Do You Hate Your Body? Western Culture, Gender, and Body Issues

Working Out

“Perfection” has its price… and when it comes to bodily perfection, this price can never be fully paid.

Some of the most awkward and disturbing conversations that I’ve had about the body have taken place during a meal. There is something about sharing food with company that ignites interesting topics of conversation as pertained to our body, nature, and food. I recall one particular instance in which I went over a friend’s house for dinner. She had a couple of guests over who were preparing a make-your-own-taco buffet. We sat down on the table and began circulating the bowls full of shredded chicken, cheese, sour cream, salsa, flour tortillas, and yellow rice. I placed two tortillas on my plate and began to scoop some shredded chicken on the tortillas when I noticed one of my friend’s guests staring at me with a look of horror on her face.

“Oh my god!” she said. “Are you going to eat ALL OF THAT?!” A confused look spread over my face. I didn’t think I was eating much, but according to my guest, two tacos was beyond extravagant. A feeling of awkwardness spread across the table. I lost my appetite. The two tacos remained on the plate, virtually untouched.

It was no secret that my friend’s guest was known for having body-image issues. Between her unstable diet and her insane workout regimen, it was a miracle that she seemed so lively and healthy. This was not the first time she made a weird or rude comment regarding food. Who could forget the time she called out my friend for eating an entire bowl of cocoa pebbles? Or the time she offered to serve us dessert, and served each one of us a 1×1″ square of brownie with a tablespoon of vanilla ice-cream on top, insisting that we must not exaggerate? But it this taco incident that truly affected me negatively, and it awoke feelings in me that were dormant for a long time.

I’ve always had issues with my body. I’ve  always been overweight (not obese, but I certainly have extra meat on my bones), I have crooked teeth, one of my eyes is slightly bigger than the other, and yes, I have a huge nose. But over the years, I had learned to grow comfortable with my body, and I had learned to accept the fact that I deviate from normal and beautiful expectations of the body. But that taco moment really scarred me in an unprecedented way. I took the comment to be a remark on my weight and my appearance. That night, when I returned home, I stared at myself in front of the mirror. I felt disgust. I felt worthless. The head of my friend’s guest circulated around my mind, mockingly asking me if I was “going to eat ALL OF THAT!”

I don’t even think we can begin to understand just how much culture affects our interpretation and perception of the human body. We live with such an immense pressure to be perfect and desirable. This desire is so intense that it completely overshadows even the most basic of biological needs: food, sex, and even rest. It comes as no surprise that because of these unrealistic cultural expectations, we have pathological phenomena such as bulimia, anorexia, among others.

These pathological phenomena are usually seen as purely negative and evil cultural manifestations. However, some reading that I have been doing during the past weeks is pushing me to question the extent to which diseases such as anorexia and bulimia are purely evil. I think we rarely seek liberation and emancipation in cultural expressions that seem subversive, violent, and even dangerous. Furthermore, I think that a dichotomous view of the word always limits our capacity to deal with notions such as morality: we either view things as entirely good or entirely bad, refusing to see the gray area that exists in between. However, I think that we’re all very well aware of the fact that the gray area tends to possess the most powerful explanatory power when it comes to grappling with difficult or controversial topics.

Does anorexia have a “positive side”? Can anorexia, despite its danger, be viewed as emancipatory? Can issues of the body be viewed as a type of protest? Feminist scholars such Susie Orbach, and Susan Bordo in her discussion of the body and the reproduction of femininity in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body discuss the plausibility of  this notion. As pointed out by Bordo in her discussion:

A number of feminist writers, […] have interpreted anorexia as a species of unconscious feminist protest. The anorectic is engaged in a “hunger strike,” as Orbach calls it, stressing that this is a political discourse, in which the action of food refusal and dramatic transformation of body size “expresses with [the] body what [the anorectic] is unable to tell us with words”–her indictment of a culture that disdains and suppresses female hunger, makes women ashamed of their appetites and needs, and demands that women constantly work on the transformation of their body. (463)

Keep in mind that Bordo and Orbach are in no way justifying anorexia , and they are certainly not pushing people to view this pathological manifestation as a solution. Anorexia is unfortunate and very dangerous. However, they do suggest that people who do suffer from this pathology certainly convey an interesting bodily rhetoric, in which their condition is not only symptomatic of cultural pressures and expectations, but it is also illustrates everything that is downright wrong within contemporary culture. Sure, people suffering from anorexia and bulimia are not conscious of this protest, but their body serves as a walking indication that something is very wrong when it comes to the aspirations that culture pushes us to strive for.

The expectations of perfection when it comes to the body are so pervasive that they have transcended beyond the realm of the feminine. It is well known that anorexia, and body issues, are not exclusive when it comes to gender. Men, myself included, are also expected to achieve a degree of physical and bodily perfection, else we suffer from feeling worthless and ugly under the guise of contemporary culture. You are expected to have well-defined muscles, but you can’t have too much muscle because that’s too excessive. You can’t be too thin. You can’t be fat. You have to have short hair, a six-pack, a slender waist, a stoic stance. Yes, men these days have just as many expectations as women do when it comes to their bodies.

Jackson Whittemore, a character from MTV's Teen Wolf, in a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Jackson Whittemore (played by Colton Haynes), a character from MTV’s Teen Wolf. This is a screenshot taken a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. Notice that this show is aimed primarily at a young adult audience (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Popular shows watched by young audiences, such as MTV’s smash show Teen Wolf, definitely perpetuate this notion of physical perfection, especially when it comes to their depiction and glorification of the male body. Now, I’m not saying this is a purely terrible thing. After all, “eye-candy,” a well-sculpted body, is indeed awe-inspiring and impressive (and it sure makes us feel wonderful in many ways), but what message is being sent when all of the men and women present within the show are beautiful, physically fit, and well-groomed? It sets unrealistic expectations. I, for one, will never look like Colton Haynes when I step out of the shower. I’ve accepted that fact.

When we are surrounded by frail bodies that are wasting away, walking skeletons that seem to be only a few steps away from death itself… there is definitely a scream for help being shouted at the face of culture itself. Sure, anorexia can be approached as a form of protest, but it’s a protest that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s disturbing, as Bordo points out, that “The pathologies of female protest function, paradoxically, as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produce them, reproducing rather than transforming precisely that which is being protested” (464). The “protest” doesn’t fight against the pathology, but rather, it perpetuates it. The so-called solution that culture has rendered, the so-called protest, only feeds the cultural monster of the body in Western culture. And this sense of pathology, as I pointed out above, now goes beyond the production of femininity. It is a problem that is now blind to gender.

But now that we are aware of the problems and paradoxes of body and its relationship to Western culture, how do we even begin to solve them? We need to reconsider not only our theories and approaches towards gender and the body, but also the practices that we engage in as a response to these issues.

References:

Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print. 460 – 466.

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Do You Hate Your Body? Western Culture, Gender, and Body Issues

  1. Midnight Snack Serial says:

    I think the scary part when it comes to the cultural implications of the body towards the biological comes with the middle aged commuity that believes that they are rightly entitled to hang out with twenty year olds on the basketball court. It was one thing with old dudes wanting to have sex with little to no trouble again but I am seeing a lot of advertisements about low testosterone and how men in their 40s should be able to regulate it and regain their former physical glory. This pharmalogical dependency on achieving a nostalgic/ideal body image is scary to me. It’s one thing to have athletes get steroids to keep in top shape and make more millions, it’s quite another that average guys out there want to go to similar unnecessary extremes rather than accept their new reality.

    But back to the original topic, there are a lot of ways that people rebel against society through the outward appearance of their bodies. Tattoos, piercings, and other forms of body modification can be just as much about self expression as wanting society to feel uncomfortable towards to you not being the norm. Anorexia more than anything else is actually dangerous to the person, crippling one’s life span just as much as morbid obesity. And yet it weirdly reminds me of Ghandi and other activists that changed the world through hunger strikes and ultimately could fall under the definition of anorexia. Maybe it’s a cry for attention without the large scale direction that all those other visionaries once had. Just imagine a significant percentage of the population actively disregarding society’s recommended body images with the hope of bringing about a passive revolution of sorts. What a beautiful (though somewhat unattractive) world would come of it.

  2. Angel Daniel Matos says:

    Thank you so much for your deep insights! I’m glad you brought the issue of age and body modification into this discussion, for as you pointed out, they very much respond to the tension that exists between the body and the exterior world. It turns out though, the rebelling against the system can be crushing and downright futile at times. I remember that when I had my ear piercings, some people used to look down on me as an academic and even as a teacher… I thought they were cool and attractive, but people simply perceived this as a form of rebellion (perhaps it came from an unconscious desire to rebel, who knows).

    I wonder what is entailed with accepting your reality when it comes to the body. I mean, when it comes down to it, there isn’t something inherently wrong with the fact of older men hanging out with younger men… but there is something uncanny and “weird” about it. Is this something that is culturally taught to us as well?

  3. Midnight Snack Serial says:

    Everyone does something to push the limit of their exterior to see what you are really comfortable with, the problem is that everyone refers to these as phases, sometimes rebellius, rather than a personal exploration of who you really are. You certainly reminder my short foray into facial hair during thesis writing that just made me look freaking evil (something I’m not repeating for the disseration writing process). I think that culturally speaking we are expected to hang out with “our own” and sometimes the easiest demarcation of those group lines is people of your approximate age. I find myself somewhat out of place as the old man of the Gaming Club, which normally contains undegrads, and my graduate colleagues of which I am many times the youngest in the room. To top it all off, having a body that is biologically unruly (I don’t want to say defficient but it seems like the only appropiate term)makes it more complicated when in either of the above scemarios you are the only one with osteoperosis and other health issues. My one solace is the personal motivation to change this body of mine through regular exercise and whatnot. And no, it’s not because I want to better fit the eye candy modelthat the media keeps pushing on me. It’s a choice based on the deep personal nightmare that someday someone will depend on my strength, my speed, or something and I can’t let them down.

    Perhaps that’s what makes bulimia so interesting, it’s an issue of control over the body beyond it’s most basic pleas. That conscious choice is a thousand times scarier to think about for the intelligentsia of Western culture than a lot of starving malnourished people who have no choice but to starve themselves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s