Friday 27 January 2012

An open letter to (older) women about body image

Body image, mental image: I'm not perfect but I'm beautiful anyway. I recently ran across a few articles written by women about the problem (their problem?) of not being the right weight, not being slim enough, maybe not being young enough and certainly not being able to keep up with never mind compete with the air brushed fashion magazine runway models who represent some sort of ideal every female should strive for. As a citizen of the other side of the great sexual divide, I thought to take a moment to add my two cents worth with the hope, accounting for inflation, that $0.02 is not over-evaluating my contribution.

When I grew up (I believe dinosaurs were still roaming the wilds), the school system started teaching students, around the age of 11, social interactions with the opposite sex through square dancing. Geesh, square dancing? Heck, I was kidding about the dinosaurs but all of a sudden it strikes me that I could be talking about pioneer days or something. (I pull out my driver's licence and exclaim, "Heck, just how old am I?")

Starting in grade seven, the school held dances where guys and gals put on their finest and attempt to negotiate the trials and tribulations of dancing together. I love you ladies dearly but let me confess that you scare the bejesus out of me. All the boys would congregate on one side of the gymnasium and all the girls would be on the other side. The dance area, the open area in the middle of the gym was the size of a basketball court because it was a basketball court. If ever there was an obstacle to your love life, it was walking across this monstrous open area in front of the entire school population to ask a girl to dance. Difficult? Painful? Excuse me while I stick a pencil in my eye.

The shyness, the apprehension, the outright fear was just about off the scale. As a grown man looking back on my life, I would now categorically state that it was a moment I classify as more unsettling than my annual DRE and believe me, that can be quite unsettling. (What does DRE stand for? See below in References. hehehe)

The very first time, yes "the" very first time I asked a girl to dance, I remember standing around talking with some friends. I sought out some young filly on the other side of the chasm trying to calculate my chances of success. Rejection was at the forefront of my mind. Just imagine finding the resolve to walk across the thousand yards (330 metres in Canada) to the other side of the gymnasium only to have the girl, the target of my resolve, say "No" in front of the entire school. Oh, the humiliation. I would be the laughing stock of my friends, the school and the entire town while the local newspaper and television station would be reporting the next day with color photographs of how I walked all the way across the gymnasium alone only to walk all the way back alone, too.

I am happy to report that I somehow found the intestinal fortitude to make "the walk". I am happy to report that on my very first attempt to ask a girl to dance, she said, "Yes." It's at this point I wipe the sweat off my brow and quietly exhale, "Whew!" It's at this point I may even catch the eye of my friends with a bit of a smile which says, no it yells, "All right!!!" and does an invisible fist pump. Yes, ladies, did you know you have the power to lift me to the heavens or squash me like a bug? I do not remember at all who that girl was but I will remain eternally grateful for her act of kindness toward this poor boy who was making the first tentative step on one of the scariest adventures of his life. (I'm guessing the girls would tell stories of standing there wondering when those jackasses were going to come over and ask them to dance.)

Of course, in subsequent years, I became better versed in the goings-on of social interactions between the sexes and better understood not just my own sex, but the opposite sex with their own set of unique problems. Ah, where's Desmond Morris and The Naked Ape when you need him? I began to see that we all are more or less apprehensive with other people. We all walk into the room not knowing anyone and feel out of place. Will somebody talk to me? Will somebody break the ice? Oddly enough, many times that is all it takes. Whew. Somebody made the first move and started a conversation with me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

What one thing did I take away from these learning years as a teenager? The majority of us fall in the middle, that is, we're average. We may not be stunningly beautiful as in fashion magazine Hollywood star type of beautiful, but neither are we ugly, not truly ugly. As such most of us come to the table with far more than just the packaging. Education, experience, travels and personality are all part of the "total experience" and yes, while the packaging is sometimes the first thing which catches our eye, it's what's inside the wrapping that keeps us interested and coming back for more.

Big Little Wolf's Daily Plate of Crazy
From the About page: D. A. Wolf is a freelance writer, journalist, marketer, trainer, single parent, art collector, polyglot, traveler, and devotee of exquisite footwear & French lingerie. She believes we are all brimming with glorious contradictions, and capable of living fully – with whatever life dishes out, and whatever we can make of it.

On January 13, 2012, the author published a posting entitled "The FAT Personality" in which she discussed a supposed link between personality types and unhealthy eating. This lead to the question of just is normal and how our definition of normal seems to be very much influenced by the trends of fashion and the media. Ms. Wolf points out the contradiction between Marilyn Monroe's beauty now possibly being considered a "plus size" while the emaciated look of Twiggy is somehow more desirable.

In discussing body size expectations in the past two generations, she quotes the newspaper the Daily Mail: "Twenty years ago the average fashion model weighed 8% less than the average woman. Today, she weighs 23% less." The question returns to what is normal and are woman trying to aim for a normal as defined by the fashion trends seen everywhere from magazines to television to movies when in reality, normal is something else altogether.

In the article "Hot (News) Flash! French Women Over 50 Have More Sex!", the author points out a comparison between American and French women. Vive la différence and here, the difference seems to lie not necessarily in physical beauty but in something more immaterial: confidence.

"Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful."
- Sophia Loren US (Italian-born) movie actress (1934 – )

Pamela Madsen: Being Shameless
From the About page: Pamela Madsen is a fearless advocate for women’s health and integrated sexuality. During her 25-year career, Pamela has leveraged her raw honesty and well-informed wit to help strip the stigma from infertility, female desire and pleasure, body image and weight.

In her August 2010 article "When Self-Loathing Comes a Knocking….", the author writes:

Most of us want to feel hot and sexy. We want earth-shattering orgasms – and to feel like those women look in those damn magazines sipping a Margarita with smoky eyes who are about to have the most incredible sex in the universe. Right? Maybe? Who knows – but I hate them.

Seeing those images can make me feel confronted with what I am not and leaves me with this feeling that I am not enough. More than that – it is this feeling that I will never have in my life what I truly want because I just don’t look like that.

She goes on to talk about getting control of "those nasty inner voices" and focusing on herself and feeling good about herself as opposed to comparing herself to some ideal. Loving yourself would seem to be one of the first steps in feeling good.

A man's response
Okay ladies, I hear ya. We are bombarded, no we're inundated, no we're overwhelmed with images and supposed rules about "the ideal" we all should strive for.

Enter Twiggy in the 60s, and Kate Moss in the 90s. Those who prefer women with some meat on their bones often have to pretend otherwise. (The FAT Issue - Oct 2011 by BigLittleWolf)

Wait! Who asked me? Did I forget to vote? Twiggy? Are you kidding me? I look at Twiggy and begin to wonder if I'm secretly gay. I look at Kate Moss and this "heroin chic" popularized in the 1990s and think, "What!?! Am I supposed to ask somebody to tie me off?"

Years ago, I saw this hilarious photograph of Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow and Ava Gardner. Remember that Sinatra was married to Gardner from 1951 to 1957 and Farrow from 1966 to 1968. The three of them are sitting together at a long table having dinner in the order from left to right of Frank, Mia and Ava. Ms. Gardner falls into the category of va-va-voom and Mia in comparison was, well, a Twiggy. The photographer caught Ava giving Mia a side-long glance which would have frozen water at a hundred yards and maybe it was just my interpretation, but I couldn't help thinking that Ava's look was saying something like, "Why would any man pick that... that... boy over a real woman. Frank has gone crazy." (Sorry, I did a Google image search but couldn't find this photo but I know it exists.)

Wait. Back up. I said we are bombarded with images and supposed rules about "the ideal" we all should strive for. What? Did that man just write "we"? Yes, I'm a man. We were talking about you ladies and the question of the dictates of what is currently considered fashionable but I thought to throw my two cents in on what's happening on the other side of the sexual divide. Are guys affected by what's showing up in magazines?

Stunningly beautiful? Breathtakingly handsome? I ofttimes joke that George Clooney is so good-looking, I'd have sex with him and I'm not even gay. But no pressure on the rest of us guys with our receding hairlines, love handles and yes, that visible piece of spinach stuck in our two front teeth to try to live up to some Hollywood glamour measure of hunkiness.

The Guardian - Jan 6/2012
Body image concerns more men than women, research finds
More men worry about their body shape and appearance – beer bellies, "man boobs" or going bald – than women do about how they look, according to research. More than four in five men (80.7%) talk in ways that promote anxiety about their body image by referring to perceived flaws and imperfections, compared with 75% of women. Similarly, 38% of men would sacrifice at least a year of their life in exchange for a perfect body – again, a higher proportion than women.

Dr Phillippa Diedrichs, lead researcher (and a woman) for a study of 394 British men for the YMCA, reportedly said, "These findings tell us that men are concerned about body image, just like women. We knew that 'body talk' affected women and young people and now we know that it affects men too." Rosi Prescott, Central YMCA's chief executive, said, "Historically, conversation about your body has been perceived as something women do, but it is clear from this research that men are also guilty of commenting on one another's bodies, and in many cases this is having a damaging effect."

After reading over several articles by Ms. Wolf and Ms. Madsen on a women's body image issues, I felt I had something to say. So, with the indulgence of these two authors and their readerships, I thought to add "my" male perspective to the discussion. (originally posted as a comment to one of Ms. Wolf's columns)


George Clooney has been named by People Magazine as the sexiest man alive not once, but twice. I have never been named the sexiest man alive. Ryan Gosling certainly showed off his buff ripped self to good effect in the comedy movie Crazy, Stupid, Love (In the movie trailer, Mr. Gosling takes off his shirt and Emma Thompson exclaims, "Seriously? It's like you're photoshopped!"). While I exercise regularly and jog, I won't pretend to be "ripped". Hugh Jackman, named the sexiest man alive in 2008, is at the height of success as a world recognised film star at the age of 43. I am currently 59 years old and will be 60 this year (2012). I am not recognised outside of my family.

Am I the best looking guy in the room? Not by a long shot. Am I brimming over with self-confidence? Like everyone, I have my moments of doubt and yes, even I have body image issues. (see my blog: Gettin' old, man boobs and Vladimir Putin) However, I realised a long time ago that I'm not Quasimodo. Okay, I'm not Brad Pitt, but I'm not Quasimodo.

Our society with its merchandising and publicity presents us all with an idealized version of ourselves, an ideal that doesn't necessarily exist in reality. (I saw the picture of a famous model the other day without her make-up. Whoa!) I would like to think that the majority of us come to the table with experience and a certain degree of maturity and understand the difference between an ideal and the normal, between fantasy and reality. Not everybody, but the majority.

Therefore, we come back to the question, to coin an expression, of not what you've got, but how you use it. Just how much confidence do you have? I am reminded of this life lesson which has proven to be a big help to me over the years.

my blog: Rejection 2010-06-14

"I've been rejected."

Somebody doesn't like you. Oh, boo hoo hoo. Get over it!

Okay, that sounds a little harsh but if you will bear with me, let me now tell you something which comes from my life and is probably very applicable to your life.

When I went to high school, I entered what is for many kids their first real experience in a social networking environment. Everybody has to figure out how to interact with each other. Yes, I know we had public school stuff, but high school was a much bigger proving ground because we were all getting our hormone spurs: saddle up the pony; it's time to ride the range!

Like all teenage boys, I, too, suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, some successes, some failures. Nevertheless, there was always the pain and suffering of being rejected on any grounds, not just sexual.

Then it hit me. I forget exactly what happened, but one day, I looked at rejection from the other way around. It occurred to me that at high school, in the street and in life in general, I did not like everyone whom I met. In fact, some of those people I absolutely detested. All of a sudden it occurred to me: if statistically, I didn't like everyone in the world, was it true that statistically, everyone in the world would like me? No way!

I began to see the entire world in a new light. I meet somebody, they don't like me. Okay, your loss, I move on to the next person. Instead of being particularly hurt by the rejection of a single person, I accept it as merely a statistical reality then move on. Like me, if you really want to lay on the rationalization really thick, I sometimes add that the rejecter has neither the intelligence nor the fine taste to appreciate the bouquet and full body of a Chardonnay '86 à la yours truly. Like a fine wine, I am only appreciated by the most sophisticated of palettes. "Oh gawd, does that man know how to shovel it or what?"

Old joke: Every night a man goes to a bar and asks 50 women to sleep with him. He gets slapped in the face 49 times, but he never sleeps alone.


my blog: I’m a 62-Year-Old Man and I’m Invisible Mar 31/2015
Recently I ran across a number of articles about the issue of being a woman over 50 and being invisible in today’s society. What struck me as odd about this was that when I reflected on my own situation, I had to admit that I am, by their definition, invisible.

Daily Plate of Crazy - Jan 27/2012
Female Body Image: Care to Share? by BigLittleWolf
Female body image. Not a simple subject, is it. We carry our personal histories, our inherited traits, and we’re bombarded by conflicting messages from the time we’re little girls. So how do we make sense of it? Do we, ever?

Daily Plate of Crazy - Jan 13/2012
The FAT Personality by BigLittleWolf
A recent article appearing on the Wall Street Journal Blog reports on statistics tying patterns of unhealthy eating to personality types.

Daily Plate of Crazy - Jan 12/2012
Hot (News) Flash! French Women Over 50 Have More Sex! by BigLittleWolf
The Huffington Post offers a report by Debra Ollivier, exploring the phenomenon that French women over 50 have more sex than their American counterparts.

Uploaded by ThePamelaMadsen on Jan 15, 2012
YouTube: Why Let Body Image Limit Your Life? by Pamela Madsen
Pamela Madsen, Integrative Life Coach Specializing In Issues of Women: Sexuality, Fertility, Self Image and Rejuvenation, Author of Shameless: How I Ditched The Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure and Somehow Got Home in Time To Cook Dinner (Rodale) and Founder of the American Fertility Association talking about not letting weight and self image limit your life!

Being Shameless - Aug 31/2011
When Self-Loathing Comes a Knocking…. by Pamela Madsen
Most of us want to feel hot and sexy. We want earth-shattering orgasms – and to feel like those women look in those damn magazines sipping a Margarita with smoky eyes who are about to have the most incredible sex in the universe. Right? Maybe? Who knows – but I hate them.

Wikipedia: Kate Moss
Kate Moss (born 16 January 1974) is an English model who is known for her waifish figure and popularising the heroin chic look in the 1990s.

Wikipedia: Heroin chic
Heroin chic was a look popularized in mid-1990s fashion and characterized by pale skin, dark circles underneath the eyes and angular bone structure. The look, characterised by emaciated features and androgyny, was a reaction against to "healthy" and vibrant look of models such as Christie Brinkley, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, and Heidi Klum. A 1996 article in The Los Angeles Times charged that the fashion industry had "a nihilistic vision of beauty" that was reflective of drug addiction and U.S. News and World Report called the movement a "cynical trend".

Wikipedia: Digital Rectal Examination (DRE)
The digital rectal examination (DRE) is a relatively simple procedure. ... the physician slips a gloved and lubricated finger into the rectum through the anus and palpates the insides [to look for nodules of prostate cancer] for approximately sixty seconds. [You didn't think I was going to make a guy joke about a DRE then not explain what it is, did you?]

my blog: Gettin' old, man boobs and Vladimir Putin Aug 20/2011
We men like to strut our stuff once in a while. Even though we get older and start fading, we still have our moments when we like to relive our former glories, the time when other men would tremble before us and women would swoon. Yes, deep down we know that our glory years are behind us but occasionally we like to suck in our guts and stick out our chests while ignoring the mildly sarcastic "Yes dear, you've still got it". I'm not as good as I once was but I'm as good once as I ever was.

The Guardian - Jan 6/2012
Body image concerns more men than women, research finds
More men worry about their body shape and appearance – beer bellies, "man boobs" or going bald – than women do about how they look, according to research. More than four in five men (80.7%) talk in ways that promote anxiety about their body image by referring to perceived flaws and imperfections, compared with 75% of women. Similarly, 38% of men would sacrifice at least a year of their life in exchange for a perfect body – again, a higher proportion than women.

In Bed With Married Women by Jill Hamilton - Apr 15/2010
My Wife's Body By An Anonymous Husband
My wife, like millions of women in this world, has a poor body self-image. She hates her body, in fact, and never stops beating herself up over her extra pounds, or her veins, or her wrinkles, or countless other aspects of her form.

I had to chuckle when Ms. Wolf commented, "49 slaps? Wasn't that a Hitchcock movie?"


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BigLittleWolf said...

Mr. Belle, You do put a very particular (sardonic and sage) spin on things!

I stand corrected. There are indeed (some) men who are increasingly body image tainted.

And that's a shame.

D. A. Wolf said...

Well here I am three years later (almost exactly), and I must comment on how the Kardashians (and facsimiles thereof) seem to have, ahem... reshaped the "ideal" female form once again.

Some of us spent years trying to narrow our "wide loads" from behind; I'm astonished and amused (and appalled) that booty has been taken to such new (expansive) heights (widths?)...

That we continue to obsess to such a large degree with appearance, or as it is known, "looksism," is sad, wasteful, counterproductive, damaging... (Must I go on?)

We know that appearance matters. But that it matters more than substance to such a growing extent is a societal problem that we must eventually deal with.

Oh right. Wait. There are all those Big Businesses that need our (diet, exercise, cosmetic) revenues, etc. Silly me. How could I forget?