Our bodies are not the enemy of our “authentic” inner selves

Originally posted on my blog.

As I’m sure many of you have as well (depending on what demographic your computer thinks you belong to, I suppose…), I have seen this ad pop up on various web sites I’ve visited over the last little while:

Usually the image is accompanied by a flashing line of text proclaiming: “53-year-old woman looks 18!” or something along those lines. Obviously it’s ridiculous. Obviously no anti-aging cream is going to be able to scrape your age off and show the inner 18-year-old that was hiding underneath. Obviously this is just one of those absurd ads that pop up when you visit web sites to illegally stream TV shows…at least this is better than the fake Facebook chats with the teenage girls with giant boobs, amiright?

But this image got under my skin. (No pun intended…heh.) The message it conveys is not only that being–or, more specifically, looking like–an aging woman is inappropriate or gross or something that needs to be fixed, but also that underneath our inappropriate, gross bodies is an “ideal” person, a person we can identify with, that’s just waiting for us to take control of our unruly bodies and let her out! A divide is created between the body and the person within.

Advertisements and images like these employ the rhetoric of celebrating inner beauty and people’s “real,” admirable identities, but they paradoxically are still focused solely on physical appearance, and on modifying your physical appearance to match your “authentic self.” Old people are told to reveal their inner 20-year-olds, fat people are told to let their inner thin person out, as if their grotesque bodies were hiding their authentic, ideal, heterosexually desirable and properly “controlled” selves somewhere under the soft, deep wrinkles and rolls of fat. This is not teaching us to celebrate our inner selves. This is teaching us to hate our bodies, to fear our desires and appetites and our need to consume, to expand, to expel, to decay and to rot.

We need to talk about what it means to live in a body in a culture that tells us we can rise above our bodies and leave them behind, that we are somehow “better” than our bodies, that if we try hard enough we can modify our bodies to look 20 when we’re 53 or to be a 36-24-36 no matter what size we started out at. We need to have this conversation because we can’t do these things. And we will fail, our bodies will fail, over and over again.

This is not a post to tell you that you need to come to terms with your body in its “natural” state, that you need to love your body and accept your body as it is and everything will be sunshine and rainbows and we’ll all live happily ever after. I was criticized by a few people about my previous post on “body image” and “real” women because they felt that I was suggesting that everyone should find all bodies beautiful all the time. Although I can see where those people were coming from (particularly if they were not differentiating between “finding someone beautiful” and “being sexually attracted to someone,” which is a whole other discussion to be had), I am not that idealistic, nor am I against body modification, which is what that interpretation of my argument seems to suggest. Rather, I think we need to have a more nuanced conversation about body modification, one that finds a middle ground between “do it to let your inner self out!” (or the super individualistic “do it because you want to and no one can tell you your choices are wrong!”) and “never ever do it or you’ll be a slave to the patriarchy!” We need to open up the floor for a more complex discussion regarding what it means to have a body, to live in a body, to be a body, to find pleasure in a body, in this culture. 

We are past a point of being able to be wholly “natural,” but that doesn’t mean we should employ every technology possible to force our bodies into some sort of cultural “ideal.” These “ideal selves” are not our ideal bodies; becoming these ideals, or looking like these ideals, if it is even possible, will not make us better, happier human beings. We need to create a space where we can be at home in our bodies, where we can find pleasure in our bodies, where we can be our bodies and not be divided from them. This, in my mind, is not antithetical to body modification, although it does require a new language for talking about body modification, one that isn’t centered on “perfecting” the body or disciplining the body to reveal your authentic self.

Feminist philosopher Cressida Heyes (whose work gave me the framework to articulate how I was feeling about the image at the beginning of this post) argues in her book Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies that we need an “alternative language for interpreting one’s own body” that doesn’t place our “identities” in opposition or competition with our bodies. She advocates for embodied pleasure, for “a way of being in the world that requires active cultivation, against forces that would domesticate and normalize any possibility of experience that deviates from practices usually considered to be the proper sources of happiness or joy,” and I am so with her on that.

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