Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Part of the World: Appearance (Part I)

For previous entries in this series, read here and here.

I started to write this post myself.

But then I realized that I don't have a great deal of insight to bring to the subject. Like all western women, I'm conscious of my appearance. There are times when I'd like to change it. I work on "problem areas" (ahem, half-heartedly, because I don't really care). And my feelings about my body probably affect my behaviors and attitudes more than I realize (or would like to admit).

However, for this post, I wanted to invite an author and fellow blogger who has (and does) deal with issues of self-image in a more concrete and immediate way. As a result, we have a wonderful guest post from Amanda, who was kind enough to provide her insight on the matter. Amanda is a dedicated runner, a college student, and an aspiring nutritionist. She also has a great, timely post about Thanksgiving that she posted recently (for you Americans who are staring Turkey Day dead in the face). So visit her and get to know her; she's smart.

By now, you're probably familiar with Mark's Primal Blueprint, and what it means to those of us concerned about how to live in this world.  I think of my body as the part of the Earth that I most directly affect.  I can change it, move it, use it to do things that are good for the Earth.  In that way, it is dynamic.

But it is also static, in the sense that when other people see it at any given time it is like a picture, something at which they have to look, and something that can only look one way at any given time.  And I have never seen any sense in not making it the best picture possible. In this respect, my body is property -- it is my "yard," if you will.

Have you ever passed a (literal) yard that was ugly, unkempt, or simply not aesthetically pleasing?  Overgrown and an eyesore?  Did you judge the yard negatively?  This is what I do not want people to do to me.  Judge me negatively based on my body.  Judge me by my property and how I maintain it.

So when I look down and see that my body does not meet others' expectations or standards (real or perceived), I feel like a failure.  Shouldn't my tummy look the way "a tummy" should?  We all deal in images, in patterns, and if my tummy does not fit the specifications of "a tummy" laid out by society, then it is not "a tummy" any longer.  It is not a "big tummy" or a "tiny tummy," but an eyesore, a failure as a human being, just as something that looks like a field in front of a house is not a field but a gross, unkempt yard.  To me, such a failure is akin to being given a small plot of land (by the Powers that Be, by the Earth, by whatever it is you believe in) and have let it go to waste, to ruin.  Because I do not meet the specifications for "human" laid out by society, I am no longer human.  And that, for me spiritually, is a death sentence.  It is a lack of definition, and without definition or identity, I feel (as many would) that I am nothing compared to what I could be as my best human self, what I believe I was intended to be.

And I realize that my physical appearance, and even my entire physical manifestation inside and out, is just a snapshot of who I am, of my humanity.  So in that respect, I could "cut myself slack" if my property was not the most beautiful -- after all, there are other dimensions of me and of my humanity, right?

But my body is not just my property, or my yard: it is also a tool.  It is both currency and a signal to everyone who sees me.

When my mother used to help me with projects for school, she'd always tell me, "Presentation is everything."  I feel that
he same holds for our physical appearances.  People rarely think "Is she a doctor," or "Is he Catholic?" when seeing a person for the first time.  Observations -- and judgments -- are made based on physical appearance.  If you're pretty and slender, you get things other people don't.  Free drinks.  More opportunities.  Presentation affects the way your teachers, coworkers, boss, love interests, friends, and enemies view you.  If your best friend became goth, what would you think?  Would you view him/her differently?  If your best friend gained 100 pounds, what would you think?  Would you view him/her differently?  These are all physical aspects of your friend, and surely you care about and appreciate the other aspects, but even to you -- who is not judging your friend based on his/her initial appearance, I would be surprised to hear you say that your friend's physical appearance doesn't matter at all or doesn't at least provide you with some new opinions about your friend.  Now, take that same friend -- how would those seeing your friend for the first time judge him or her?

Your physical condition and your presentation says a lot about you, and discrimination against people based on physical traits (including weight) is not news.

Finally, and along the same lines, your physical appearance is also a signal, telling others about -- among other things -- your socioeconomic status, the cleanliness of your lifestyle, your upbringing, profession, religion, age group, sexual preferences, and outside interests and hobbies.  It is an indicator of nearly everything about you, simply because meeting you begins with seeing you, and is the first indicator of you as an entire person (in all your varied dimensions) that other people have.  They have to make initial judgments based on your appearance and do judge based on your appearance.  Racism, sexism, and weightism are just a few of the ways people discriminate and stereotype, simply because humans are pattern-oriented creatures.  And while this says something about humans and humanity and the way we operate, it has definitely been a cause of stress in my life, as my obsession with perfecting my appearance has taken me to the point of anorexia in previous years.  But this is, of course, my human struggle.  Even the classic novel Candide ends with a call to "cultivate our gardens."  So sometimes I much is too much?

Many thanks to Amanda for sharing her ideas and experience. Check back later this week to read my personal opinions (read: Ishmaelian analysis) of the appearance question.

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