Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

1156610_36788246I was recently invited to partake in a discussion about body image with HuffPost Live. Unfortunately, I lost my Internet connection not once but twice, and I may have disturbed at least one slumbering child while cursing blasted technology. (“Mommy, how’d your interview go last night? I heard you yelling at the computer and asking Daddy for help.”  Oops.)

Sadly, I missed a big chunk of the conversation spoken from some articulate guests and when it was my time to share, I heard an echo in my earphones of everything I was saying, which made it difficult to concentrate. I’m pretty sure I said “aesthetics” way too many times. Despite the technological glitches, my verbal fumbling, and the gaps in the conversation, I found the talk very thought-provoking.

The focus of the dialogue was on women force-feeding themselves for beauty’s sake in Mauritania, a poor Western African country wedged between Western Sahara and Senegal. In this region, thin is not considered beautiful or even remotely desirable. Mothers who wish for their daughters a bright future begin a practice referred to as “gavage” usually around a child’s eighth or ninth birthday in which they stuff their daughters with fat-laden and rich foods like bread crumbs soaked in olive oil and bowls of milk (yes, bowls). The article explains that “gavage” is the same term used to describe the force-feeding of ducks to make foie gras.

Admittedly, the first thought I had after I initially read the article in preparation for the interview as someone who has spent way too much of her life longing to be thinner is what a (welcome?) change it would be to live in a culture where I could eat as much Ben & Jerry’s as I wanted and just become more beautiful by the spoonful. However, as I continued to read, all levity was quickly replaced with sadness and anger. Crushing daughters’ toes with pincers if they resist the gorging? That’s far worse than an American mom telling her daughter she probably should start watching what she eats if she wants to be pretty (I am not condoning this kind of behavior either, but it’s not the same as overt torture).

And why would any mother – even one who would never go so far as injuring her child in an effort to fatten her up – advocate force-feeding? And, then, why would any daughter, especially as she grows older, self-inflict pain on herself all because she wanted to appear desirable and beautiful as her culture has defined it? Why are these women resorting to such extreme measures all for the sake of living up to an idealistic (and oftentimes unrealistic) standard of beauty?

Probably for the same reason American women tirelessly diet or inject their faces with Botox to erase the signs of aging. Our aesthetic preferences mirror the cultural ideals to which we are exposed and we think if we achieve the ideal, we will have more and be more.

Here in the Western world, we’re bombarded with images of air-brushed, slender women. They boast taut, thin, and often sun-kissed yet wrinkle-free bodies. There’s often a cartoonish quality in some of the women that help sell everything from cars to body soap. Large, perky breasts balloon over a concave stomach. Thin is in (except in the chest area). But in other parts of the world, being fat is the Holy Grail of perfect aesthetics. Beauty is clearly subjective. Every society has its own views of what is beautiful, and the culture we live in shapes our body image.

Moreover, history reveals that whatever is more difficult to achieve and generally more unusual is idealized. Here in the United States, in the land of plenty where sedentary jobs are the norm and fast food, and processed, convenience foods are ubiquitous, we idolize thin and athletic builds. Food is abundant, so slenderness is glorified. Whereas where food is scarce, full-figured women are more desirable.

As I mentioned during the interview, economics plays a major factor in how we define beauty. It’s not just access to food that might drive women to pursue certain beauty standards. While some women are naturally beautiful as defined by the Western definition of beauty, many pay a hefty price to get that way whether through endless exercise, strict diets, and/or plastic surgery. But many of us don’t have the resources to hire a personal trainer, invite a personal chef into our homes, only eat organic, whole foods, or buy pricey, anti-aging skin creams. The Western brand of beauty comes with a price, but it’s this very price that makes it the ideal. Looking a certain way becomes a status symbol of sorts. Just as in the past, pale, plump women were adored because that meant they were not laborers in the field but were instead living a more lavish life indoors, there’s perhaps the subterranean belief somewhere in our culture that a woman who is a piece of delicious eye candy has more money and power; that’s how she got that way or at least how she stays that “pretty.” In poorer countries, the richer people have more access to food. The more food, the better and the more beautiful they become. Fat women with silvery stretch marks are fertile goddesses. There is no sign of famine, only feasting.

Two women joined the HuffPost Live conversation grew up with well-meaning family members trying to fatten them up. This was all done out of love. What we have to understand, as foreign as it is to accept that becoming obese is desirable, encouraged, and even viewed as healthy when we live in such a fattist society, is that moms who begin force-feeding their young daughters are doing this out of love. They want to ensure their daughters meet the standards of beauty in their culture so they will find good husbands. Marrying well is not about securing a dreamy “happily ever after.” Living up to their culture’s beauty ideal is not just about being the “fairest of the fair.” It’s a matter of survival for some of these women.

{An interesting aside: Anorexia has been shown to be more of a middle to upper class problem that is more prevalent in countries that are more developed. A woman who can eat all the cheeseburgers and potato chips she wants or dine out and gobble up monster portions has something she can immediately give up – food. By restricting her calories and what she consumes, she feels more powerful and claims a sense of purpose and control in her life. On the other hand, a woman who might not always have enough to eat would likely not resort to restricting her calories to feel more powerful. Eating disorders are far more complicated than what we put into our mouths (or don’t) and become vehicles for expressing certain feelings, but it is interesting that even women who grow up in America and are exposed to the same kind of media and definitions of beauty are less likely to develop anorexia if they are poorer.  And in the poor nation of Mauritania where a food crisis exists, 20 percent of females are obese and more than half are overweight. When food abounds, we seek to control it. When it is in short supply, we seek to control it as well – just differently.}

What I’ve been trying to figure out as I’ve reflected on what goes on in Mauritania as compared to the oftentimes more subtle brainwashing of our daughters over here in the United States is what are we going to do about it? It’s not healthy for women to teach their daughters how to force-feed themselves, but it’s not healthy for an 8-year-old to think she needs to go on a diet either in hopes that she can achieve the coveted yet elusive thigh gap.

And what about the countless American women who are perpetually on diets yet remain overweight? Their lives become whittled down to how much they eat and the number on the scale. What’s going on here? How do we put food in its proper place and accept our bodies and ourselves as they were designed to be? Some of us will be more heavy-set. Some of us will be thinner. No one ideal is better than another. I typically have argued that we must focus on health rather than just being “hot” or looking a certain way, but what constitutes good health is not entirely objective either. There’s a growing body of research that fat (overweight but not obese) people who are somewhat active live longer than thin people. Likewise, it became apparent during the HuffPost Live discussion that ideas of what it means to be healthy vary by culture as well. One of the women interviewed from a region where being a fat woman is idolized and force-feeding is practiced said her loved ones constantly ask her if she has gotten more healthy and what they mean is: Are you fatter yet?

Body image is really the way you see yourself in your mind. Unfortunately, rigid cultural scripts have distorted the way we perceive ourselves. Depending upon where you live or even the kind of family you grew up in and its own aesthetic ideals, you might see yourself as being too thin, too curvy, too fat, too bony, too boyish, too soft…too whatever. But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then it’s up to us to edit those cultural and internal scripts and not blacklist our body – whether it’s more naturally slender or naturally rounded. We cannot berate our bodies, tirelessly tweak them, and adopt potentially dangerous practices until they meet or are closer to the ideal standard of beauty our culture lauds.

Instead of pushing one aesthetic over another, we have to develop a broader appreciation for the diversity of the human race. We have to learn to eat intuitively, too. Or perhaps relearn. So many people eat too much or too little. When we are children, we don’t think about eating. It’s a lot like breathing – something we just do to live. But Americans obsess over food, and people obsess over how much they eat in other parts of the world but for different reasons.

During the HuffPost discussion, I said something about how it’s up to us to see our bodies more as instruments to do good in the world than as objects that need to conform to beauty standards. Our bodies are simply a part of us rather than the sum of all our parts. When we see our bodies as instruments, we naturally will gravitate toward taking care of them. When we focus more on what our bodies can do rather than what they look like, we will have more of a desire to fuel them with the proper and right amount of food and move them in a way that’s not purgative. Choosing to view our bodies as instruments to lead happy, fulfilling lives and to serve others helps to reshape our body image and perhaps helps to reshape the perceptions of those around us. Externalizing women – that is making their bodies and how they look the emphasis of success, a good life, and even good health – is just another a way of objectifying them.

Several weeks ago a Facebook friend of mine sent me a link to a poignant post about someone on social media ridiculing a Sikh woman for her body hair. What was surprising was this woman’s response to the unkindness; she did respond with defensive, indignant zingers; nor did she collapse into a heap of unworthiness. This beautiful, young woman has a firm grasp on her identity and the fact that she possesses an inner beauty that transcends her more temporal and physical traits. My hope is that I’ll raise my daughters to be this articulate and rooted in a kind of beauty that attracts far more people than a pretty face (however a specific culture might define a pretty face – chubby, chiseled, waxed, or hairy).

In response to the ridicule by a Reddit user, she wrote,

“I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a separateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are.”

That’s just beautiful. “Sikhs do not reject the bodies that have been given to us.” That’s a big start for all women and for cultivating more positive body images globally. Don’t reject your natural design no matter what your culture’s aesthetic ideals are. Transcend societal views of beauty, and focus more on your actions and cultivating inner virtue. Divert your energies into creating change and progress in the world. What are you going to do with your body, your mind, your soul today? How will you use it to do good? What kind of impact are you making? What will be your legacy? These are the kind of questions we all need to be pondering and answering in a beautiful way.


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One Response to “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”
  1. Terri says:

    These kinds of posts are why I’m subscribed to your blog. Thanks for writing this one. :0)

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