Sometimes when we talk about beauty and body image, we end up talking almost exclusively about weight. It makes a lot of sense: the people who are touted as the most beautiful are almost always very thin. We’re bombarded by headlines and images that fixate on famous people’s waistlines and diets. Is Christina Aguilera too fat now? Is Kate Middleton too thin? Which actress looks best or worst in a bikini? Even pregnant, Kim Kardashian can’t escape the press’s disgust at her weight gain. (If not when pregnant, one wonders, when the hell is a good time to gain some weight?)
Meanwhile, the War on Obesity rages ceaselessly, often confusing ideas about health with ideas about physical attractiveness. Weight is always in the news, and the message is loud and clear: It is NOT OK to be heavy. Lose weight! Gain self-respect! Look better!
So I get it. I get that beauty and weight are wrapped around each other in our heads. I get why so many people find themselves convinced that if they can only get thinner they will be better in every way. But there is a lot more to our cultural story about beauty, and when we talk about weight without talking about the rest of it, we aren’t being thorough. And more than that, we’re forgetting people. People who agonize over their acne or suffer from hair loss or are an unusual height. People with physical disabilities or differences. People who look “normal” to others but find themselves worrying about the characteristics that seem to prevent them from being more attractive. People like me, who have turned to cosmetic surgery when they couldn’t face their own faces in the mirror anymore. Who are we forgetting when we say “body image” but mean “weight”? Everyone who doesn’t fit the very recognizable beauty standard in a million different ways that they are sometimes acutely, painfully aware of, even when weight isn’t an issue for them.
Just pointing out these struggles can feel nit-picky, as though these are things people should just get over, especially if they don’t involve a convenient tie to the reputable, science-friendly subject of health, the way we pretend weight always has to. But the constant nagging sense that there is something wrong with the way you look, the quiet preoccupation with features that seem unfairly proportioned or hair that won’t cooperate can chip away at self-esteem in profound, long-lasting ways. These are real issues that people, often girls and women, face, in a world that not only seems to expect us to be as pretty as we possibly can, it then tells us to stop whining or obsessing when we find our aesthetic shortcomings aggravating or distracting.
There are many different ways to be popularly beautiful, it’s true. But sometimes you may find that you don’t quite fit any of the ones presented to you. And sometimes you just move on from there, and sometimes you find that you can’t. Even as you go about your life, dedicate yourself to your work, pay the bills, fall in love, you are pursued by these negative feelings about the way you look, or rather: the way you don’t look. We have seen so many examples of what it looks like to be beautiful that we get almost shockingly good at identifying the things about ourselves that don’t fit that mold. The things that erupt out of it, refusing to be tamed. “If my legs were longer…” we hear ourselves and others saying. Or “if I didn’t have this saggy skin…” We are able to explain to ourselves all of the ways that we have failed, physically, to meet a certain level of attractiveness. It can feel embarrassing to even care, or it can feel so ordinary that you hardly notice yourself criticizing your appearance. Either way, the ways that we don’t live up to our own ideas of successful beauty are often diverse, complicated, and multitudinous.
But sometimes they are persistently single-minded, too.
I agonized about my nose for years before I got cosmetic surgery. I tried not to care about it. I tried to be proud of it. And yet I backslid infuriatingly into hating it for making my face look a way that seemed unacceptably abnormal. It seemed like every other girl had a simple, nice nose, while mine insisted on taking up a lot of space and expressing a lot of creative differences with the rest of my features. If only I could change my nose, I thought, I would be pretty. And, maybe confusingly, it wasn’t even so much that I was desperate to be prettier. I was desperate to stop thinking about my nose.
My interest in body image began after I underwent two (ironically unsuccessful) facial surgeries, and became increasingly aware of the way girls and women all around me seemed to be engaged in a perpetual wrestling match with their appearances, fighting to change themselves, to remake themselves so that they might more closely resemble an unreachable ideal. I had literally attempted to remake my face, and it had failed, and I was tired of trying. But when I started talking about body image, it quickly became clear that everyone else was talking about weight. When I wrote about weight, I got more responses, my pieces gained more traction. Weight was hot. When I wrote about faces, things were quieter.
But when I listen to people talking about their appearances, their concerns and criticisms tell a different story. Wrinkles, hairiness, breast size, physical asymmetry, eyes that are “too small” or “too close together,” lips that are “too thin,” and the myriad shapes and compositions our bodies take that aren’t represented on any billboard anywhere all become targets for angst in an environment that shines such a harsh spotlight on the way women look.
Recognizing all this can feel depressing. Beauty hasn’t always been so mixed up in thinness as to seem inseparable. For a lot of history, the characteristics that made up the most celebrated appearances had very little to do with tiny waistlines and toned arms. And when we admit that beauty is still not just about weight, we are forced to also admit that body image issues are much more complex and multifaceted. Maybe there is no escape—when you victoriously lop off one of the heads, the hydra of body image grows ten more.
But I prefer to look at it another, more optimistic way: If body image is about more than weight, and beauty is about much more than being thin, and if so many (most, really) of us are failing to fit the standards of beauty stuck in our brains, then what’s really happening is that these standards are painfully inadequate. They have failed to account for our rich diversity. They have neglected to acknowledge all of the ways that we automatically consider each other attractive without referring first to a lingerie catalogue or Maxim’s hottest 100 list. Just as body image issues are about so much more than weight, actual, real-life, raw, unedited, experienced beauty is about so much more than the things that body image issues draw our attention to.
I’ve also learned that the things we are agonizing about today, or even for the last ten years, are not necessarily the things that will matter to us later. Ideas about physical beauty are, after all, often fickle. My nose didn’t look a lot better after surgery. Actually, it didn’t look very different. The surgeon, flustered, trying to explain in layman’s terms, said, “Sometimes these procedures just don’t work out.” But I find that, more and more, I am growing to actually like the uniqueness of my appearance. After all, that’s one thing about appearances that has held true for all of human history: we look fascinatingly different from one another. We are intricately ourselves.
So really, it worked out just fine.
An edited version of this piece appeared originally on Daily Life.
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Unroast: Today I love my lips.
Reminder: I’m giving away a pair of really nice sandals, so get in on that if you’re interested here.
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