saying that the ideal that is being held up for us and our daughters is not only unhealthy, but it’s also unattainable because it doesn’t actually exist. It’s manufactured. And it’s sad on so many levels I hardly know how to address it. This is not a new debate, but one that has unfortunately been going on for decades, to little avail. And while I have the judgment to look at these images and reject them as ridiculous, what about someone who is eighteen? Or twelve? A woman I work with, Mary Beth, teaches a series of classes designed to educate young girls about positive body esteem in an effort to decrease the incidences of eating disorders among teens. She also counsels those who have already developed eating disorders. I’m so grateful that she is out there, educating our girls, and I think we need to clone her (indeed, her classes are in such demand that she has taught many others to lead them). Some of the big companies are beginning to grow a conscious as well. Dove is one of the few beauty companies to break from the fold. They have come out with a line of ads featuring real women with real bodies. To my knowledge, their sales have done just fine.

On the way home last Friday, with all of this nonsense swirling in my head, I stopped to pick up Anna from Y-care. She was working on a drawing when I arrived. It was the quintessential child’s picture – our family, hands clasped together, with a rainbow overhead. As I looked over her shoulder I was suddenly struck by the juxtaposition of her drawing, so innocent, and the distorted fashion images I had seen earlier in the day. Suddenly, the thought of Anna growing up to inherit this dangerous cultural legacy made me feel ill. Though she is only seven now, I know it won’t be long, a few years perhaps, before she, too, falls prey to this self-conscious body judgment.

I was naturally slim in my teens, but in my twenties I would obsess over an extra 10 or 15 pounds. I would diet with my friends and we would shop for clothes together, wondering whether they showed our figures in a flattering light. We looked upon ourselves with such a critical eye. Beneath all this was an undercurrent of fear – fear that somehow we would not measure up. I look at pictures from those younger days now and I think, my god, we were beautiful. And it makes me sad for all the young girls today who hate their bodies for not conforming to these ridiculous standards set by Lauren and others. I wish I could stand beside these girls and hand them the key that would unlock the door to this hall of distorted mirrors our media places them within, so they could step outside into the light and see themselves for what they really are, which is, of course, perfectly lovely.

But what can we tell our children that will have such a profound effect? We, as parents, know all too well that our children don’t value our wisdom and experience nearly as much as we do. At some point they boldly begin to make their own choices and live their own lives. We lament the fact that they refuse to listen to us. But what we often fail to realize is that they are watching and listening and absorbing to a staggering degree; and while they may not do as we tell them, in an ultimate act of devotion that we never intended, one day, they will become, more or less, who we are. While at times I feel prepared to impart to my children the wisdom I have gleaned over the years, I am in no way ready for this psychic transfer of my fears, biases, insecurities and other shortcomings to take place. I have so much healing yet to do. But such is life. It never waits for the starting gun.

And as I watch my daughter, poised on the cusp of innocence, unaware of this wave of media-whipped cultural debris that will come crashing down over her in a few years, I have to ask myself, have I done right by her? What have I left her to inherit? How well have I banished my own body demons?

I’m certainly more at ease with my body now than I was in my younger days. At some point, generally in our 30’s or 40’s, sometimes 50’s, we women seem to settle into the rhythm of our bodies. We discover it is not the enemy but, indeed, a powerful friend. My friends and I often joke that if we had the knowledge and confidence we have now and the bodies we had in our 20’s, we’d be quite a force to contend with (come to think of it, perhaps nature knew what she was doing when she assigned beauty to the young and insecure). But even so, the critic is still alive and well in me. When my husband looks at my body, he sees only beauty, but when I look in the mirror my eyes will come to rest on all the places that are a little too plump. I wish I could say I’ve outgrown this habit, but it isn’t so.

So what then to do with this crazy culture of thinness, this body Gestapo that infiltrates even the most stable and confident of our girls (and mothers)? It’s important for us to reject these images – write letters to the editor, boycott the most egregious designers, rage at Ralph Lauren if it helps – and it’s also important for us to continue to educate our daughters. Classes like Mary Beth’s are essential. They help to raise the awareness of young girls so that they can view these images within some context. But most importantly we, as mothers, need to look within and come clean with ourselves. This may be the least comfortable task of all. For inside each of us is that awkward young girl who felt stripped down and left in the cold by a world that could be pretty heartless. And believe me, railing at Ralph Lauren is a lot easier than standing quietly by that young girl and listening to what she might have to say. But as I see it, by not doing so, we lose an opportunity to heal not only ourselves, but perhaps hand our daughters the key to walk out of that crazy hall of mirrors.

When I look at the Ralph Lauren ads the women don’t really look all that sexy to me (I’m assuming sexy is what they were aiming for). A woman who is confident and at ease in her body, whether she is slender or on the heavy side, seems to exude more sex appeal, in my opinion. A body that is respected and honored is sexy and powerful and just plain hot. I would imagine it would be hard to honor your body while working in an industry that fires you for weighing 120 pounds. It’s hard enough for the rest of us. Who knows, perhaps they did Ms. Hamilton a favor by letting her go. At the very least, it shouldn’t be difficult to find a more caring employer.

I am, among other things, an eternal optimist. I do believe that the future will hold more positive images for all of us. Someday, this game has to stop. We, as a culture, will finally tire of chasing after ever elusive ideals. And Anna, on the off chance that you are listening, I want you to know that you are, and always will be, simply beautiful.

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  1. The aim of high end fashion photography, such as the image above, stopped being beauty and sex a long time ago. It has become instead a means to generate controversy and get attention like a circus freak show or right-wing talk radio.
    Simple images of attractive people wearing attractive clothes will no longer turn heads. Instead the industry has discovered that it has to produce images that will cause us to look at them in shock and revulsion. If Ralph Lauren could get away with modeling it's clothes on the bodies of badly mutilated soldiers returning home from Iraq they would.

    --The Husband (who finds you to be Beautiful)

  2. Kristen, I just read your post. I had to discreetly blink away the start of rediculous emotional wetness from my eyes, as I am at work.
    That picture of the model was very shocking. I've seen similar, but this is about the worst.
    More than that, the obvious love for your daughter touched me to the core. And I feel the same way. My daughter is only 15 months - today - and I want so much for her. I don't want her to walk the path I did. I was always very tiny and short for my age, and as a teenager all I wanted was to be taller and have bigger boobs and be attractive to the opposite sex. Daily comments, some often spiteful, did so much damage to my self esteem, and I can honestly say that if it wasn't for my mother's unrelenting perserverance to make me believe that I was beautiful just as I was and that the people that mattered would see this too, I'd probably have been one of those insecure people today.
    My mom was always tiny for her size, but somehow she had that personality that shone out from the inside. And this is what she tried to teach me too. That beauty comes from within and that I shouldn't worry about what others think. And like you said, young people will make their own decisions and form their own opinions, but sooner or later it does sink in. This is the legacy my mom left behind when she died 16 months ago. And this is the legacy I pass on to my daughter too.
    Thanks again for the wonderful post, I really did enjoy it very much and hope for more like it!

  3. Ebony - thanks for your kind and heartfelt comments. Your daughter is lucky to have you for a mom.

  4. You are so right...And here I've been stressing over those extra 10 pounds.

    Thanks :)

  5. Oh gosh, now you made me teary. You say it so eloquently and I LOVE you for that.xoxoxo

  6. Isn't there something about motherhood that makes us so much more comfortable with our bodies? Ever since my body was used by God to create the two miracles that are my children, I have never fallen fully into the body hatred I had as a younger woman. If only we could find a way to fully communicate this to our girls. They are a miracle, and someday they will make miracles.

  7. The only way to change the "culture of thinness" is for us right-sized women to rule the world!!


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