I read once, about these old bodybuilding standards – the girth of your upper arms, calves and neck – they should measure the same. I had bigger legs. My arms were just over 13 inches, and I thought I’d be happy if I could get them up to 14. Then 15. Then a solid 15 – they’d almost match my calves. Last time I measured my arms, they were pushing 16 inches. So I’m finally happy with my body, right...? Right...? This process of development has made me less insecure, right?
I read an article a little while ago – the author was talking about a trainer she knows, and the trainer – who had put a lot of work into developing her body – was told by some dude that she had the body of a teenage boy, and that it wasn’t attractive.
The author said that if you’re going to accept a compliment from someone, you also need to be able to accept criticism, when it comes to the way you look.
I think I understand the sentiment – it has to do with not taking things too personally or something – but when something is personal, why are we expected not to take it personally? Why is it seen as a weakness, a flaw, when we tell someone it’s not okay to be a jerk? When we decide to stand up for ourselves? We’re expected to stand up for ourselves when the stakes are high, but if we don’t learn to stand up for ourselves when the stakes are low, when it’s something that other people dismiss as trivial, when do we get to practice standing up for ourselves? How are we supposed to develop that skill? And when people tell you it’s trivial – they’re making it more important to challenge them by attempting to trivialise you.
Clearly I have some problems with this notion that we should “be able to” accept criticism about the shape of our bodies:
A: I obviously don’t like the idea that not being able to let shit lie is seen as a weakness. But you don’t necessarily need to respond to a jerk with further jerkery either, because:
B: I also think we should be kind to each other. It both requires and begets understanding and compassion. What business is it of yours, if you don’t find someone else attractive?
C: Who can actually accept a compliment these days anyway? It might feel nice, but we hesitate to believe it’s true.
D: The body is not public property. It is not a building, artwork or a bridge. Public discussions about the aesthetics of a person’s body are not always welcome. This needs to be respected, as people need to be respected.
E: You might as well say that if you let people be kind to you, you should also let them be an asshole – and why would that be the case? You’re telling people not to stand up for themselves in the face of adversity.
F: I’m not here just to provide you with eye candy. So if you don’t like the way I look – well it’s actually none of your business. I’m sorry – if I stand up for myself, can we still be friends? Or are you only capable of being friends with someone who doesn’t rock the boat – with someone who works to please you?
When you tell someone, “you know, I wasn’t put on this earth to please you” – sometimes they don’t take it so well. Apart from the obvious, you might actually be challenging their world view – you’re saying it’s okay that we don’t get along. You’re saying it’s not the purpose of life to get along and please each other – it’s not my role to make things easier for you, to ratify your sense of what’s okay. The irony is – saying this will make people not get along with you even more, and they’ll resent you for it.
When you reject the idea that some random someone should find you attractive, and when you reject the idea that you should work for the approval of others, it challenges the status-quo in a big way. It challenges the idea that we’re all here to serve each other, to get along and put out, to pursue the dream we’re told we should have. When you say that being liked and desired is unimportant, people think that means you don’t like them and you don’t desire them. Of course, in many cases, this is going to be true. But people don’t like being reminded of it.
It’s a funny thing. When you reject someone else’s criticism of your appearance, they feel rejected, and they often respond with hostility.
It’s not your job to be the person someone else wants you to be. It’s not your job to look attractive to strangers. It’s not your job to judge yourself – especially not to the standard of the body-hating, oppressive status quo.
I heard someone comment at the gym the other day – woman to woman – “guys will start to comment on your body”, the reply: “better than being ignored”. No. No it’s not. Why is it so hard for people to understand it when we just don’t want our body – it’s desirability and implied value – to be the topic of conversation? Why are we supposed to be happy – grateful – for being objectified? Not being commented on is awesome! I love it!
They say the real work starts when you give up on trying to be perfect, and start trying to be your own genuine yourself. It’s hard work, because you really do need to give up on the things you’ve been taught are important – many things you really have come to value. But when you move the goal posts, the things you value start to change too. If you move towards valuing function over form, substance over style – I think this is always, ultimately helpful.
But the frightening internal response is – if I give up on trying to be attractive – what if I stay ugly forever? What if I get uglier? The thing is, you won’t. The person you are is always more interesting than the person you think you need to be. And the people who have the most charisma and magnetism are always the ones who are unashamed to march to the beat of their own drum. The irony is true: when you don’t care what other people think, other people will tend to be more impressed.
Of course you can’t fake it. But that’s where the real freedom lies: when you don’t care what other people think – when you start to let go of the standards we are told to believe in – when you cease to internalise the fat-hatred and body-hating stigma – when you don’t work for approval or acceptance, being approved of loses value. And you start to wonder why you ever gave a shit in the first place – why you put up with their bullshit standards only for the sake of being accepted and liked by hypocrites? And if you do seem to attract more attention – you don’t need to pander to it any more. You just keep doing your thing. When you approve of yourself, you don’t need to seek out approval like you used to. When you know your validity, you don’t need to be validated.
When you train to diminish yourself, you become diminished. When you train to get strong, you become strong.
It’s got nothing to do with the way you look.