Sometimes when we talk about beauty and body image, we end up talking almost exclusively about weight. It makes a lot of sense: the people who are touted as the most beautiful are almost always thin. We're bombarded with headlines and images that fixate on the waistlines and diets of the famous. Meanwhile, the war on obesity rages, often confusing ideas about health with ideas about physical attractiveness. Weight is always in the news, and the message is loud and clear: It is NOT OK to be heavy. Lose weight! Gain self-respect! Look better!
So I get it. I get that beauty and weight are wrapped around each other in our heads. I get why so many people find themselves convinced that if they could only get thinner they would be better in every way. But there is a lot more to the cultural story of beauty, and when we talk about weight without talking about other things, we are being careless. Who do we forget when we say “body image” but mean “weight”? Everyone who doesn't fit the beauty standard in a variety of ways that they are sometimes acutely aware of, even when weight isn't an issue for them.
Pointing out such struggles can feel nit-picky – as though people should just get over them, especially if they aren't connected to the science-friendly subject of health. But the constant nagging sense that there is something wrong with the way you look, the quiet preoccupation with features that seem unfairly proportioned, can chip away at self-esteem in profound, long-lasting ways.
We have seen so many examples of what beauty looks like that we have become almost shockingly good at identifying the things about ourselves that don't fit that mould. “If my legs were longer . . .” we hear ourselves say. Or “if I didn't have this saggy skin . . .” We can explain all of the ways that we fail, physically, to meet a certain level of attractiveness. It can feel embarrassing to care, or so ordinary that you hardly notice yourself being critical. But in either case, the ways we don't live up to our own ideas of "successful" beauty are diverse and complicated.
Sometimes they are persistently single-minded, too.
I agonised about my nose for years before I got cosmetic surgery. I tried not to care about it. I tried to be proud of it. And yet I backslid infuriatingly into hating it for making my face look a way that seemed unacceptably abnormal. It seemed like every other girl had a simple, nice nose, while mine insisted on taking up a lot of space and expressing a lot of creative differences with the rest of my features. If only I could change my nose, I thought, I would be pretty. And maybe it wasn't so much that I was desperate to be prettier but that I was desperate to stop thinking about my nose.
My interest in body image began after I underwent two unsuccessful facial surgeries, and became increasingly aware of the way girls and women around me seemed to be engaged in a wrestling match with their appearance, fighting to change themselves, to remake themselves so that they might more closely resemble an unreachable ideal. I had attempted to remake my face, and it had failed, and I was tired of trying. But when I started talking about body image, it quickly became clear that everyone else was talking about weight. When I wrote about weight, I got more responses, my pieces gained more traction. Weight was hot. When I wrote about faces, there was less noise.
But when I listen to people talking about their appearance, their concerns and criticisms tell a different story. Wrinkles, hairiness, breast size, physical asymmetry, eyes that are “too small” or “too close together”, lips that are “too thin” and the myriad shapes and compositions our bodies take that aren't represented on any billboard all become targets for angst in an environment that shines a harsh spotlight on the way women look.
Recognising this can be depressing. Beauty hasn't always been so mixed up with thinness. For a lot of history, the characteristics of the most celebrated beauties had little to do with tiny waistlines and toned arms. And when we admit that beauty is still not just about weight, we are forced to admit that body image is more complex. Maybe there is no escape – when you victoriously lop off one head, the hydra of body image grows 10 more.
I prefer to look at it in a more optimistic way: if body image is about more than weight, and beauty is about more than being thin, and if most of us are failing to fit the standards of beauty stuck in our brains, then what's really happening is that these standards are painfully inadequate. They have failed to account for our diversity. They have neglected to acknowledge all of the ways that we automatically consider each other attractive without referring first to a lingerie catalogue or a hottest bikini bodies list.
I've also learnt that the things we are agonising about today, or even for the last 10 years, are not necessarily the things that will matter to us later. Ideas about physical beauty are, after all, often fickle. My nose didn't look a lot better after surgery. Actually, it didn't look very different. The surgeon, flustered and trying to explain it in lay people's terms, said, “Sometimes these procedures just don't work out”. But I find that I have grown to like the uniqueness of my appearance. After all, that's one thing about appearances that has held true for all of human history: we look fascinatingly different from one another. We are intricately ourselves.
So really, it worked out just fine.