This is a guest post written by Autumn of The Beheld.
I don’t write about body image.
I’ll write about beauty, any day of the week. I’ll write about what goes on from the neck up; I’ll cover the myth of men preferring long hair, or why I wear makeup, or Gen-X beauty trends. And of course every so often bodies worm their way in: One can hardly talk about the annoyances of “dress your figure” pages in magazines without talking about figures, after all.
But I specifically did not want to write about body image. For one, there are already so many excellent voices out there doing good work; I didn’t know what I could add. But the larger reason was that I didn’t feel qualified to write about body image, mostly because my own body image isn’t particularly good. Oh, I know how to walk the walk and talk the talk: I don’t put down my body out loud, ever. I don’t let women around me get away with it either; I’ve mastered phrases like That’s not what I see and Where is this coming from and even, when I’m feeling testy (which body put-downs tend to make me), I’m sorry, I can’t listen to this. I am pretty sure I’ve never, ever said something unkind about another woman’s body, and I’m certain that whenever I’ve thought something unkind, I’ve immediately asked myself why. I don’t know how many papers about body image I wrote in college, how high my mental cartwheels turned when I met one of the editors of Adios Barbie, how many tortured turns of phrase I created while working at women’s and teen magazines in order to avoid the implication that even a single reader should dislike her body.
I used all this reading and knowledge to try to help my own cause, of course. I’m better off for it. My body image is still mediocre at best.
But here I was wanting to write about what happens to women after we try to get past the beauty myth. My solution was to minimize how much body image writing I did. I never want any readers to walk away from my blog feeling worse about themselves, and I know that bad body image can be contagious, so I just don’t talk about it much. But neck up? Sure, I’ll talk about that. That’s beauty. That’s social construction, psychology, genetics. It’s age, race, personal history, communication, expression, social class, philosophy, aesthetics. I’m not exactly in love with myself from the neck up, but neither am I, like, messed up about it. So I’ll write about beauty, and I’ll leave the body image stuff to the pros. Deal?
I was trying to explain this to my boyfriend the other day. Someone—again—had categorized me as a body image blogger, and I was sharing my confusion. “I write about beauty,” I said. “I don’t write about body image.”
“You write about body image all the time,” he said.
“No, I don’t,” I replied. “I write from the neck up.” I put my hand to my throat as emphasis, and saw a mental image of myself: Me and my writings above the neck; body image and its myriad, talented proponents below it. Except, in my mental image, my head and body were completely separate. My head was floating above my body, disconnected.
In a flash, I remembered a study I’d read last year: Women with eating disorders are more likely to draw self-portraits of themselves as disconnected. Their feet were missing or disconnected; their necks were separate from both head and body. In some cases, the self-portraits had no neck at all. The theory was that women with eating disorders—who are often thought to be overly preoccupied with their body image—in fact felt utterly out of touch with their bodies, to the point where when asked to create a literal image of their form, they didn’t dare connect their body and mind.
I’ve argued before about how eating disorders aren’t as linked to body image as many would have us believe, and it’s something I’ll continue to argue. My own experience backs this up: I went into a treatment program for an eating disorder in 2009 because I no longer knew how to eat normally, not because my body image was poor. I now know how to eat normally. I still don’t know how to truly be at peace with my body.
But by insisting that I am damn well not a body image blogger, I was drawing myself without a neck, over and over and over.
I can’t claim that recognizing my schism will make me veer more in the direction of body image. I like focusing on the neck up; it’s an area not yet as explored from a feminist perspective as our bodies. In the much-needed counterattack on women’s bodies, the potency of our faces—individually, collectively—often goes examined, and I’m eager to correct that. What I do know is that identifying my eagerness to keep the face and body separate has illuminated the impossibility of ever separating them. I knew some fellow bloggers considered me a body image writer, and I’d always thought that was just because The Beheld was difficult to categorize; now I see that they considered me a body image blogger because I am. If any of us—body image bloggers, beauty writers, feminist critics, or thoughtful readers—are to explore the issues behind appearance as thoroughly as we’d like, we owe it to ourselves to not lapse into neck-up thinking. Specifically, I owe it to myself to not treat the topic of the body as something distinct from the issues of visibility, feminine performance, and beauty that are at the core of what I try to deconstruct. Body image is important on a personal level, sure. It’s also essential as an intellectual issue: How can I look at the performance of femininity without looking at the ways in which women try to minimize space by minimizing our bodies? How can I look at modern-day incarnations of the discredited science of physiognomy without examining the personality traits we ascribe to women’s forms?
My own body image path hasn’t made it easy to consider the messy ways that body image is relevant to the more generalized topic of women and being seen. I’d rather keep my body image private, as flawed as it is, presenting it in public only when it’s tidy and shiny and perfectly wrapped (and is it any surprise that perfectionism is another key component of eating disorders?). But if I don’t start to draw a neck—today—my picture will forever be incomplete.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s essays have appeared in Glamour, Marie Claire, Salon, and The New Inquiry, among others. She examines concepts of personal beauty at The Beheld.
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