The Wrong Ideal

I was going to make a bunch of red X's everywhere on this image Nip/Tuck style but my graphics program has possibly bitten the dust so you can just imagine all of them for yourself.
I was going to make a bunch of red X’s everywhere on this image Nip/Tuck style but my graphics program has possibly bitten the dust so you can just imagine all of them for yourself.

Let me tell you exactly what is wrong with me.

That sentence is sitting there, and staring it is like standing at one of those weird five-way intersections in a city that isn’t laid out in a grid, dense buildings convulsing around streets that run towards each other at odd angles. There are a few options, a few paths you can take, and those paths might cross and get you to the same place even if you choose this one or that one or that one. It’s all the same, but the ways to get there are not.

I’m 28 now, and I can truncate my life into little sections and big ones. The theme that stands out among at least two thirds of these sections is the inability to fully appreciate myself, and I am endlessly apologizing and explaining and fucking up and comforting and writing and reading and watching and discussing and bottling up and breaking down and rising up because of it. There has been an evolution from the self-erasure of anorexia to the self-betrayal of bulimia mixed into the erasure that preceded it to the hollow sorting out of the damages left behind.

In case you need a reminder, here is how I looked when I was eating disordered up to my eyeballs.
In case you need a reminder, here is how I looked when I was eating disordered up to my eyeballs.

So it’s hard to choose what to tell you is wrong with me, but there has been and continues to be a lot. And I’ll admit it here because this is one of few venues I have in which I’m not either enjoying the respite of being a blank, anonymous face to people I don’t know or dredging through the overexposure of myself to the few people I trust and love–it’s another purgatory. My audience is faceless and mostly nameless and, in my mind, hypothetical as much as it is real. This isn’t as brave, although it is possibly as questionable, as standing out in the middle of the street and screaming my shortcomings and my fears and my struggles, but writing in a publicly-accessible format is my best current attempt at extending myself enough to be voluntarily vulnerable. So let’s get to the catharsis, because that’s the juice you should be rewarded with if you’ve actually managed to read the block of text preceding the next paragraph.

Here is what is wrong with me–with my body. My legs are not elegant and long enough and they’re not thick and muscular enough. My ass is either not perky enough or it’s not large enough, or maybe both, or maybe it’s not small enough. My chest is probably too small although it’s too wide (because of the colar bones, you see, although for a while those were en vogue), I have too much body fat but I also may have too little and my pectoral muscles are making the whole thing a lot more awkward so I should make sure I either build those up or I get rid of them entirely. My back is far too muscular, although I could have a better lat taper and actually, I could stand to build a better trap/rear delt setup and my shoulders are certainly, absolutely too big but they’re also not really capped in appearance so, I don’t know, I should probably fix both of those things. My torso is ridiculously short and my waist-to-hip ratio horrendously poor; science says it is a miracle that I’ve ever managed to be found attractive by a member of my species in my life. My arms are definitely too large in proportion to the rest of me and they’re throwing the rest of my proportions into an uglier tailspin, two great jointed pillars drifting along in time with the rest of my body as I move from one point to another.

Once again, you're going to have to throw in some x's on my body here because GIMP and my computer are no longer friends.
Once again, you’re going to have to throw in some x’s on my body here because GIMP and my computer are no longer friends.

I cannot tell you how ridiculous it is to type that paragraph–how much indignation rises as I summarize the contradictions I now spend a fair amount of time trying to sort out for myself–contradictions that arose from what was originally a sincere attempt to subvert one set of ideals. Here’s the lesson for today–you cannot subvert one set of ideals by implanting another next to it. It doesn’t work. It’s why saying “strong is the new skinny” is bullshit and so is “real women have curves” and so is “all bass no treble” and whatever the fuck else we’re coming up with today to box everyone into meeting one ideal and saying “fuck you mate, you’re screwed” to those who don’t. Nothing human is ever ideal. To those of us predisposed to thinking things are black and white polarized boxes of good and bad, ideals are fantastic and we try to fit into them so people will call us “good” and we will be loved and fucked and respected and obeyed and saved. Because that is what makes sense. Failing an ideal means loss, dismissal, contempt, repulsion. I self-enslave over ideals because, in part, our very culture loves ideals. Because I grew up in a house steeped in judgment and dated men who built their identities out of the judgment of others–I loved and sought love from a those who took comfort in the predictability of the ideal.

I’m not blaming anybody here. My history is really not the point. What’s most striking to me is how much the act of reflecting on the convolution of two particular ideals–the female physical ideal championed by white Western culture and the female physical ideal coveted by the lifting and strength world–leaves me shaking my head in absolute disbelief. You don’t fix generations of body image issues by introducing new ideals. Sure, the new ideals are going to exist and the trends are going to come and go–I swear the flapper flat-chested elongated body of the 1920’s which is itself a nod to the far older Mannerist trend is going to rear its head out of a decades-old grave one of these days–but if we’re going to address the reparation of how we’ve talked about women’s bodies, trying to take the body that strength training might build and elevate it as the answer to all our eating disordered, body dysmorphic, image-obsessed issues amounts to shooting ourselves in our feet. It looks like a good answer, but when we embrace it we end up preventing ourselves from moving forward. You’ve read this before, but I’ll write it again: we’re not going to fix skinny worship by supplanting it with a singular worship of another type. Singular is not inclusive; whatever ideal you choose as the next skinny, you are right back to a focus that is as misdirected as it is narrow-minded. 

So out of all of this, here is my suggestion: if you struggle with a sense of how much you don’t measure up at a physical level, make a list of everything that’s wrong with you. The absurdity of the contradictions that will stare back at you should you cross-check your list with several sets of ideals beloved by this culture or that subculture is kind of great. Doing this exercise might not solve all of your problems, but it will have you peeking out of your box a little bit more.

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7 thoughts on “The Wrong Ideal

  1. Janis, I think you look amazing.. that picture up on top looks SO strong and so powerful, that I can’t pick out one bad thing about it. I am slightly envious of your ability to grow such shoulders and your legs look fantastic!

    I think it is so true that we are our worst critics, and your contradictory paragraph summarizes it quite well – we will never be satisfied, and even when we reach what we think is some ideal, there will be something else we think is wrong.

  2. I’ve been a lurker of yours for years but this post inspired me to leave a comment. I think you are an inspirational badass and I’m glad you’re sharing your journey with the world!

  3. It’s the end of my work day and I was perusing blogs. I came across yours in a Google search. I just wanted to drop a quick line and say you’re awesome, very insightful and inspiring.

  4. I struggle with body dysmorphia and it’s reared it’s ugly head during my smallest, weakest, fittest, and even now as I try to put on weight to get stronger. I too thought chasing a goal, like eating in a way to build strength, would fix me and help me love myself in a way that I never could. It hasn’t. It’s like you said, I’ve only replaced one ideal body image with another. It’s a crushing vicious circle and I’m coming to terms with the thought that I might not ever look in the mirror and feel satisfied with what I see.
    I do know that chasing strength and adding weight to the bar leaves me more satisfied at the end of the day. Thank you for writing here and allowing this to be an outlet for some of your very personal feelings/triumphs. You never know who you’ll influence.

    1. I LOVED this comment. You rock. I am so glad you put your story out here–I know it has to be much more and I hope you share your own in the future as doing so has the potential to help so many people. Cheers to you.

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