|Painting by Cheryl Braganza|
In graduate school I read a parable that reminds me of poignant reversals of adolescence. It has followed me through the years, finding its way from one journal to the next:
Late at night thieves entered a store and did their work without detection. In the morning the store opened at the appointed time. It was obvious to the clerk that the store had been entered, yet nothing seemed to have been taken. As the day progressed and customers brought merchandise to the counter, the shopkeepers noticed a curious phenomenon. The merchandise of least value wore the tags of greatest value and the items of greatest value carried the tags of least value. By the end of the day the puzzle was solved: the thieves had taken nothing—instead they reversed the price tags.
A conformity-based childhood reverses the price tags. The natural and essential self, a priceless treasure, is criticized and set aside, and the artificial, constructed self grows in value. Image is more valuable than essence; conformity, more priceless than originality; coloring inside the lines, more acceptable than spontaneity. At a certain age we are expected to move beyond “childish” ways and settle into what Rachel Carson called the “boredom and the disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
Some may counter: “We’re beyond all that.” I disagree. The illusion we seek to maintain is that we’ve ousted the question “what’s wrong with me” once and for all. After all, Hilary almost became president, Title IX allows us to thrive as athletes, and glass ceilings are occasionally transcended. Yet, infertility plagues us and there’s hardly a woman in the world who doesn’t wake up feeling the need or the demand to cover, starve, alter, mask, or harm her body in some way. Why? Because our bodies are never quite good enough, pretty enough, small enough, young enough, non-distracting enough, no matter what we do.
And we certainly “do” a lot to our bodies to whip them into an acceptable shape. In fact, there has been an intensification, and normalization, of body-violence within the community of women. Women of all ages are injuring their natural body-intelligence and body-shape. In record numbers, we are choosing to have our breasts cut open and augmented, our noses broken and reshaped, our wrinkles eradicated with injections, our faces manipulated and peeled, and our bodies compulsively exercised and starved. We are frantically covering all signs of aging, beginning earlier and earlier in life, as if aging were a plague, a virus, an enemy to conquer. We are at war with our own bodies.
Staying “healthy and fit” has become our justification for being at war with our bodies. When our motivation to be “fit” is shaped by the culture’s image of beauty and our own critical self-scrutiny, we are unable to sustain health and fitness because the image is unreachable. We will never be perfect enough, pretty enough, or fit enough. We will never be able to eradicate the changes that accompany the process of aging. On the other hand, when we react to the culture’s images of beauty and “fitness” by refusing to take care of ourselves, we hurt our bodies and jeopardize our health.
Ironically, we are outraged by the atrocities of foot binding and genital mutilation. Yet these customs were/are done to women. Many of us are choosing to do violence to our own bodies. And sadly, self-loathing trickles down from generation to generation. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, counselors, and teachers, supported by this image-based/woman-scrutinizing/age-phobic society, pass on the necessity of “ornamentalism,” the tyranny of the scale, the fear of food, and the dread of aging to our daughters. All the while, we export these destructive body-critical attitudes to daughters all over the world.
By middle school, our natural body-energy is directed away from body-activity and spontaneity toward body-grooming and control. Groomed to be “ornamental,” we spend inordinate amounts of time and resources twisting our bodies into the acceptable shapes of the culture. “Pretty” becomes a tyrant who requires costumes, masks, and procedures in exchange for a compliment. Pretty becomes our junkie who sells us our fix each morning and stalks us all day with a mirror. Pretty is a distraction who keeps us occupied so we don't make a fuss, start a movement, change the world. Pretty is make believe, yet it holds so much power over us.
In desperation, women ask: “Why is it that men wake up in the morning and are enough? Why is it that we wake up and must mask our faces, adorn our bodies, and cover our scents and roundness in order to be enough, and we still fall short.” Over time, we develop a chronic resentment toward our bodies because they’re always falling short of perfection as defined by the culture, our families, a current lover, and ourselves. They are never quite good enough or young enough, or pretty enough no matter what we do to them.
The price tags successfully reversed on her body capacities, the girl-child becomes alienated from her body. No longer at ease in it, she feels uncomfortable. The urge to cover, starve, or violently alter her body grows within her. By high school, she’s numb and bored, and she waits, usually in front of a mirror, for a savior to come and make life worth living again. ”The promise of beauty, of being desirable,” wrote Madonna Kolbenschlag in Kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbye, “lulls the young woman into an existential limbo where everything is measured by the expectation of one who is to come. The kiss that Sleeping Beauty waits for, however, is not that of the Prince. She’s waiting for the embrace of her own being.”
-Patricia Lynn Reilly, Excerpt from Love Your Body Regardless