Monday, February 24, 2014

The Difficulty of Being In Your Body

I get twitchy when people talk about implementing uniforms in school, particularly "to crack down on bullying".  I attended Catholic school from kindergarten to my freshman year of high school, and a big thing I realized - instead of being made fun of because of what you wore - since everyone had to wear the same thing - it was much more personal: your body, your face, your background - whether you were too fat, too thin, too dark, too light, too tall, too short, too whatever.  All of which are elements about yourself that are not easily changed, and can seriously impact your self-esteem and how you interact with the world. When my family moved and I ended up going to a public high school,  I noticed was that while some people may not have cared for my style of dress, no one made fun of my body or background, nor did I observe it with anyone else.

That contrast in experiences came to the forefront of my mind this past weekend, as I gave two back-to-back sessions of "Tempest's Guide to Style", which focuses on how to make flattering choices in costume for your body, regardless of age, size, or style.  In order to figure out how to do this, every participant examines his/her own body-lines to determine the shapes that make it up, what they need to emphasize, and what they want to downplay.  It's not an easy task, but it's amazing how people react when they start to look with fresh eyes not only at their own body, but at others as well.  I believe that every dancer, regardless of their shape, size, age, etc - can look AMAZING on stage - if they are given the tools on how to do it, which includes looking at themselves objectively.

And every time I teach it, it gets me thinking about how we perceive our own bodies versus what other people see - and how we get there.

During those early years of school, the uniform only really served to show others that I was skinny, flat-chested, hairy, and of a mixed background.  It made me feel uncomfortable and very critical of not only myself, but also in defense mode, to be critical of others.  But with the move, going to a new school, and being able to dress how I wanted, I found that I had no desire to be critical of others physically.  Instead, I switched over to "reading" people.  I figured others out more by sensing their energy, body language, and general behavior - not their size, shape, or color.  And as I began to mature as an artist, I became fascinated with lines and shapes - what made each person unusual, and uniquely them.  My senior AP Art portfolio focused on portraits of a particular classmate because I found him intriguing and unique.  

Essentially I learned to look at every person I encountered from the inside-out, instead of the reverse.  And to observe the lines, shapes, and patterns that made them up as part of their existence, versus judgment on who they were or could be.  I see "Betty who is genuinely friendly, energetic, with the beautiful flower tattoo and gorgeous eyes" not "Betty who is short, 40 pounds overweight and shouldn't be eating a hamburger" and "Dreamy Sally with the amazing hair and soothing voice" not "Sally who is very tall and thin and needs to eat more." 

It is certainly not my place to judge someone else's physical appearance nor apply my opinions on what they should or could do with their life and lifestyle choices.  

Yet society (and the glossy media especially) tends to push us to do just that - to judge others and ourselves.  We can be especially way too hard on ourselves, as show by the  prevalence of eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and fad diets.  We develop skewed perceptions of our own bodies, often failing to see the beautiful aspects in favor of blowing out what's wrong.  But we all possess some characteristic that someone else finds amazing and beautiful.  If we could only see that in ourselves! And especially understand that we're all struggling with the trials of the human existence.

I know for me personally, I'd be happy to live in my head/heart/spirit, and not have to focus on my body - it is full of mysteries, changes, and requires constant upkeep! Let's face it - being a physical entity is extremely difficult - for ALL of us.  Every single person out there is having a struggle, regardless of their size, shape, age.

And I know there are probably folks out there going, "Oh sure, that's easy for you to say, you're thin/young/whatever." But again, - we're ALL in this experience together, we all have issues we are dealing with. 
Why make it even harder? Why discount anyone else's experience because of what you THINK they may be about, from their appearance? There is no "greater than" rating between someone who struggles to lose weight and someone struggling to gain or maintain it.  Each is valid.  And aren't we supposed to teaching young people to value actions over image, sincerity over gloss, and that true beauty comes from within first and foremost?

That kind of thinking has to start from within each and every one of us.  For a minute, stop comparing and contrasting yourself to others, and listing what's wrong about your body, and start to think about what's right.  What do you like about yourself today? What about you makes you, you? What is beautiful about you?  I can guarantee you there is at least ONE thing, and probably a heck of a lot more than that. Write it down. Try to do it once a day, for a whole week, and then go back and read them.

Next challenge: the next person you encounter: try to get a sense of who they are, not by what size/color/age they are, but how they feel to you.  Even if it's someone you never end up interacting with - try it and make a note of what you think.  I promise soon you'll start looking at people in a whole new way.

Start with the beauty within, and you'll start to see it not only in yourself, but in those around you.

1 comment:

  1. While poor body image is an issue to be sure, I think its roots are much deeper than physical appearance, but rather to what you conclude at the end of your insightful essay: that it comes from a failure of appreciation of oneself and others.

    Many years ago, I recall sharing a dressing room with an exceptionally beautiful young actress. She was petite, with an industry-ideal physique. She was tearing at her hair -- which was long and blonde, grumbling, "GAHH!! I just can't stand it!" Finally I said, "What impossible image of your hair do you want? From where I'm standing it's perfect!" She paused, but resumed in her "self-perfection" moments later.

    Contrast to my high school days. I was tall and, some thought, pretty. Though I didn't know how to present myself -- in a way that went beyond choice of clothes. I was desperately unpopular and frequently bullied.

    Contrast this with another girl who had a HUGE green birthmark that covered half her face. She didn't wear anything special -- usually the tight jeans and silky button-downs that were the fashion of the day.

    But she had a tough, mischievous attitude that sparkled. And she was never in want of friends.