Walking through Boston yesterday afternoon, I had a rambling conversation with a female friend about body image. At first, we were totally engrossed in our discussion, and we hurried through the crowded streets, paying little attention to our surroundings.
We talked about what makes us each feel attractive or unattractive. Amazingly, we had almost nothing in common in this regard. I tend to feel most attractive after I've been exercising - right after a long bike ride, or a good swim, especially if I've taken a shower. That's when I feel the most confident. To my great surprise, she feels least attractive right after exercising. She said that no matter how well she's performed, she always feels as though she isn't in good enough shape and needs to do better. A constant pressure to perform better. It was surprising! Neither one of us had expected such a radical difference in perception, especially since the two of us have similar intellectual opinions about body image and women's health.
The two of us also have markedly different relationships with food, and with clothing. Both of us have struggled with food in the past; she with an eating disorder and I with a debilitating stomach condition. She now finds that she feels compelled to eat on a schedule, no matter what, a compulsion that developed as she recovered from her eating disorder. This habit now leads her to feel that she has, yet again, an unhealthy obsession with eating, and it worries her. Complicated!
I, on the other hand, being relatively free of pain only recently, tend to eat very erratically. It was only last year that eating any food at all was sure to cause me significant pain, and I dreaded eating, although I was very hungry, uncomfortable with my uncontrollable weight loss, and tired of having a fearful relationship with my lunch. Now that eating rarely the problems it once did, I find myself quite pleased with the ability to skip a meal, eat early, eat late, or otherwise get off schedule. This, however, sometimes triggers the very condition from which I was celebrating my freedom. Although I eat almost no junk food (I may be relatively pain free, but I have far more limits than most people) I could do with a few more rules. Again - complicated!
The contrasting relationships that my friend and I have with clothing was something that I also thought about as we walked along through the crowd. My friend is fond of dressing up. She has the flair of a thespian and can assume beautiful poses and expressions. She feels beautiful when she puts on her best clothing. I, on the other hand, am not particularly fond of dressing up. Sometimes, the idea appeals to me. But when I wear nice clothes, I don't feel beautiful. I feel self conscious and awkward, unable to sit or move in the ways that I normally do. I do not have my friend's flair as an actress. I can do impressions of people - pretty good ones - but they're not glamorous or even attractive. She's a graceful, poised dancer; I move with power but little grace. I feel the best in a plain tank top, plain shorts, and bare feet.
Each of us has a full set of strong opinions about the body image problems facing young women today. We are both keenly aware of the pressure that girls feel and we both try to of reject those pressures in our own lives. But, as this conversation made perfectly clear, our conscious rebellion hasn't entirely worked. We are carrying around all sorts of neuroses. Our daily lives are constantly impacted by these various inadequacies that we carry around with us all the time. The choice between a t-shirt and a low-cut blouse can take me an hour, and several tryings-on of various outfits, which surprises even me, given that I am usually dressed in under a minute. Every meal can present a difficult decision for my friend, a woman who is fully aware of the necessities of good nutrition. Both of us grew up in supportive, loving families. How did this happen? How do we start over? Will either one of us ever believe that we are beautiful? Perhaps the problem is trivial; we are MIT students, it doesn't much matter what we look like. Our friends are people we trust not to judge us by our appearances. Neither one of us depends professionally on good looks. But on the other hand, we are not women who want to live in shame of who we are, and the fact of the matter is, both of us, in complex, different ways, feel ashamed about our appearances.
By this point, we had gotten on the subway and off again, and were walking through a busy commercial area. My thoughts drifted towards the environment I was in. For a young female, walking through any major city without a male means that you will certainly get some "looks", regardless of how conservatively you dress. The best thing to do, of course, is ignore them entirely, lest you give the lookers (who are almost exclusively men) any ideas. However, I think this attitude of oblivion has given many men the idea that women do not notice their stares, or are not bothered. I have found that men in groups are especially unpleasant; they seem to feel as though being in the company of other men gives them the right to stare with impunity, as if their manliness leaves them no choice.
Beyond stares, a female is likely to hear a few cat calls, and observe a few rude gestures. I've complained about this already. Unfortunately, there is very little one can do to avoid this behavior. Almost anything that a female does can attract unwanted attention. Case in point: when I wrote the entry that's linked above, I could not, for the life of me, figure out why I kept getting catcalls while biking to and from my violin lesson. I later figured out that it was the shoulder bag that was the problem. I would bike with my violin on my back, and the shoulder bag, of course, over my shoulder. The placement of the strap was drawing unwanted attention to my chest. The ironic part is, I bought the shoulder bag specifically so that I could wear my violin on my back, instead of using the case's shoulder strap, which is very uncomfortable and only makes the problem worse. I just couldn't win. A heavy parka helped, and so I wore one, long after I needed it, until the heat was unbearable.
As we walked through the city, I understood more and more why my friend and I still struggle with body image despite our most sincere efforts to cleanse our minds of Seventeen Magazine ideology. We really are seen, all the time, as anonymous people who happen to have breasts and hips and long hair. It's almost impossible for us to hide behind our clothes; short of spacesuits, we're clearly women. And when we're anonymous, we are not treated with the kind of respect to which we've become accustomed in our personal relationships.
It would be naive to demand that no stranger on the street ever think a sexual thought while looking at my friend and I. Although it's certainly a bizarre and uncomfortable reality to ponder, I think it's probably safe to say that strangers on the street are probably thinking all sorts of sexual things about other strangers all the time. That can't be helped, and as far as I'm concerned, it's perfectly fine. But I do think that something destructive begins to occur when those thoughts, which I'll hastily attribute to the human condition and neglect to explain, are made public. When I feel the eyes on me, when I must remember not to smile at any men because it could give them the wrong idea, when I hear the catcalls... when I am actually molested on the train (this has happened, and it was disgusting).
These actions are so often brushed off as "normal human sexuality", or worse, "boys will be boys". Everybody agrees, of course, that it's never OK to molest anybody else on a train. If the victim is brave enough to speak up when it happens (I wasn't, and I'm ashamed of it), the others in the train are likely to stand up for the victim. But nobody cares if a man stands on a street corner making catcalls. It's not a taboo. No one will stop him.
And that's how I think it happens. My friend and I have learned that it's our responsibility alone to deal with the way these men make us feel. We should be confident and strong and love our bodies no matter what. Our body image problems are our own fault. We should ignore those men. We should accept that there will always be men like that, and that we can't do anything to change that.
It undoes my careful self-conditioning. The crawling, dirty feeling that remains on my skin after an unpleasant encounter overwrites the confidence-building talk I gave to myself in the morning. I feel ugly. I feel exposed. Yes, I have lots of personal battles to win, and those are my job to fight. But being treated by strangers as if my purpose is to be an anonymous sexual object in their world is not my battle. It's just one I choose to fight.