it’s not all about weight

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!

(I don’t even know what this means, but it looks ridiculous.)

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.

(yeah, like that)

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.

*  *  *

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.

 

25 Comments »

Kate on April 4th 2013 in beauty, body, nose, weight

25 Responses to “it’s not all about weight”

  1. Renée responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 10:11 am #

    Completely agree with this Kate. Thanks for pointing this out. I’ve always been thin, but have often struggled with other areas of myself that I haven’t liked – rosacea and the feeling that my skin was never as nice as others and hair that never grew like other girls (I know keep it short and love it). I always thought that you needed long hair to be considered beautiful.

    However, I always felt vaguely wrong to be saying these things because weight (at least being bigger) was never an issue.

    It seems we all struggle, but some people’s struggles today appear more valid. Thanks for letting us all have a voice.

  2. Farida responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 11:16 am #

    Totally agree! body image its not just about weight, its how you see yourself in the mirror ..and much more … thanks Kate for the inspiring posts

  3. onebreath responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 11:18 am #

    I’m glad you decided to look on the potential upside – otherwise the subject of how we, as humans, engage in this endless ranking and judging of ourselves (as defined by physical attributes) really is depressing.

    I think the focus on weight comes from the fact that as a society we act as if it is a simple matter under our own control. Eat more, eat less, exercise more, exercise less – it’s “just” behavioural, we are told by media and products. Other facets of beauty, that are less “easily” changed have less marketable power (says the cynical side of me).

    One positive I like to see is that often when we address the underlying issues by appreciating diversity and valuing the people we are – ALL of those nitpicky things lose their power. If we feel worthy, we then diminish the need to target each and every perceived flaw. Instead, we see ourselves as a whole, wonderful person in a unique vessel.

  4. Stephanie responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Thanks for writing this, I sincerely appreciated reading it.

  5. Melanie responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Thank you SO much for this piece. I am tired of being bombarded by the idea that thin = healthy and fat = unhealthy. That is not always the case. As a big lady I can attest to the fact that my size is not what I obsess over. It’s having the perfect eyebrows, and if my hair is too frizzy. My weight isn’t hardly a thought anymore.

    I just pray for the day when some day nothing about my physical appearance causes me to fret. I don’t think that day will come, but it sure would be nice if it did.

  6. RitaMarie responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    I guess sometimes weight is the issue because it’s the one thing we feel we could control if we just had enough will power or desire to exercise. At least that’s how I feel. I can’t really control the rest of my appearance- my bones are my bones- but I can control my weight. Or so I think or should be able to. Thanks for the article. Love reading your blogs.

  7. Iris responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    Thankyou.
    I’m an odd shape but not strikingly big, but skin problems, scarring and body/face hairiness have made me feel like ‘the ugly one’ for forever. Skin problems are another thing, like weight, that people tend to see as part of health/hygiene and therefore think it’s ok to judge you on it, give “advice”, etc. When I first started to find body acceptance stuff it was so disheartening to realise that being average sized meant I wasn’t welcome in some spaces that had at first glance seemed like an answer. It’s another reason I love your blog. (That and the lack of simplistic “JUST LOVE YOURSELF!”-ness, and the superb writing.)

  8. Baiba responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 4:50 pm #

    Kate, I have been reading your blog for several months, and now I am finally coming out and saying it – I love Eat the damn cake! I love the blog and I love the whole cake eating idea! :)

    And I agree that body image is way more than the weight, “It” can be the shape of ones face, too many scars in visible places or even others not being able to see the Beauty we see in ourselves.

  9. Kate responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    @Baiba
    Thank you so much!!!

  10. R responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    You know, when I saw your bikini picture the other day, the first thing I thought was that you have a lovely nose. I wanted to write and tell you, but then I thought, “Wait, that’s her NEW nose.” That made me feel somehow shy about commenting. Then, when you said here that your new nose and your old nose are really quite similar, it felt okay again to tell you that I thought your nose was lovely. Isn’t that strange?

  11. Sheryl responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    @RitaMarie that’s just what I was thinking.

    If I’m feeling inadequate in the beauty department because of my weight that’s at least in theory something that I have control over. There are some decisions involved there in diet and exercise that can have at least a modicum of control over. I can at least try to work on it, and if I don’t want to that’s a choice.

    Hating my jaw, or the size of my boobs, or the shape of a body part, the way my skin acts? Some of those are addressable by plastic surgery – but do I want to expend time and money and pain just to change part of how I look?

    It almost all comes back to “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” with the things that aren’t weight.

  12. Lesliann responded on 04 Apr 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Kate, Love your blog. It speaks to the young AND the current not so young anymore – me. I just need to say – I have thought and do think you are as cute as you can be. I struggle a little wondering how you could doubt that.
    I love your determination. Hugs and kisses . Les

  13. Marijn responded on 05 Apr 2013 at 6:38 am #

    Thank you for this piece!

    And for all of your pieces on body image really. My fifteen year old self definitely fell for all the weight talk, and thinking that everything would be okay if only I were to lose a couple of pounds.
    Now, 6 years of struggeling with an ED later, I have finally gained back “all” the weight and am happier & healthier than ever! We really should shift the focus (far far) away from the way we look, all the way to how we feel… ’cause it’s self acceptance that makes you happy, not some number on a scale.

  14. MayDay responded on 05 Apr 2013 at 8:38 am #

    Regarding the weight vs everything else: I think a lot of it has to do with perception about what is controllable, and what isn’t. Weight is thought to be controllable relative to facial structure, acne scars, etc – so if you’re not at ‘the right weight’ it’s because of you, not an external factor. The placement of guilt is a fundamental difference.

  15. teegan responded on 05 Apr 2013 at 10:57 am #

    meant to respond yesterday, but then the kid woke up!

    i remember days when i was far more upset about bad skin than about my weight. i remember days thinking my nose was too big/manly. i still have days where i feel like my hair is a train wreck. my face is not beautiful in the popular sense, and my husband and son have longer eyelashes than i do.

    at the same time, i am classically beautiful. i am rubenesque, with the muscled curves and the long flowing dark hair and the pale skin. i’ve known a few women for whom it really helps to look at old art and find paintings and sculptures that look like them, find someone who found beauty in their style. not because not being popularly beautiful doesn’t make you beautiful, but because sometimes you have to see yourself through someone else’s eyes to realize it.

  16. Iris responded on 05 Apr 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    I definitely have weight issues of my own, but the reminder that body insecurity and loving your body is about more than just weight is a really important one.

    I’ve spent most of my life being really insecure about my eyebrows. One day when I was a young teenager it just struck me when looking in the mirror that they were *definitely* far too low on my face, giving me this really unattractive scowly look, and also too dark and too thick. I started constantly walking around with my eyebrows raised to try to make up for this, so by the time I was 17 I was starting to get deep wrinkles in my forehead. I’ve had fringe (/bangs) for several years now, a hairstyle I initially chose because it would cover up my eyebrows. Getting it felt really liberating and I instantly felt much more attractive.

    The other day when I was looking in the mirror with wet hair and my bangs swept back, I realised I couldn’t really remember the last time I had really *seen* my eyebrows – and when I looked at them, I realised that this random insecurity was one I should really break up with. I stood for a long time in front of the mirror looking at my own forehead and realising that really, there is nothing wrong with it. It was just all in my head.

    I’m not sure if I’ll get rid of my fringe – I’m still really fond of it. But it felt like such a huge weight lifted when I realised there was absolutely nothing to hate about my eyebrows. Especially since they’d been such a big component in me just thinking I had a really unattractive face.

  17. Isabel responded on 05 Apr 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    I have always been chubby, so weight has been a big part of my body image related thoughts. However, what has always occupied my thoughts and feelings much more than my weight, is my physical disability, cerebral palsy: hemiplegi.

    Some may have heard of cerebral palsy and associate it with people in wheelchairs who have severe motoric problems. Hemiplegi is a form of CP that is milder: I can walk and talk, and when you first meet me, you wouldn’t think there was much the matter with me. But the right side of my body struggles with the finer motorics of moving, so that when I walk, it looks kinda funny, and I hate shaking hands with people, because they always give me this funny look, like “what’s the matter with your hand?”. Some people ask me straight out, what IS the matter with my hand, and some ask me if I’ve hurt my foot, as I walk with a slight limp.

    Now, I would gladly gain 10 pounds, 20 pounds even, if it could take away that limp. A woman is, after all, supposed to be graceful, and there’s nothing graceful about limping.

    Also, when I try to explain to people why it’s an issue, most of the time they reply that to them it’s not a big deal, and it’s not like I’m in a wheelchair or anything…

    Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy that I have the ability to walk, but like most people who are able to walk (and have been their entire lives!), I sort of take it for granted. But this limp, this handshake, it affects the way people view me, and if I were in a wheelchair, that would be a more obvious “excuse” for being different, if you understand?

    It’s like what you say, Kate. When you’re thin, you’re not expected to have any issues at all related to apperance. But sometimes, your weight is not the most important thing when it comes to your body image. Sometimes it’s your nose, other times a disability. And it’s a lot harder to change your nose, than to change your weight, when you think about it.

  18. Rapunzel responded on 05 Apr 2013 at 11:57 pm #

    I admit it: it’s always been all about weight to me. FOR me, I should say–not my opinion of anyone else. Why do I insist on degrading myself about my body when I am so practical about other women’s bodies? Anyway I’m sure even if I someday did become thin, that I’d find other things to nit-pick about. But until that day [never] arrives, I’m in the fat boat. I guiltily blame my weight for everything even though I know that’s wrong, and I have the awful habit of being automatically jealous of thin people. Some days I’d give anything to not be obsessed about my weight and just have a problem with something else INSTEAD of my weight. Instead, if I DO have a problem with something else about me, it’s *because* of my weight. Weight has always been the thing that is pounded into our heads that is “easily” changed/controlled (NOT!) and it’s always been the *only* thing I’ve spent the last….17 years?…trying to change about myself. Sigh. Habits are hard to break!

  19. Lily responded on 06 Apr 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    I agree on everything. I’m skinny, so my friends assume I have nothing to worry about and I feel thankful that they don’t seem to see my flaws, but I do. I have acne and scars from them, so many. I have uneven breasts, a big difference truly and my nose. I feel the same way about it as you did, but when picking my flaws I tell myself; “Don’t be silly, you are beautiful. And if you were not, so what? There is so much more to be then beautiful!” I wish we could teach our girls this. Beauty is relative, not relevant.

  20. Natasha responded on 06 Apr 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    I figured it out! That colour-coded chart means that there is actually a whole rainbow of shapes that men’s washroom signs come in. Now we get to have a treasure hunt (so to speak) to find these unique bathroom signs. ;) Maybe if we find the whole set we get a prize?

  21. Cinthia responded on 07 Apr 2013 at 9:40 am #

    I love your nose, Kate!
    Thanks for this post. Made me think, and I like it when I have to think.
    Hugs and happy pregnancy (now, that is something beautiful–a pregnant belly. I think pregnant women are so lovely, though I have to admit that I felt pretty lumbering when I was pregnant. But in photos, I was beautiful and strong and totally female).

  22. Elizabeth responded on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:28 am #

    Somehow this made me remember the summer I spent living in the backwoods of Yosemite National Park. I lived in a tent for 4 months and didn’t see a mirror, ever, except on weekends (and then only briefly). I was so exhausted from doing physical labor outdoors that I didn’t have time to think about myself separate from my surroundings.

    I was never so happy as when I had no idea what I looked like.

  23. Emily responded on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:51 am #

    It reminded me of Jennifer Grey. She had surgery after Dirty Dancing and it changed her appearance so much and just made her look less unique. It was such a shame to me that she felt she needed to change her appearance. Or maybe she wasn’t getting enough attention in Hollywood because of it! I hope this is changing. I hope we, as a culture, are starting to have a wider definition of beauty.

    Tumblr is helping me with this a lot. Body positive, sex positive, weird positive images and seeing how well received things are!

  24. Kim responded on 12 Apr 2013 at 11:39 pm #

    Thanks, that was such an interesting read, and a good reminder to accept myself a little more and to not take myself too seriously.

  25. Carrie responded on 30 Apr 2013 at 11:49 am #

    You are right, it is so not all about the weight. I struggled with weight all of my life and now I’ve finally attained my goal weight and am, even better!) maintaining that weight long enough that I know I can do it. But, besides the weight, my life has not changed in any other way, it is still, of course, not perfect. I knew, of course, that it wouldn’t, but I guess you still hope maybe something will be better. The only thing that is different is that I feel better about myself, I can wear clothes I had to stop wearing years ago when I gained too much to wear them. It is still amazing when someone asks how I did it, but they never listen, they always listen but try some new fad instead. I don’t even worry about it anymore. I know what works for me and I do it. (and I eat cake! ;) ) So, my point here is, be the weight you want to be. It is a choice. What we do, exercise or lack of it, what we eat and how much, all affects this. And as I get older I realize more and more that it is not so much the excess weight to worry about it is the health complications if one is carrying too much extra weight, or smoking or doing other things that are known to have detrimental effects. I had to find a balance I could be happy with, one that includes healthy food choices and cake! Hang in there and you will find your own balance too.