Everyone could always stand to look a little better. Even Angelina Jolie doesn’t like her cheeks sometimes. Or her thighs. Which, the magazines tell us emphatically, is endearing. It makes her a little more human. Because we’re all like that. We all know we really could stand to look a little better. Even when we don’t actively hate the way we look. Even when we’re having a good day. I’ve seen it so many times. I’ve done it so many more times. And because it’s so ubiquitous, I don’t have to think about what it is, or what it means. Or if I think about it, I can just say, “Human nature! We’re all striving to be better. That’s why we built the pyramids! Or, um, had a bunch of slaves build them…That’s why we enslaved those people in the first place! That’s why there’s civilization! Because we’re always tweaking. Always improving.”
Tweaking. You know, pulling at the edges. Straightening the lines. Fixing tiny details. Except that some tiny details are not so easily fixed. And then we get stuck, standing in front of the mirror, repeating under our breath, “If my eyes were just a little bigger. If they were just a little bigger.” And nothing is going to change. It’s just not.
Weight is easier, because we know it can change. “If I just lose ten pounds. Just ten pounds,” we whisper to ourselves every time we try on clothes, look in the mirror, sit down, pass a darkened pane of glass, visit a friend we haven’t seen in a while, eat a full meal, eat a piece of cake, take off our clothes, lie on our side, exercise, etc.
Deborah Rhode, brilliant legal scholar, director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, and author of a lot of books, including her recent project, The Beauty Bias, gets frustrated with a colleague of hers who makes statements about how weightism isn’t that big a deal (forgive pun), because people can change that aspect of themselves without too much trouble. “Without too much trouble?” I can hear her slamming her fist down on the lectern. What has this guy been reading? Diet pill ads? Or those ads for weight-loss surgery on the subway. So easy! It will only take ten seconds! We will only have to remove two vital organs! You’ll look amazing!
Ask anyone who’s dieted regularly. It’s not easy. In fact, sometimes it might seem impossible. And there are plenty of studies that show pretty convincingly that most people, no matter how diligently they try, will hover around a certain, unflinchingly determined weight for most of their lives.
But it doesn’t matter. We want to tweak. We see the details, not the whole. We sometimes admit that we look pretty good from a reasonable distance. And then, upon coming closer, all is revealed! All of the problems are right there, literally, on the surface.
It’s disrespectful, really. What are our poor faces and bodies supposed to do? They don’t change easily, or at all, except to keep aging. Or without a lot of painful surgery. They aren’t doing anything wrong. They’re functioning—allowing us to communicate, move around, have sex, look surprised, smile, mime, dance, whatever. And we can’t stop criticizing them.
We need to recognize tweaking for what it is: a vicious, insidious, constant attack. It doesn’t sound vicious, because it’s directed at little things. You aren’t saying, “I’m hideous!” You’re saying, “I’d be a little bit more attractive if…” It’s deceptive. It’s like a parent telling their child, “You’ll never be quite as smart as your brother, but if you get a little better at math, maybe you have a shot.”
We’re the parents of our bodies. We nourish them, clothe them, monitor them constantly, secretly believe they are capable of truly great things, are afraid of them behaving improperly and making us look bad, are amazed to see them growing up, sense they aren’t realizing their full potential, try to encourage them to do healthy things, and feel incredibly hurt and frustrated when they don’t listen to us and go off and make their own decisions without consulting us or respecting our advice. But we’re abusive parents. Because we’re always telling them what’s wrong with them. We’re always threatening to deny them things they like. We’re always reminding them that they could be a little better. Just a little better, in so many ways.
Sometimes it’s amazing how many flaws we can even remember we have. I bet you can reel off a list, though, on a moment’s notice, if I asked you. I can do it. Once a friend of mine and I listed things we didn’t like that much about our appearances for close to an hour without stopping. All the tiny, tiny details. Stuff no one else would ever notice. Such an abuse of intimacy. Can you imagine listing everything that’s wrong with your partner, or your best friend? Because you know that person so well, you have access to the little things no one else knows. Can you imagine making a list of all of their flaws? Down to the most minute mole, a stray eyebrow hair, the way of folding a towel, or the slightest gesture, when bored on a bus. It’s mean, right?
So the next time you find yourself in front of a mirror, and you automatically begin the familiar list in your head, “If only your chin was a little less pronounced…” Maybe you should stop. Maybe you should un-roast instead. Maybe you should pick a tiny detail that is really cool, special, weird in a good way, or just interesting. Maybe you should pick the same detail, and figure out what makes it interesting. Maybe you should remember a person who remarked on that exact feature, except to say, “I love your chin! It’s so distinctive. That is a chin so proud and noble and brave that it could’ve inspired civilization. It could’ve, you know, motivated the building of the pyramids.”
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Un-Roast: Today I love the oval shape of my face. Sometimes I think, “too long. It could stand to be a little more defined, and shorter.” But oval is pretty good, so I’m gonna go with it.
P.S. Check out the syndication of my post about men, women, and sex in Huffpo, if you need to read it again because I’m just that amazing.
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