body image

Age old question

I’ve been trying to figure out what this aging thing is. I can see visible signs of age, the strands of hair becoming tinsilated, the smile lines etching deeper as do the frown lines although I’m hoping to have less of those. But I’m perplexed by the idea of being my age-gender and I’m wondering about the relationship as well as some intriguing possibilities this offers my penchant for messing with embodiment in general.

It came to me as I looked through photographs of me as a kid, class photos where I might have blended in as one of the boys. And then looking at people in their 70’s and above and also struggling at times to see the bodily clues that define male and female. It occurs to me that past a certain age men’s bodies become pulled toward female and female toward male. I know biology and physiology has a lot to do with this but here is a thought – why fight it? Here is my radical revision of aging-gender.

I’m not sure how this would work but imagine if you get to 60 and your body is changing shape with lumps and bumps moving, again it could be that illnesses such as cancer take hold of particular parts that have significance for identifying the common bodily sexual features (I realise this is a sensitive issue – I am not suggesting mastectomy’s and cancer treatment aren’t traumatic or any other form of body part removal, testicle, ovary) there might be an option to ‘go with the flow’. Doctors could offer hormone treatment to help keep that flow going rather than trying to turn back the clock. Society could create a new form of ceremony or ritual celebration (optional of course) where preferred names and pronouns are used openly.

What is interesting is there is little question about youth enhancing their cis-gendered bodies along normative gender lines. There are plenty of industries willing to increase sizes of particular parts. But when nature gives you the base ingredients to transition, why not make it easier. All I hope for is that I can still ride a bike, surf, skate, and that my pants maintain a waistline that is closer to my hips than my neck.

 

Imaged Bodies

It was great watching the Paralympics, so many sets of wheels and carbon fibre in various shapes it was feast of material multiplicities. If there was ever a time to watch a rich, complex version of the diversity of human physical performance, this was it. But I am bothered by the fact that the only time functionally diverse bodies become noticed and appreciated is every 4 years through sport. Which begs a question about body image. Is it more what images of bodies we see that helps certain bodies be seen as acceptable, or more ‘normal’? Our usual programming of common functioning sport with the narrow choices normally offered is disrupted momentarily – for the novelty of both the Olympics and Paralympics. Which is why I view the Paralympics with mixed feelings. Body image is more like body stories, it’s the words and meanings that describe and give value to who we are – how our body matter ‘matters’ or doesn’t.

I can appreciate the achievement and skill of Sophie Pascoe and Liam Malone, but I also notice how their bodies function at a level that is almost identical to common functioning. Their athletic achievements are phenomenal and the camera loves them both – they are both (in my opinion) extremely photogenic people, with muscular, athletic physiques that few people can ever achieve. So they are perfect representatives with the perfection of lean mean body machines.

The irony then is these bodies break stereotypes and maintain stereotypes. Their stories of success and triumph in sport offer alternative ideas about what people can or cannot do. But not everyone with a disability wants to participate in sport or even likes sport! It sets up the ‘they are so inspirational’ theme, that while on the surface seems harmless, it confines disability as a lens through which people can maintain their sense of privilege. If that sounds a bit weird, this is a good explanation. But where are their images of success of disabled/functionally unique people doing other stuff? Because it’s not just the image it’s the stories we need to hear and share with each other about our own bodies that matter as well.

I’m also interested in the aesthetic of movement, and I love seeing the ways the physical can merge with the technological in new combinations. A future Olympics that genuinely celebrated human performance of the body might include a range of ages and function, I can imagine the games broken up into elements like ‘wheels’ ‘water’ and the 5 continents each hosting an element simultaneously. I’d like to see arts, music and creative festivals follow to break down the separation of mind and body, the arts and sciences. Unfortunately that might mean pruning back the number of sports, but I think I’d rather see more diversity of people than sport. But if I had the choose, if it involves wheels – it should be in there. Well, maybe wheelbarrow racing might be be pushing it.

Twit Bit

There is a quiet take over happening. Wrists are no longer places where a simple watch rests. No the wrist is now a monitoring device, communicator and even connects your forearm to your hand! The Fitbit is a hit with a wide array of people interested in tracking their physical activity.

For many it’s a great way to stay motivated to exercise, create comradery and feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction. In the wrong hands (wrists?) it can invite a perpetual monitoring of the body with feedback triggering worry, fear and anxiety. Those already with a tendency to intensify a focus on measuring up or perfectionism might see devices like the Fitbit as a way of ensuring they maintain the perfect body.

It was interesting to see the New Zealand Herald run a piece on concerns about Fitbits in schools. I’m not sure about the intention of the author but I wonder about the technique of seeking two polar opinions interspersed with quotes (or facebook posts) as a reasonable representation of a phenomena. But what irked me most was one Principals response alluding to counsellors making issues out of nothing.

I imagined being a counsellor at that school (if they have any given the clear disdain expressed) and thought what I might have hoped for from a school leader speaking to the media. It occurred to me that it was the perfect opportunity for someone to have seized the chance to demonstrate the high levels of professional integrity and respect for the ‘on the ground’ awareness of issues that counsellors in schools become aware of and linking in with Health and PE curriculum leaders, working collaboratively, taking a critical approach and drawing attention to very real and current concerns.

But no. Moment lost. However I have an alternative to the Fit Bit – care of the inspiration of this article. It is called the Twit Bit. You stick it in that jeans pocket that no-one really knows what it’s for (but now thanks again to the journalism of the NZ Herald we are enlightened) and it cues off micro changes in arrogance and ego – much like a lie detector. Then sends you a potential alternative statement or thought.

The idea is not to get to 10 000 a day. Can think of a few people who could benefit from a Twit Bit, including myself.

Faking It – Just Tantastic

It is officially summer…apparently. Kiwis everywhere are readying their bodies to embrace the sun, our skin will burn before it actually gets warm here. I Love living in a country where you can be wearing a jacket and beanie and be worried about burn time…if you had skin exposed beyond your face. But I have a confession to make, I get nervous toward the end of October knowing that at some point I will be exposing my legs to the world which have hibernated for some months. The skin on them is a bit like a chameleons – it changes colour depending on the temperature and conditions. It can range from pale blue, pink and sometimes blotchy purple. I believe that riding my bike could pose a hazard to motorists should the sun strike them and reflect off them. But my upper body face and arms are quite different, they just quietly move to a gentle toast tone, you know the one, where your bread just looks golden but not overly brown – perfect for butter and marmite (the toast not the skin). So I feel it is my duty to ensure public safety and succumb to tanning moisturiser, it is a sacrifice I feel passionate about and take very seriously. But I do wrestle with the irony of my own self-consciousness at times while I try and talk about diversity. Then again, I am comfortable being in a contradiction, it’s like a comfy sofa now, well worn.

Body consciousness is usually talked about weight but more than ever skin tone is seen as just as necessary – models typically boast perfect tan. It’s not enough to be buff, you need to be buff and brown. The only exception is if you are a pouty vampire, or from a dystopian future and are clad in some skin hugging item, or a dystopian vampire. Then you can be as pouty, pale and pasty as much as you like. But then it is the opposite for teeth – OMG you have to have the white teeth, to match the tan, or no tan if you are a vampire. Those canines better not have stain on them or be yellow, crikey it’s off to get some whitening for you. There you go, another dose of chemical correction.

Ok, back to tanning. Those of you who use these creams will know the trials and tribulations. It is not as simple as slapping it on, it’s more like painting a house or cleaning windows. Then later you realise you missed a bit or over did it in a certain place and get the streak effect. Then there are the areas of demarcation – those skin surfaces that should never look tanned in the same way your legs do, like below your ankles. Do you rub it in or leave it to soak in? Oh the anguish, the mirror checking. Sometimes it pays to remember your age when factoring in how much to put around your knees because they soak in extra and can end up looking perpetually bruised or dirty. And don’t forget to wash your hands – the orange palms are a dead give away. But once that colour starts building it pays to know when to stop or ease up because there is a fine line between golden brown and oompa loompa orange. That could work for blending into my bike, but beyond that maybe not.

Ironically, I was watching a piece on a guy – Neil Harbisson who only sees the world in black and white and has a chip implanted in his head to hear colour. He is an artist and does sound portraits of people. Curiously when he scans for skin colour everyone comes out as a version of orange. There you have it folks proof deep down we are all working for Willy Wonka.

Sure, it’s probably toxic, with numerous chemicals that could cause all sorts of horribleness but for a few weeks a year I will maintain my regime of faking it. Heck at least I’m being transparent about it.

To become some Body

If we ever transcend the limits of our bodies as a species I for one will be relieved never to have to find a public toilet ever again. I can never quite figure out from the signs which one I am supposed to use because I am not a triangle. But for now, I’m stuck with this one and it serves me pretty well most of the time.

If you are a human being chances are you have an awareness of your body and how it looks and functions. I know I became very aware at a young age that people confused my gender with my short hair and love of flannel shorts and matching top. As other lumps and bumps appeared I noticed certain bumps and lumps were commented on more than others, some approved of others not so much. There were conversations around eating, food, and a new idea ‘weight’ that emerged to sow seeds of doubt around this vessel I was conscious of as my body. Not the media, not images on TV, no – my parents and coaches and others drawing attention to how I looked or should look helped unease and self-surveillance (Foucault was definitely onto something – but did miss the gender thing slightly),

We have placed an incredible amount of meaning on body size and shape that we cannot escape. Gender aside (for the time being) our physicality is inescapable but we are told it is maleable. Choice and responsiblity and self-accountability have become the new mantras of an industry primed to cash in on the collective fear of being anything other than thin and/or buff, fear is a great marketing tool – remember that. When I talk with adults about the teasing or bullying they experienced more often than not it was about their looks, particularly their weight. Women’s magazines are a page by page rollercoaster through extremes and contradictions. First there is the weight loss success story, followed by the celebrity ‘lost my baby body in 3 weeks’ story, next to the chocolate cake recipes and finally the extreme close ups with arrows pointing out all the flawed bits and ‘too skinny’ or ‘out of shape’ with looking good fitting an incredibly narrow criteria but generally its somewhere between skeletal and thin – thigh gaps essential.

But we do it to each other as well. We notice and comment on whether people have put on weight, lost weight, have a tan, a new hair style, are on a diet, not on a diet, should be on a diet, what diet is new. People are quick to ‘tut tut’ those who’s body shape has moved out of the narrow margins of ‘acceptable’ while condemning those who fall into the clutches of anorexia or bulimia.

The morbid fascination and objectification of obesity as a form of ‘horror show’ can be seen in the number of TV shows dedicated to weightertainment. It’s kind of psychotic and pathological but we accept it as normal and even important to know what our ‘ideal weight’ should be based on a fundamentally flawed formula called the BMI – invented by a mathematician in the 19th Century…yes you read that correctly. Not a physician (let alone one within the last 100 years!) someone who liked numbers and measuring things. Well I have to say those three letters should be renamed from Body Mass Index to Blatantly Manipulated Information.

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes but lets get real and honest about how we restrict what is validated as beautiful. There is a rather more insidious effect; the art of distraction, like a perpetual maze confusing, disorienting and consuming consciousness. The time and energy that some people put into managing their bodies to ensure they ‘look perfect’ means less for other things. It is the ultimate form of control, probably the most effective form of Matrix program for subduing a population. People can now get Apps to help them stay plugged in more deeply and ensure they become fully immersed in the Weigh-tricks.

Yip, I’m feeling inspired to write a spoof – The Weightrix. Main characters Porkeus, Thinnity, and Gello. Porkeus looking for Gello inside the Weightrix offers him the red or blue pill – they’re jelly beans. Thinnity hopes Gello will make the ‘Pump test’ but he fails the first time. They send him to The Biggest Loser where he meets The Oraface.

“Bake up – the Weightrix has you.”