Sometime ago one of my facebook friends posted pictures of classical art that had been altered so that the women in them – mostly figures of Venus – conformed to the new “preferred body type.”
At least two of the figures looked disgusting – as in, so thin that they bordered on sickly. Twiggy arms and legs. I mentioned this.
Someone immediately chimed in to the intent that there was no shame in our culture preferring athletic bodies to sedentary ones.
Where to begin?
First of all most of the Venuses (though not all) in the classical paintings don’t have sedentary bodies. Yes, they have curves, but they look perfectly toned. Look up Boticelli’s Venus if you don’t believe me.
Second, this person insisted that he’d seen many women like this in his own gym, that well-conditioned healthy bodies looked like this, and of course, we were just making arguments that it wasn’t fair, but beauty was never fair and blah, blah, blah.
Beauty isn’t fair. And I’m not making claims that my current body should be considered wonderful – it’s been out of kilter since I spent six months in bed, during my pregnancy with Robert. Between that and one of the more severe cases of pre-eclampsia the doctor told me she’d seen (I was retaining more than 50 lbs of water. I lost forty pounds via catheter the first two days. My joints were permanently changed.) and the post partum depression that ate the following year and that (while I was still active, we moved twice and prepared a house for sale in that year) made my eating and exercise very odd (there was the day of the twelve meringues. No, I’m not going to discuss it) and a complete break with my habits before, I’ve never quite found my balance.
Which doesn’t mean that I come by my weight honestly, or that it is a sign of present (or more than a month or two, while the balance of my mind was disturbed) gluttony or sedentary living. This year has been terrible for my walking, but normally I walk at least three miles a day, and I do a lot of physical work around the house. Also, although this might strike people as odd, I don’t eat the world. In fact, the worst that can be said for my eating habits is that they’re very weird. I prefer to grab small snacks on the run, and hate having to sit down for at least a meal a day, though I do it because I think it encourages family cohesion.
Could I be thin again? Sure. At various times in my life I’ve lost weight though never to close to the weight I was when I had Robert. During one of those periods, my doctor tried to advise me on weight. He said, if I just ate 1200 calories and exercised half an hour a day, I’d be back to a size seven. No, I didn’t listen to him. I didn’t listen to him because at the time I was eating 800 calories and exercising two hours every morning. That’s what it takes to lose weight – very slowly, but never below about a size 14. How is this even possible? I don’t know. I know that we’ve come to the conclusion that there is a lot more to weight than calories, and also that about three years ago I found out the caesarian was botched in a particular way that not only makes my hormones a mess (and caused people to diagnose me as menopausal starting in my mid thirties. And no, I still am not, fully.) but also, likely, makes my body convinced it’s in some state of pregnancy, though not exactly. I don’t know what that does to my body. Neither does anyone else.
However, every time I see a new doctor I get told the same thing. Not “dear lady, let’s work together to find out why your weight is insane. Let’s try this, this and this. If that doesn’t work, then let’s figure out this and that. Oh, and let’s run blood panels and figure it out.” No, it’s always “if you just ate less than 2000 calories and exercised a bare minimum, the weight would drop like a dream.”
This gets old, not because they want me to lose weight. I want to lose weight. It gets old because they treat it like I’m sinning and if I’ll just follow the moral and decent rules, my sin will shed from me.
Okay – I want to lose weight partly because it will make clothes fit better and easier to wear and because, well, d*mn, I used to be gorgeous (and didn’t know it) and though I realize I’m much older, but I’d like to be passable again. I’d like to lose weight before I’m 80.
However, two points: first, women in my family, on my dad’s side, looked much as I do now at my age. We have family pictures. Consider they lived in a society with no convenience foods (not that I use those) and mostly off fish and veggies with some rice and that mostly they worked on their feet, tending subsistence farms and cooking and washing by primitive methods. But their body types – accounting for the fact most were shorter than I – are indistinguishable from mine.
The other point is that I’m not out of shape. Okay, okay, this year I am. When I have respiratory stuff and go out of breath and cough at any exertion, I cut back on my exercise. And yeah, I feel icky about it, not least because when I’m not exercising I don’t sleep well and that has other effects. So, part of my plan as soon as I feel better is to get back in shape, and I hope to start that over the holidays. However, out of shape for me means I feel somewhat tired after walking three miles at a fast pace, not that I can’t walk around the block without getting winded, nor that I can’t carry clothes from the basement two flights up without gulping for air. (Unless I carry three baskets at once and run. Which I do sometimes. Sigh. You see, I have this inner teen boy. He does crazy stuff. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Yes, it scares the cats.)
Again though – this is not a defense of my body. My friend Kate says we Odds are as strange in body as in mind, meaning that we have shapes rarely seen in nature.
I could stand to lose fifty or eighty pounds. And when the kids are out of the house and we don’t have to sit down for a meal, I might manage it. Also, cutting carbs keeps me from gaining massively, (I’ve been low carb for four years, and I don’t gain as fast, though I still gain, mostly seeming to be related to hormones) and maybe cutting dairy (which I haven’t managed because I eat on the run and like cheese sticks) might — who knows? — do it. I’ve heard stories.
But that is not the point. I just laid it out so you understand that I don’t expect anyone to consider my body a model of attractiveness, because frankly I don’t. I don’t look like Boticelli’s Venus, and heck, Rubens might balk. As far as I remember my female ancestresses were little and round and I’m working on that as I get older, too.
This is not about the unfairness of beauty or of our standards of beauty. All standards of beauty are unfair and they always were. Women in the renaissance couldn’t have clear skin that easily.
What I’m talking about is the person who came back with the whole notion that these were “athletic” bodies and that you know, anyone who took the trouble to exercise would look like this, so implying that anyone who didn’t was in fact neglecting her appearance AND her health.
At some point, and I can’t find it with a quick search, Instapundit or maybe Ace of Spades linked a photo essay of gold medalist winners (in the Olympics.) These people were by definition in peak condition. About 10% of the women conformed to the body type that’s considered “beautiful” – and I’d have thought they were unhealthily thin, but I clearly was wrong. Some of them – and not the weight lifters, either – looked almost as I do. All were in peak condition.
(Part of my issue with any weight measures is that I put on muscle at a distressing rate for a woman who doesn’t want to look like Attila the Hun. I laughed at the description in Monstrous Regiment about the woman who could carry a pig under each arm, because that would be me with very little effort. Even when I was a size seven, I weighed about 30 lbs more than people expected, and doctors kept telling me I should be thirty pounds lighter, even though stripped you could see all my bones without an x-ray and I hadn’t been that weight since I’d grown to my adult height. OTOH I could always beat the “guess your weight” games in carnivals!)
I don’t have any problems with the current standards of beauty as standards of beauty. The only person I want to please would like me to lose a few pounds, but loves me anyway.
As some of you know I draw and since I can’t convince anyone to pose for me, and if I brought in young women to pose it would annoy the neighbors and corrupt the boys (er… or amuse them) I use model cds. This one is my favorite. Healthy, pleasant looking young women, right? No problems with it. There is one book, which I can’t find now, where the models look anorexic. I can’t find it because I don’t use it. But that one is okay. In fact I find the live models series, which has more realistic body types a little embarrassing. I really don’t need to see 60 year olds nude. Yes, there’s beauty in the human form of all types, but I’m enough of a prude to feel embarrassed.
What I object to is the assumption that if you don’t fit the very skinny (more than the virtual pose 3 models) standard of beauty, you’re somehow flabby, out of shape, and well… a sinner. “You should be taking better care of yourself.” “You shouldn’t eat so much junk food.” (Unless you count the occasional string cheese stick, I eat none.) “You should stay off fast food” (what all two times a year?) and “You should exercise at least half an hour.”
I believe the current preference for smaller bodies IS part of the exteriorization of the thought that we should not be better off than others. It’s the same as the preference for spare interiors, something that started in the early twentieth century with guilt over WWI and a turn to egalitarian ideas. Each age has the aesthetics it deserves, and no sane woman tries to fit those (I’m not for natural Barbie, either.)
To me it’s all pretty much academic, since I took myself out of that race decades ago.
BUT the whole conflation of beauty with health (and heck, we know that’s not true) and of failing to conform with sin bothers me, at a level I can’t begin to describe.
It’s entirely possible that I’m desperately unhealthy. I do keep getting sick. I think that’s mostly because I lived under great stress for a dozen years. I mean, what will shock you is how often Dave Freer and I are sick with the same stuff at the same time. What we have in common is stress, nothing else.
However, the fat or lack thereof is not a good indication of this. My ancestresses all lived to their late eighties or more. And they were, by our standards, rotund. (It’s unlikely I’ll live as long because of that truly awful pregnancy and also because of a certain respiratory fragility. OTOH who knows? If we don’t destroy our medicine, there is hope.)
And yes, I do realize that “you don’t fit in” has ALWAYS been a sin. Might be the only “sin” society recognizes. Much of what was wrong with the virtual theocracy of the middle ages is that no matter how good or just a religion might be, when it becomes an instrument of social cohesion, it’s going to view external things as marks of sin.
But part of the problem we have right now is confusing moral feelings and feelings of social cohesion with science. We feel uncomfortable when people don’t fit, and we try to show they’re wrong “because science.”
So, the fact that I consider some of the twiggy bodies in the pictures as icky bothered someone who had to defend them as “athletic” (bah. I could carry one of them under each arm and run one mile. I don’t think anyone with those arms and legs COULD run one mile.) and healthy. Because, social cohesion.
And the fact that most doctors have bought this one size fits all thing too kept me from seeing new doctors for over ten years. Because I didn’t want the lecture. Telling me “you’re aware you’re overweight” is stupid, unless you think I’m mentally retarded. And telling me to eat under 1200 calories and exercise half an hour a day is fine, but if I tell you what I’m actually doing , don’t say “impossible.”
Dave Freer once told me that every zoo keeper knows that animals – sometimes animals of the same litter – have widely different dietary and exercise requirements. The only place this isn’t recognized is human biology, where if you aren’t getting the same results as anyone else, you must be a sinner and evil and a glutton.
You figure it out.
I have grown resigned to the fact I have the type of body that makes me “woman, strong like bull, pulls plow in field.” In my mind, I wanted to be the long slim English beauty type. But in my mind, I’d also like to have a talent for music and not transpose digits when doing calculations. I can do a little towards it, but not that much. And btw, I’d be more likely to manage those last two, given my heredity, than the first.
So, why is this whole thing bothering me so much?
Because our medical establishment has bought into “one set of guidelines” and “one healthy body type” and “one way to obtain it.” … and if the government enforces their control over our health, a body type that’s not “Athletic” might consign us to inferior or even no treatment.
After all, if we don’t take the trouble to keep ourselves in shape, why bother to heal us?
That is what is wrong with central control of medicine. But it’s also wrong with viewing deviating from social “ideal” as a sin. And believing in one size fits all. And again, this is what is wrong with medicine that aims to ideals not individuals.
How to fix it? I don’t know. To begin with, let’s not handle our health care to bureaucrats. And then we can work on convincing practitioners of medicine that one size does NOT fit all.
* No, I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve bought it, thanks to Kim Du Toit who has infected me with Evelyn Waugh who — for whatever reason — had escaped my reading before. ATH is CULTURE.