Thinking Beings with Corporeal Forms

brain_in_a_jar

I’ve always been smart, and I’ve always known it. But as a young girl, I was never considered pretty, or cool, or attractive. And I knew that, too. I envied my peers; Envied their trendy clothes and sleek hair, envied their confidence and style, envied their seemingly effortless beauty. But I had no idea what to do with my own body, my own style, and was so mystified by my physical self that I often wished I could just be a brain in a jar: Undeniably smart, able to enjoy my intellectual prowess unencumbered by the irritating physical world. I was comfortable and confident in myself as a thinker, but timid and awkward as a do-er.

I eventually came to hate my body. A lot. Once puberty set in and boys became of interest, my body was no longer ignorable. Because with courtship came scrutiny and comparison, and the realization that my body was imperfect, awkward, big, wrong, unwieldy, and undesirable. My exterior disappointed me in ways that my interior never had. So from an early age and well through college, I gravitated toward formless clothing that hid everything about my body. I wanted to divert attention from my exterior and force people to focus on my interior. And I figured hiding my body was the best way to do that.

Because, after all, I was never going to be beautiful. The only kind of beautiful I’d ever seen acknowledged and revered was the kind that Hollywood and TV, magazines and advertisements fed me: Tall and thin with no hips, lush breasts, and sinewy arms, no body hair, a flawless tan, and nary a wrinkle, blemish, or unsightly patch of cellulite.

At a certain point, the pressure to conform to that single proffered standard of beauty began to build. And although I continued to dress my exterior in figure-masking clothes, I began trying to diet my way into Jen Aniston’s body. I’d never be tall and only surgery would make my breasts anything approaching “lush” … but at least I could be thinner. And thin seemed important. There followed many years of riding the aptly-named Diet Rollercoaster, as I attempted to force my body into a shape it did not want to take. I’d drop fifteen pounds after months of depriving myself, only to gain it back once I couldn’t handle the unnatural food restrictions any more. Then I’d begin the cycle all over again, hating my stubborn, un-lovely body all the while.

When I moved to Minnesota in the year 2000, I’d been dieting on and off for years without changing anything else about my behavior. And since I was ready to acknowledge that it wasn’t making me thinner – much less healthier – I finally joined a gym. And as I discovered my own physical strength, my body-hatred began to soften. It actually felt good to put my brain-holder to work. And simultaneously, I began to take an interest in clothes. I mean, I’d always LIKED clothes, but I’d never thought about their potential as tools for figure flattery. A friend mentioned in passing that she wore long skirts to downplay her hips and a lightbulb went off: If I changed how I dressed, I could change how I presented my body to the observing world.

And although I stuck with the exercise – rather grudgingly at first – it was the explorations of style that sparked my passion and creativity. I began looking for clothing that worked with my body just as it was: V-necks to soften my square chin, full skirts to float over my hips, belts to accentuate my waist, platforms to give me that longed-for height. And, amazingly, my confidence began to build. Finding clothes that worked with my natural assets and highlighted what I loved about my body taught me that I didn’t HAVE to change myself to feel beautiful, strong, comfortable, and happy in my physical form. I didn’t have to look like a model to feel like a woman. And that realization was so freeing.

Although I’d love to say that I stopped hating my body altogether, that is still a daily struggle. Women are constantly told that they should be thinner, younger, prettier, sexier, and dozens of other beauty-related mandates that make us feel wretched about ourselves and convince us to shell out for mascara, diet pills, Botox, and push-up bras. But I stopped dieting. And I stopped constantly, exhaustively hating myself. And I realized that my brain-in-a-jar fantasy would’ve led to a hollow life because my body is strong and capable and as much a part of my unique identity as my intellect. To shun the physical in favor of the intellectual would create the same imbalance as focusing all my energy on my body and none on my mind.

Women are taught that their value is contingent upon their beauty, and that the definition of beauty is narrow and doesn’t include them. And so they become trapped into believing that they are fundamentally flawed, inferior, and unworthy because they fail to conform to a nearly-impossible norm. They hate their bodies, and they don’t know how to stop hating their bodies. And while it could be argued that teaching women to dress to their figures instead of fighting their figures – teaching women to utilize clothing to express their creativity and embrace their natural, god-given loveliness – merely feeds that cycle, I believe that learning to value your exterior can improve your relationship with your interior. That there IS a connection between looking good and feeling good.

Because we are not merely one or the other. We are not brains in jars, and we are not zombified bodies. We are thinking beings with corporeal forms, and if we are to love ourselves holistically and truly, we must learn to value and cherish the physical alongside the intellectual. We must explode the definition of beauty, and include ourselves in it. Beauty is not a waist-to-hip ratio, or an age bracket, or a cup size. Beauty is not a skin color or hair type or height range. And beauty is not the exclusive currency of the patriarchy, the exclusive domain of the heterosexual, or the exclusive territory of the wealthy and powerful. There is no right or wrong way to be beautiful. We are told that beauty is specific, but beauty is diverse. We are told beauty is exclusive, but beauty is inclusive. We are told that in order to be beautiful we must fit certain specifications. But if we can find ways to make ourselves FEEL beautiful, then the rules about LOOKING beautiful become immediately moot.

And since changing our bodies to fit arbitrary standards can be frustrating, harmful, and counterproductive, I suggest changing how we present our bodies instead. Dressing can be a mindless chore, or it can be a daily celebration of all that is wondrous and worthy about our physical forms. Dressing can connect our interior selves to our exterior selves.

I learned to love my body by learning to dress it well, and I encourage all women who struggle with body image to explore style as an alternative to diets and tummy tucks. I’m still smart.

But now I know that I’m pretty, too. In fact, it turns out I was pretty all along.

*This is a portion of a presentation I give on the intersection of style and body image. You can hear me giving it here.
Image source

  • e

    “It actually felt good to put my brain-holder to work.”

    Oh Sally, this whole thing is so wonderful, and I like that sentence, too, so much! It’s still challenging at times but I’ve ended up having such fun with my brain-holder over the years.

  • Sallie

    Thanks! I needed to hear that. Even though I have come so very far in acceptance of my body, I still have days where I think I should be thinner, fitter, etc. etc. Today happened to be that day, so your post reminded me that I’m SO MUCH MORE than what my mind is telling me. I so appreciate your posts Sally. It’s my little pick-me-up everyday!

  • http://www.reverseretrograde.com Coleen

    I love this article! It’s so empowering, and a challenge to the ways I often think about my body and my intellectual life.

    I want to add the voice of a woman who was considered to be traditionally pretty her whole life. Although it can be helpful in a world that values specific standards of beauty, growing up as a tall blonde with big boobs and blue eyes wasn’t easy. I struggled with the compliments people paid to me, especially as I came to realise that men often wanted more than just to look at me. Around the time I entered high school I realised that my body was garnering unwanted attention. I tried my hardest to cover it up. I never wore skirts. I wore my hair up almost every day. I stopped wearing makeup. I went so far as to wear the same grey hoodie every day in the winter, so that my body was hidden under masses of shapeless fabric.

    At uni, I dressed conservatively. A close friend once remarked that I had the biggest boobs of any girl he knew, but I never “showed off my boob crack.” I wore high-collared black shirts to the bars. I still rarely dared wear a dress. None of this did much to help my female friends to be supportive. I could never turn to them if I felt “unpretty”, even if it was true for me, because they wouldn’t believe me. They put me down and accused me of stealing their male prospects.

    After I began travelling, my looks became a liability. In South America and Italy, blonde hair and pale skin are often the ideal. I had men ask me how much I cost for the night, as I was clearly a prostitute. I finally had enough after five months in Chile, and dyed my hair dark brown to stop the comments and staring. So much of my identity to others had been wrapped up in being The Blonde, or The Blonde Bombshell. It was liberating to be free of those assumptions, but I didn’t feel like me. I feel sad today that I felt I should change myself in order to stop the ways people think about me.

    Women (and men) have so many unrealistic rules, regulations, and expectations put upon them based on looks. They are so pervasive that they benefit no one, not even those who appear to fit them.

    • Robin

      Thank you for this perspective. It’s important for us all to remember that a world that likes to put people into tiny boxes isn’t really free for anyone.

  • Jennifer

    Wow, powerful article. Amazing how long it can take people to start valuing all of themselves when it should be the one thing we all do.

    While I too was aware of my intellectual abilities from early on, I never developed the physical doubts that society tried to impose. Perhaps I was too rational as a child, but I called BS on all of it. I think I had a pretty honest view of myself, mind and body, and just accepted it. Others tried to change that, but I didn’t go for it. I realized I wasn’t the prettiest girl in the world, but I certainly didn’t feel slighted in the looks department. I was who I was. Once in high school, things did start to affect me. I was still rail thin with no boobs and had short hair most of my life, certainly never to be confused for a cheerleader and boys certainly noticed. As in, couldn’t get a date with a boy to save my life. I was never the outwardly flirty type and refused to do things to “entice” boys. If they didn’t like me for who and what I was, they could take a hike. I wasn’t going to go chasing after them. It hurt at the time, but I got over it. My friends at the time despaired for me, tried to get me to grow my hair long, dress more attractively (i.e. provocatively), etc. I would occasionally play along with their schemes just to get them off my back, but it just wasn’t me. I was becoming a charity case to all my friends because I didn’t want to compromise myself to appease someone else’s idea of who I should be. I also learned a valuable lesson on true friends, but that’s a different story. Of course, college changed everything. It really did get better. I met all sorts of interesting people who accepted me for who I was and thought I was just fine the way I was. Even boys started to notice me. I don’t have a young person in my life right now who could benefit from some advice in this department, but if I did I’d be sure to let them know. My own boys are still too young but I hope that they’ll never fall prey to a predefined notion of beauty. I’ll certainly try my best to thwart it.

  • Courtney

    You’ve really encapsulated all of the work I’ve been doing in the last few years for myself on body image, exercise, and style. I’m an academic who has always been on the chubby side, but hating my body (whilst prizing my intellect) was exhausting. Quitting dieting, actually exercising regularly, and getting a job that necessitated figuring out how to dress professionally and well – these things have really been transformative for me. And your blog has helped me both with the style and articulating my body image issues! Thanks so much for your work.

  • http://sololisa.com Lisa

    That feeling of being a brain in a jar stuck with me until I was 18, when my boyfriend at the time told me I was pretty. I’d never thought of myself as such until that moment, so I understand where you’re coming from, Sal.

  • Francine

    This is a moving and well-written essay. I have always felt more comfortable with the brain-in-a-jar outlook, even knowing that that was unhealthy. It’s an ongoing struggle. And you’re so right, no one can ever win, even if they seem to meet the commercial ideals. The REAL commercial ideal is “insecure,” because insecure people buy more stuff. Meanwhile, you and other fashion bloggers have done so much to democratize and individualize fashion — viva la revolución!

  • Distracted Frog

    To me, beauty was always connected to laziness. Capitalizing on intelligence requires work, but (as I concluded at 13), beauty gets you everything for nothing. I was and still am very lazy, so the idea appealed to me. I wanted to be beautiful for the perks, and I hated my acne, my glasses, my hair, and my seven-dollar haircut. I didn’t even consider using makeup or styling my hair because that would have been effort and the whole point was that I wanted the rewards of beauty without the effort.

    I did (and still do when not at work / meeting someone else’s parents / dressed up for a dress-up occasion) show as much skin as possible. I discovered that if my skirt is short enough, nobody notices my hair or facial blemishes. This strategy did get me some free assistance with my suitcases when I was younger (then I learned to pack so I can manage them myself).

    I never really bothered feeling inadequate about my looks. More like, resentful and annoyed that there were perks to be gotten and I wasn’t getting them, and worried that I would not be able to attract a “quality” man.

    Then I realized even beautiful people have to put in effort in order to really get anywhere, that I meet minimum attractiveness standards of many men, and that to the type of men I tend to like (calm, rational ones) my laid-back, logical personality is probably more valuable than beauty above their minimal standard. I still don’t put effort into my appearance (it can be better used on other pursuits), but my clothes are nice (since clothes must be worn and nice ones aren’t any more effort to buy or wear than ugly ones) and my haircut is more flattering.

  • https://twitter.com/eauderosie Emily

    This is a great post. It breaks my heart that we aren’t taught (at least, not typically) from an early age to see beauty in everyone, not just a couple of celebrities. Sometimes when I go to museums, I see old paintings of women who kinda look like me, and I feel a little bit vindicated.

  • Marylynn

    I am sorry that you had to go through so much to get here. It is curious and interesting that you choose to focus on body image as a career choice, for someone with such a body image problem. It almost sounds like this is your therapy.

    I think there are so much more in life and so many other things one can do to enrich his or her own life, despite their struggles. Talking about body image evey other day sounds so exhausting, tedious, and counterproductive.

  • Fran

    Great post and also great responses. I definitely saw/see myself the same way. Thanks, Sally!

  • Erika

    Healthy mind in healthy body (mens sana in corpore sano).

    It takes very little to change the wording from “the realization that my body was imperfect, awkward, big, wrong, unwieldy, and undesirable” to “the realization that my body was unique, wonderful, strong, awesome, and desirable”. The pity is that social constructs stop that perception.

    Despite some physical issues, my body serves me well. That’s pretty awesome, so I try to honour it every day, even if it’s simple things like good food and skin cream :)

  • TexasAggieMom

    Thank you for this beautiful articulation of the very real struggle so many of us face or have faced with our body image over the years. Although I have certainly evolved both mentally and physically since my teens, and am generally considered to be attractive for a mid-50’s woman, there are still days I can only see myself as others saw me in my formative years. Even being at my ideal weight with medals from running events including a half marathon hanging near my bathroom mirror doesn’t always prevent negative thoughts from forming, in spite of tangible evidence to the contrary. It’s a journey, friends. Thanks to Sally for being an encouragement to so many of us, and best wishes to us all for daily progress on these issues!

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  • http://www.theconfidentstitch.com Kate McIvor

    Excellent post. I know I will refer to it many many times. When you write beautiful posts like this, I want to crown you Queen of the Blogosphere! Thanks.

  • Amanda

    Yay yay yay! So lovely.

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  • http://www.lovelifestyleandstuff.com Tracey

    So sad that the media would have us believe that we need to look a certain way to be happy, popular and loved. I join with you in the pain and negative conditioning you experience as a first world female. I have worked with clients who won’t wear colour because they don’t feel they deserve to because they feel such shame about their bodies. It is a fairly ridiculous state of affairs when there are children starving in Africa and we don’t feel worthy of love because we don’t fit in to a narrow conformist view, funded by a multi billion dollar industry that is invested in perpetuating this self-loathing. Ever wondered if a ‘model’ is happier in her life, more loved, more secure, just because her looks create the illusion that she is? I sincerely doubt it. “We are all worthy of love and belonging” – Brene Brown. Let’s celebrate our freedom from this regime and enjoy the ‘trappings’ of our womanliness or manliness and our first world privileges and access to all the lovely things we can use to express our inner beauty on the outside. Overcoming the negative conditioning is a skill we must practise every day. Be kind to ourselves, and be kind to others on the same journey.
    Thanks Sal, love your work,
    Tracey