Category Archives: Body Image

Body Policing: keep it to yourself

An infographic always helps

By any account, I am in good physical condition: I am strong, fit, flexible, I have excellent cardiovascular endurance, my blood pressure and cholesterol are in the ideal ranges, and I am lucky enough to not have any health problems (I have funky knees that like to go out of joint but thanks to pilates and strength training, they are stronger and more reliable now than they ever have been).

I have difficulty, like most American women, getting through an entire day without feeling completely shitty about myself and my body. This is not helped by the fact that as a professional dancer, I spend many hours each day in front of a mirror trying to get my body to perform in very specific ways, and comparing my body to the bodies of others.

Over the last three years, I have transitioned from another profession (writing) into dancing and teaching full-time, and as a result, I have had to switch from being essentially a reader and writer to an athlete. I have had to change my eating habits, my exercise requirements, and I have trained many many hours to be able to function as the kind of dancer that I would like to be. I am not at my peak level of performance yet, but I’m working on it.

That transition has altered my body pretty substantially – there is a visible change in my appearance, and especially if someone hasn’t seen me for awhile, that’s the first thing they comment on. I know – I KNOW! – that they are trying to be nice. That they are trying to say, hey, you look great, good for you, mazel tov. But what they’re actually saying is, hey, thanks for better conforming to my culturally-dictated ideals of what you should look like.

Here’s a sampling of the shit I have heard (reproduced here verbatim) in the past week alone:

*     *     *

“You just get prettier and prettier every day. Most people, you know, when they lose weight, they get ugly in the face, and they look all gaunt and thin. But not you. Your face looks so much better than it used to.”

“You are literally half the woman you used to be. Half. Literally.”

“Oh, wow, I didn’t even recognize you. That’s crazy! You are – you look, like, totally different. I mean… (in a whisper) you’ve lost, like, a LOT of weight, right?”

*     *     *

It is pretty typical of the body-policing bullshit I hear on a regular basis.

Clearly my body is public property, and commentary on it is totally fine and normal and everybody has the right to voice their opinions about it to me, without any regard for how I might feel about it, because OBVIOUSLY I must be happy that they are noticing weight loss which is INVARIABLY a good thing. My body is public property not because I am a dancer (although that doesn’t help), but because I am a woman.

And in our culture, women’s bodies are forums for public discussions at all times.

Because being a total badass isn’t enough – you have to be THIN & PRETTY

If that fact is not self-evident to you, then you are either incredibly unobservant or an idiot or both. Think of all the crap that gets said about women in the public sphere – Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Sarah Palin, even adorable Gabby Douglas. Endless shit is said about their wardrobe, their glasses, their hair, their weight. And those aren’t even women whose job it is to be professionally pretty. God help the ladies who have THAT job; an entire industry exists to sell you information about how they are failing or succeeding (but mostly how they’re failing) in their attempts to conform to impossible cultural standards of beauty. Remember Ashley Judd’s response to that? If you don’t, go read it right now; it’s amazing.

These comments? Make me feel like shit. Why?

Because it’s the other side of the Fantasy of Being Thin, the “magical thinking about thinness, which…is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, ‘When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit’; it’s ‘When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.’ ”

It has fuck-all to do with my abilities as a dancer or my health as a human and EVERYTHING to do with how I look in clothes. This is seriously only about the size of my ass. And that is not your problem. Or your business. See infographic.

SO anthropomorphic(Let me say at this point that this is all about MY experience – brought to you by The Internet, purveyor of self-reflexive commentary. I’m talking about my body and the choices I’ve made about it; not anybody else’s. I subscribe fully to the Underpants Rule: “everyone is the boss of their own underpants so you get to choose for you and other people get to choose from them and it’s not your job to tell other people what to do.” That means that I get to make choices about my life and my body for reasons that seem valid to me and you don’t have to like or agree with them, but, by the same token, if I expect you to respect my choices then I goddamn well better respect yours. So whether you are trying to change your body or you like it how it is or you don’t give half a shit either way, that’s your underpants. Not my business.)

So. I thought the Fantasy of Being Thin was utter bullshit three years ago, and I still think it’s utter bullshit. The problem is, it’s such a powerful cultural trope that if you don’t follow along with it, people get confused. Here’s how the exchange is supposed to go:

Person A: Comments on B’s body and appearance, noting that B is less fat than s/he used to be. (Oh my gosh, you look so great! You must have lost a lot of weight!)

Person B: Thanks A for noticing, agrees that it is wonderful. (Oh, thanks! Yes, I have, thank you – it’s great, I really feel so much better!)

Person A: Asks B how weight loss was achieved, more out of politeness than anything else. (That’s wonderful! What have you been doing?)

Person B: Explains boring details. (Well, I stopped eating carbs/white foods/red meat/bananas/things that start with the letter “k”/entirely. Ohmigosh, it’s really amazing…)

Refusing to engage in this script really fucks with people’s heads. I am not thrilled to death that you are complimenting me for taking up less space. You know what I would be thrilled by? A genuine compliment! People have said to me, hey, you look super fit and you look really strong – that’s awesome! And to them I say, Thank you! It is really cool that you said that, I have been working super hard to achieve the kind of physical performance I want, and I appreciate your noticing it. But you know what I don’t appreciate? The focus on my goddamn WEIGHT.

Someone once said that dancers work as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense, but see, policemen don’t have to be beautiful at the same time.

— George Balanchine

First of all, you know fuck all about how much I weigh. It’s a total mystery to you. You cannot possibly look at me and accurately guess what I weigh. You just can’t.

Furthermore, my weight –

(even if you could tell what it was by looking at me, which you can’t, but let’s assume for one minute that you had a superpower (what a shitty superpower! you could been INVISIBLE!))

– is not a reliable index of ANYTHING. It doesn’t tell you a goddamn thing about my strength, my health, my level of fitness, what I eat or don’t eat, whether I get enough sleep, how my knees feel on any given Sunday. And don’t even try to talk to me about BMI, which is just such bad science that it’s just laughable.

And finally, how the fuck do you know what has caused a change in my appearance? Maybe I have taken up drugs. Or maybe I am seriously ill, or have some really unfortunate health situation that has resulted in a major change in body composition. How do you think I will feel when you congratulate me on that? I just happen to be working on my body’s ever-increasing awesomeness in a super-health conscious way that is predicated on the least insane, most sustainable practices of health I can manage, but again, you DON’T KNOW THAT. I could be engaging in disordered eating, or crazypants fad dieting, or other shit that is profoundly damaging, and here you are telling me what an ace job I’m doing.

In fact, only one person out of the many many many people who have commented on my appearance has asked me about my health. He said, hey, I can’t help noticing that you look different, and I just wanted to ask you if that was something you were deliberately doing, or if it was just a thing, or whatever – regardless, are you happy about it? And I said, honey, thank you for being a sensitive and thoughtful human being! And then I was happy to talk about my situation and what it is all about.

The thing that makes me the most angry is that people, by and large, DO NOT CARE about health or fitness or any of the motivating reasons that I am actually experiencing. The only important thing is that I am wearing a smaller dress size, and that pisses me right the fuck off. Not once has someone said, dude, I have noticed that you are in way better control of your movement, way to fucking go.

(Actually, that’s a lie, my father said that to me but it wasn’t in the context of being less fat, it was in the context of a general observation about my dancing and the context of him being an all-around awesome and supportive person.)

No, the focus is on appearance and appearance only and that sucks out loud. Because dancing is about how what you’ve got inside manifests itself on the outside, how your breath and your spirit and your vitality and your muscles look painted on the canvas of your body. So yeah, it matters what that body looks like, especially in a dance form like ballroom, which has very narrowly-defined ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable. But the body is a MEANS TO AN END, and that end is expression. Shouldn’t we be focusing on that instead of the size of my ass? Tell me about my MOVEMENT, tell me about anything other than my goddamn dress size.

Idealizing the body and wanting to control it go hand-in-hand; it is impossible to say whether one causes the other. A physical ideal gives us the goal of our efforts to control the body, and the myth that total control is possible deceives us into striving for the ideal… In a culture which loves the idea that the body can be controlled, those who cannot control their bodies are seen (and may see themselves) as failures.

— Susan Wendell, “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability,” Hypatia 4:2 (1989), pp. 104-124

Technique–bodily control–must be mastered only because the body must not stand in the way of the soul’s expression.

— La Merl

No, probably I am stupid for thinking that they are different. And I am certainly stupid for expecting ballroom dancers to be sensitive to any kind of nuance. I mean, for God’s sake. Have you seen the costumes we wear?

Nuance is not really our strong suit.

So what I’m really saying is, I’d like you to think about this before you open your mouth and comment to someone on their physical appearance.

And before you lose your shit and say, but, but, but, people are trying to be NICE, why can’t you just accept a COMPLIMENT, remember this: it’s my fucking body. And just because I am outside my house and wearing clothes does NOT give you the right to police it. You don’t get to decide whether it’s good or bad or better or worse or indifferent, I do. And your opinions on that? Maybe keep them to yourself.

You’re never going to go wrong saying to someone, hey, you look great today! or I love that top, or your hair looks cool! That’s super. Because those statements are not RELATIVE VALUE JUDGEMENTS. What’s a relative value judgement? You look better [than you used to] or what you’re wearing is so much cuter [than you usually look] or your hair looks way better short [because when it was long you looked worse].

You don’t know. You don’t know what kind of a day they’ve had, you don’t know what’s going on in their life, you don’t know how they feel about themselves or their body and, if you’re commenting on a change, you REALLY don’t know what’s caused it. You may think you’re being nice, and helpful, and supportive. But your body politics aren’t necessarily mine, and your projection of what you would or wouldn’t like someone to notice about your appearance doesn’t mean that the shit you’re saying to me isn’t damaging.

And you know what they say about good intentions, and paving.

So before you say something, ask yourself one question: does this person ABSOLUTELY NEED TO KNOW what you are telling them? Because if I have lipstick on my teeth or weird mascara marks, I MAY NOT KNOW THAT. You know what I’m real goddamn clear on? The current size, disposition, and arrangement of my body. Do I need to know that you think my face looks better now than it used to? Nope! Do I need to know that you think I am thinner than I used to be? No, I don’t!

When I’m on the floor, feel free. Feel fucking free to comment all day long about what I’m wearing and whether you think my ass is too big and how hideous my hair looks like that and why I shouldn’t wear yellow. That’s fair game. I’m putting myself out there to be judged – by you, by the goddamn judges, by the audience, by everyone.

But on the street, when I am just wandering around as a normal human? Maybe keep it to yourself.

 

Author’s note:

When I originally wrote this, I included specific details about my height, and weight, and I really wanted to keep those in. But in the end, I decided that they were pretty fucking meaningless without some pictures to accompany them and to make the point that YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT [xxx] LBS LOOKS LIKE. So I pulled that out, and I’m unhappy with that choice, but basically, I value my anonymity more. Sorry. But the same point is well made by two collections of photos, My Body Gallery and the BMI project, both of which strive to point out that our understanding of body image is so warped that we have NO CLUE what women actually look like.

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Congratulations to me…

…on not buying a $3800 smooth gown even though it looked SO GOOD when I put it on. So, listen to this.

I was at Emerald over the weekend watching some friends dance and of course I was shopping. Now, a year or so ago I was at Emerald and I don’t really remember what I was wearing, it was random, I looked like a normal human. But I got the coldest fucking shoulder from everybody. Here’s one conversation that occurred when I was looking at costumes a co-worker had asked me to check on for her:

Russian Dress Vendor: Vat you are looking for?

Me: Oh, I’m just browsing.

RDV: Ya, zis dress, is too small for you. Much too small.

Me: I know that, I’m looking for a friend of mine.

RDV: Hmpf. Well, ve don’t have in your size.

Fuck you very much! By contrast, this year I rolled in with my ballroom hair and makeup and in I’m-not-competing-today-but-I-could-be evening wear, best defined as a combination of ballet-inspired clothing mixed with slutty accessories. (My boots were really working overtime in the slutty department.) I still got the obligatory look-up-and-down by most of the randoms who rolled by, but this time instead of blowing me off, the Russian girls gave me fake smiles and the dudes at least got out of my way. Which is ballroom for, you belong here.

The nuttiest thing, which actually made me feel a lot of different feelings, was that I was able to pull smooth gowns off the rack and try them on and they FIT. And fit pretty goddamn well, too. (One fit so well that I was on the verge of dropping four grand that I do not have to buy a dress I do not need for a style that I don’t really compete seriously in. Which should tell you how cool it looked.) I think it was more the sheer privilege of being able to try on costumes and not have the dressing room panic of, this will maybe not go over my ass or figuring out what lie I would tell the salesgirl about why I didn’t like the dress when in reality I was just too big to put it on. My feelings, in no particular order:

  1. Holy shit, I have to try on this dress.
  2. Oh wow, I can actually WEAR this dress.
  3. Wait, this dress is actually TOO BIG and that is why it looks a little weird!
  4. It is BULLSHIT that these dresses are so expensive.
  5. It is DOUBLE BULLSHIT that they come in such a small range of sizes.
  6. Oh my god, that little Latin dancer is literally half my size. Like, if you cut me in half in one of those magician’s boxes, one half would be equal to her in both height and mass.
  7. OMBRE OMBRE OMBRE OMBRE SILK IS SOOOOOOOOO PRETTY.
  8. ProTan is the shit, because I shellacked my skin like two weeks ago and I still look hella tan, and it’s faded really evenly.
  9. Should I buy this dress which will be worth more than any other possession I own, including my car? YES IT IS SO PRETTY.

And that’s the deal. Beware excessive fake tanner – it goes to the brain and may cause uncontrollable costume purchase. Thank God I had a buddy who was Rescue Ballroom trained, and she was able to pull me out of the vendors’ area in time and put a drink in my hand, which restored me to reality.

It was pretty much like this.

So I didn’t buy the dress, which is good, because I don’t have the money, but it did feel pretty cool to pull a dress and try it on, to be not blown off by the salespeople, and to have had the option. (The converse of that is, WHAT FUCKING BULLSHIT that I was ever blown off in the first place.)

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Ballroom, Body Image, and Lousy Bargains

[Disclaimer: this is my personal experience and not any kind of representative sample. Also, all the stuff I’m talking about here has been my experience as a professional; my experience as a student was very different, so please don’t anybody think I’m talking about your experience, your situation. I’m really not.]

•     •     •

Two years ago: I was having coffee with a friend, my competition fake nails (bright orange) wrapped around the white mug which I thought looked cool. 

“If it makes me too crazy, I’ll stop,” I said. “I can keep it straight in my head.”

“I don’t know if you’ll be able to,” she said. “Is it worth it?”

“I think so,” I said. “It’s hard. But I think I can keep it from getting to me, too much.”

•     •     •

A year ago: a conversation with a coach.

“Take it from me,” he said. “Unless you look the right way, they just don’t take you seriously.”

“I know,” I said.

“The judges won’t even look at your dancing,” he said. “It’s just the way it is.”

•     •     •

Two weeks ago: a conversation with a student.

“You look amazing,” she said. “Like, you always looked great, but now…”

“Well, thanks,” I said, “I’ve been training pretty hard and I’m happy with where my dancing is.”

“No,” she said, “I mean, sure, your dancing is awesome, but I mean… YOU look great. Like, you’ve lost a lot of weight and, I don’t know, you look like a real ballroom dancer now.”

*     *     *

When I started dancing again three years ago, I was pretty seriously out of shape, for lots of reasons. Still, I had worked hard in my own brain to be okay with who I was and how I looked.

It would take me a long time, but I finally managed to mostly stop that horrible thing where when you feel bad about yourself, you say the worst things you can think of in your brain… why? I don’t know, I think it’s sort of like emotional cutting. It’s really nasty. Anyway, my go-to most horrible thing was always, you’re fat, you’re ugly. Simple, distilled, and unvarnished.

And it worked, until one day I (thanks in no small part to feminism and body acceptance activists’ writing) I said to myself, dude, seriously – you are fat. Relax. It’s fine. It’s just what it is. And you’re not ugly. And even if you were, why is that like the worst thing in the world? Who is it hurting? 

And after that, I would still, when I felt horrible, fall into the thought pattern of: you are so disgusting…but then I would think, eh, maybe? But whatever. Not that big a deal.

Changing that thought process and actually appreciating my body for what it could do instead of hating it for being a constant disappointment was no easy task.

Which is why when I started dancing more seriously and getting into better shape, it felt almost like a betrayal.

I hated that I was getting non-stop positive reinforcement from people – you look so great! Yay for you! Oh my gosh, you look amazing!

Which basically just meant, in my brain: you know all that damaging shit you thought about yourself before? Yeah, you were right. And everybody else thought it too.

The problem is, on the floor, your body is your instrument. That’s what you perform with, that’s the site where your art is produced. So you have to be okay with it being the object of other peoples’ regard, with their critical gaze – that’s part of the JOB. But it also sucks because, you know, it’s you. Added to which, the emotional intensity and honesty that dancing requires means that if you ARE separated from your body, if you are not truly engaged with your movement, it doesn’t work. So you have to fully inhabit your body and accept that it will be constantly critiqued. It’s difficult not to take that personally.

I know – I absolutely know – that in many ways, ballroom dancing is a shallow fucking industry. That’s okay. Take it or leave it, right?

But some days, the lack of critical awareness is harder than others. And it’s even tougher when you’re a smart cookie who doesn’t look like a ballroom dancer is supposed to look.

I am not a tiny Russian woman, with legs up to my eyebrows and perfect ballet feet. I never will be. At my highest potential, when I am eventually in the best shape I possibly can be, I will be super strong and powerful, but still short and pretty compact. That’s just how I’m built.

Right now, I’m still Ballroom Fat (TM) – basically like Hollywood Fat. Defined as: actually totally fine and in good shape and in a normal, uncrazy world, not really meriting comment; but in your weird twisted world, so gross.

And you know what sucks about that the most? I see these other girls on the floor, thin and pretty and tan, and I am objectively better than they are. Like, my turns are faster, my footwork is cleaner, my connection is better, my dancing is just of a higher standard. But it does. Not. Matter.

Until I look the right way, I am not going to have an easy time finding a serious partner, and I am not going to be marked well by the judges. It sucks out loud, and I hate it. Because I actually like how I look and my whole situation, but I know that I am in the minority on that one. There is a certain standard, an appearance, A Look – and it’s just the ante you have to throw on the table, your cost of admission. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to agree with it, but it’s how the system works.

So now, unlike before, the shit I say to myself is true.

Why doesn’t that dude want to dance with you? Because you’re fat.

Why did you not make the finals? Because you look the wrong way.

I know that it’s shallow and stupid and that’s okay, I guess, because mostly I don’t feel bad about myself, I just feel tired. It is exhausting to know that you are looked at and judged and that you fall short all the time, and even worse to realize that when someone actually takes the time to see you and your dancing, they recognize the quality. Always the tone of surprise – hey, you’re pretty good!

Fuck you.

But really? What I dislike the most is the crazy bargains it makes me deal with, the chock full of nuts ideas it makes me entertain.

*     *     *

A week ago: drinks with another dancer.

“I need the judges to look at me and not say, oh, that fat girl is a pretty decent dancer,” I said.

“Totally,” she replied. “You want them to look at you and say, oh, that girl is a good dancer.”

“Exactly,” I said.

“But you’re doing it, right?” she asked. “I mean, you’re in better shape and you’re eating better, and, like, you must feel better…”

“I am, and I do,” I said. “But how fucked up is it that I don’t really care about any of that? Like, if you said to me: you can dance for the next twenty years and stay pretty much how you are right now, or you can dance for five years, blow your knees completely, but look thin and amazing for that period? I would take the five.”

“And I hate that I think that,” I added.

“Yeah,” she said, thinking for a long moment. “But I’d take the five too.”

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