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The Body, Our Frenemy (WaoW 2)

I appropriated this title from a friend of mine, one of the most physically beautiful people I know. She commented not long ago that she currently views her body as her "frenemy." (frenemy = friend + enemy) On one level, this surprises me ("But she's beautiful!!"); on a deeper level, I know that all women have a love-hate relationship with their bodies.

What else is there to say?

I was talking with a guy friend about body image not that long ago. A paraphrase of our conversation -

me: All girls struggle with it.
him: I think I know some girls who actually like themselves.
me: Really? Good for them. (sounding sarcastic)
him: (looking at me sideways)
me: (not sarcastic sounding) I mean, good. That's great. (pause) I hate them.
him: What?
me: Kind of. But not really. I mean, I don't actually believe them. Maybe they like themselves most of the time, but I can't believe they never have a bad day about it.


Beth's Scale of Self-Image
(pun intended)

Very concerning: complete self-hatred, eating & exercising disorders
Low end: dissatisfied with looks, disordered eating & exercise habits 
Low-mid range: ambivalent about body, neither neglects nor puts effort into self-care
Mid range: believes self has potential, occasionally likes appearance, mild maintenance of health
High-mid range: likes their appearance more often than not, makes careful and caring health choices
High end: loves the look of their body almost all the time, caring for it is second nature
Doesn't exist: complete body satisfaction

Personally, I've slowly moved from the bottom (What!? you say. Yes. I completely disdained myself in my early teen years. I did not have an eating disorder, but that was purely based on the fact that I could not make myself throw up. I tried. At the time, I found it distressing. Now... I feel like Jesus protected me from myself in a way I am immensely grateful for. Um. This whole thing is like six hundred other entries that maybe I could write someday. Or you could ask me about. Or we could just move on.) to high-mid range. I have a clear memory from the fall of 2008 that marks the move. I looked at myself in the mirror one day and thought, I look good! My next thought was, I must have lost some weight. But the fit of my jeans (and the scale) told me I hadn't. Strange, I thought, I guess I just like me! It was a turning point in my life. And I'm not being melodramatic.

You may be wondering where the "friend" part fits in to this "frenemy" post.

Well, we all like our skinny-selves. You know, those days that the clothes fit a little bit looser and that one part of your body you care about most seems not quite as roly-poly/chubby/round/big/flabby/etc. We walk a little bit taller. We wear that dress we haven't been able to pull off for a year or more. We notice ourselves being noticed. We like feeling in control of our bodies, because frankly, there's so much about them that we can't seem to control. My hips will never be smaller than my shoulders. I will never be not-tall (okay, maybe in another 50 years? But relative to my peers...still gonna be tall). Should I go on? If you're a woman reading this, I bet you have at least three items on your list of "out of my control but not off my mind" issues.

There are "enemy" body parts/characteristics, and there are the "friendly" parts of ourselves. Sometimes the enemies can become friends. Like my freckles and curly hair. We're quite cozy now, but I used to wish them away. I have always liked having blue eyes. Genetic mutation WIN!

Am I making any sense? I feel like this is an insanely long ramble that should probably end soon. But before I do, I have a Question For The Men:

In an all-girls conversation, we were discussing beauty and our bodies and the way we pick out parts that we don't like. One girl (who has a boy in her life) commented, "I don't think guys notice things like this. They just see the whole girl and like it."

Is this true? Do you pick apart our bodies and notice the little things we whine and pine over, or are we wasting all this obsessive energy?*
Be honest.

*I'm not convinced that all our whining and obsessing is purely for the attention of men (or women, if that's whose romance you crave), but that is for my NEXT post on female friendship. 

Postscript: I have SO MANY MORE thoughts on the topic of body image. Like my take on where makeup/hair/beauty products fit in this fight, the question of how we befriend our bodies, and a rant on the fact that women are not meant to be sleek and hairless sphinx cats (animals that are hairless are always creepy. Take the naked mole rat, for starters.) And I'd like to sneak in a reminder that I would prefer people not take this opportunity to leave anonymous complimentary comments. You can leave anonymous comments on the general subject at hand, if you like, but please know that I'm not fishing for affirmation and would actually prefer it be left entirely off the table for now. 


Terra said…
Hey beathbeast. I had a thought that u might want to add to your scale description. Add in the girl who is making all the "right" choices about food and exercise but is obsessing. Working out to keep that feeling of control etc.

I have been reading "counterfeit gods" and I think this has some huge applications for self-image. Are we worshiping at the alter of the perfect body, the body or weight or style that will give us security, acceptance, courage or the "I'm okay" sense of self? Only someone who knows us completely and loves us perfectly can bestow that type of acceptance (and I'm not talking about another human).

Just more thoughts for the conversation.
Tom said…
My gut answer is to agree: I think I see the whole girl. But then, I don't profess to be a "butt guy" or a... there's few of these worth mentioning. I will probably never see the details to the extent that any girl sees of herself. Of course I would gradually see more and more over time, some odd or particularly attractive features. This is something hard to generalize across the girl-board. And if I do see and like the sum, what's to say that's not from her pining over every detail? Even if I'm not deconstructing her appearance, I might still be unconsciously over-analyzing it. There's just no checklist that I can easily break it into, and if I did my criteria would be so much more lax than her own (that's my impression at least). My roommate adds: Often some feature is a standout favourite, but it's not that there are specific dealbreakers or dealmakers. Also the physical is just the initial thing, getting to know a girl changes the way you see her. I would agree.
Ariana said…
I have nothing worthwhile to add but I like this post very much.
Peter said…
I've listened in on a couple girl-chats on this topic and I definitely feel that girls over-analyze more than guys have the power to do. They have a thorough knowledge of what they're analyzing, and less tendency to "go easy" b/c they're only dealing with themselves, after all. A guy has a cursory knowledge of your body and likely DREADS insulting a girl, b/c you can't really take those words back - they're in play forever, even after forgiveness. A woman can always pick apart her body in segments that I didn't even think to consider.

And as far as "seeing the whole girl", that would have to come from actually pondering for a while. When I catch a really gorgeous smile, it probably wasn't "the whole girl" that attracted me - it was her smiling face & maybe, physique. And until we know each other better, it'll keep on being just features that grab my attention. At the time of "seeing the whole girl", it will go way past her body. A guy's conscious appraisal of a girl's body is amateurish (in comparison) & dangerous for his mind's purity, anyway. So those things whined & pined over won't be noticed unless they involved that thing that kick-started attraction.

It's similar for guys' bodies too, just not as in-depth. I was really grateful to a (girl) friend who told me that when I get a girl, I will spend a significant amount of time affirming things that her mind is obsessing over - but I've accepted as given. It wouldn't cross my mind to do that. Now I have more appreciation for being like angels in heaven where our search for individual worth isn't relying on each other anymore, but on Jesus.

(Thanks for this series btw; I like being made to think about some of these things from a different perspective).
Sarah said…
Some guys do notice details, but just because I don't like a specific feature doesn't mean he finds it unatractive. The part of my body that my husband finds most attractive is one that I would probably include on a list of features I'd prefer to change.
Beth said…
Terra - I tried giving space for that in my definitions - "disordered" eating and exercise can be excessive OR complete denial...yes?

Tom - I like your thoughts and your roommate's too. I also like that you shared this with your roommate. Whom I don't know. Please tell me he doesn't think I'm psycho.

Ariana - Thank you. That was indeed a worthwhile addition (in my opinion).

Peter - Interesting! I think the way that you phrased this: a guy's conscious appraisal of a girl's body is amateurish (in comparison)" is spot on. We girls have spent YEARS perfecting this... and I'm glad you're finding this interesting.

Sarah - Yeah, I think that is also key. What we stress out over may not actually be physical factors that anyone else even NOTICES. And yet it can be consuming. Kind of sad. PS - I was going to say something sketchy about you and your husband and life, but decided I'll save it for another time.
nadine said…
I like this post.

I've hit every mark on your "scale." The whole self-acceptance thing is tricky. And while I can't speak for every man, nor do I REALLY understand how the BF sees me, I do know that his compliments -- as feature-specific as some of them may be -- don't make me feel vulnerable in his assessment. I feel safe and wholly accepted. And when someone I really trust and respect concludes aloud that I'm beautiful, it becomes difficult to claim otherwise. Because that would be calling him a liar.

And then the BIG PICTURE comes into play. If the God of the universe is "enthralled with my beauty," who am I to call Him blind or accuse Him (the creator of beauty) of having really low standards when it comes to what's beautiful?

So, on dark days, I have to remind myself that my self-perception is rarely accurate. I have to make a choice: drown in body dysmorphia or cling to Truth.
Rye said…
There are girls out there who like their bodies, dang it! I know them!

I also like how this Nadine girl thinks, haha. And ditto Peter and Sarah's comments.

As guys there's probably no way we could be as critical about a girl's body as they are themselves. Girls are attractive. Some features may stand out, for good or bad, but when I like a girl, I like all of her. The things that are different (in her eyes probably unattractive) become quirks that make her special.
Rhianna said…
So, I read the post and read the comments and only have to say a couple of things:

1. I haven't ever obsessed about my body or body image. I have obsessed over my actions but never my physical appearance. I am not sure why but I am grateful. No I know what some of you are thinking if you know me; she is a tiny thing. But I have been extremely thin, and I know my husband did not find that attractive but I couldn't really do anything about it and except for doctor's orders I did not obsess.

2. As someone who works with women all day long it is very sad to me how many beautiful girls are unhappy about their appearance. And the obsession! I am in the beauty industry and I have a firm belief that everyone with enough confidence is beautiful.

3. Men I believe care less about physical appearance than women think they do. Physical appearance may be what catches their eye but I believe a friendly face and enough self confidence will go a long way. Also men are not as unobsessed as women believe they are. Most men are concerned with the same things women are, too thin, too big, too bald, too grey, too short, too whatever!

And lastly and in general if we spent a little less time worried about what others think about how we look and spent more time telling others when we think they look good, and why (being as specific as we can, these are the only compliments that count!) I think we would ALL feel better about ourselves!

Just my thoughts agree or disagree.
Beth said…
nadine: your last statement was perfect. i totally agree that recognizing and rejecting our "body dysmorphia" is key.

ry: apparently you're right (see below).

rhianna: thanks for commenting! i totally believe that you've never been obsessive about your body - not because you're "a tiny thing" but because of what i know of your personality. for the record, i don't hate you. i am a bit jealous, but actually think it's great that there are women like you out there!

and i fully agree with all your other thoughts.
Ariana said…
Tom's roommate is the bomb diggity! You gotta come visit and meet our good friend. :D

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