Last night, I wrote an essay inspired by my friend Marissa Falco’s zine, in which she talks about finding the humanity in imperfect art. I found this idea particularly resonant, as a writer, an appreciator of art, a jock and a fitness nerd, and I laid awake thinking about it, long after I had published the post on my other blog.
Think about what is generally considered to be the “perfect” woman’s body. She’s tall, but not too tall, maybe 5’9″. She’s slim with long legs and arms, and her hair is thick and full and long. Her eyes are large but not too large, cheekbones pronounced but not too pronounced, lips full but not too full. Her skin has no visible pores, no wrinkles, no ripples, no red spots. Everything is smooth and symmetrical.
Men have this ideal too. A full head of hair, a defined chest and abs, hair on the legs and arms, but not too much on the chest and certainly none allowed on the back. The list is a bit shorter and men are permitted a bit more deviation from the ideal, but it seems like that is changing with each passing day.
Often those who possess those “perfect” bodies and faces are not “perfect” enough, and so you end up with photo editors who tone and blur and filter and reshape until the waist is small enough, the biceps big enough, the eyes bright enough, the hair full enough.
These are the bodies and faces against which we compare ourselves. We stand in front of mirrors and grab handfuls of belly fat or curse our left eye for being slightly higher on our face than our right eye, and we think about those imaginary bodies and we feel deeply inadequate, like we have failed somehow.
But why? Why is this imaginary body the standard by which we measure ourselves? How has this body, that face become what we define as “perfection”? What does it even mean to be “perfect”? Who makes that decision?
You can recite studies about signifiers of fertility or the golden mean or the waist-hip ratio, but in the end it’s all bullshit, all theories meant to retroactively justify what is essentially a cultural concept. Physical “perfection” is not a law of physics; it does not hold true throughout space and time. It’s merely an illusion that we have all agreed to acknowledge as fact. (Here’s a great essay over at the Hairpin about the fickle nature of beauty.)
But it’s a powerful illusion, and a damaging one at that.
Here, in Florida, I regularly see middle-aged women who, in an attempt to keep hold of their sense of themselves as beautiful, allow surgeons to cut open their skin and re-arrange their faces, sometimes to deleterious effect. We see this in stories about plastic surgery “trends,” where women seek out the noses of Blake Lively and the lips of Angelina Jolie, and men pursue brow lifts to make them appear perpetually thirty-two, as if we are little more than flesh-and-blood Mr. Potato Heads.
And then what? Must we all revisit the sad story of Jennifer Grey, who was once the surface upon which a generation of girls projected their pre-adolescent sexual selves? And who is now barely recognizable to most of the women who once dreamed of dancing with a tight-panted Patrick Swayze?
And how many people hold themselves back from the life they want until they lose twenty pounds? How many decline to pursue relationships because they don’t feel attractive enough? How many of us think the only way we will ever be fully happy is if we can look in the mirror and finally at long last see nothing we can criticize?
In this view of the world, there is no space for an aesthetic that prizes diversity. Imagine if someone were to wave a magic wand and make all of our physical “imperfections” vanish. We’d be a world of superficially identical human beings. How boring, and how sad. Why would we ever want such a thing?
I’m ready to do away with ideas of “perfect” and “imperfect” as they relate to our bodies. Actually, my feelings toward “perfection” are stronger than that. Instead, I say fuck perfection. “Perfection” so meaningless that when you really start to interrogate it, it crumbles into dust in your hands. But yet we are expected to invest our time and our money in pursuit of this nonsense, through injections and crap for our faces and foundation garments and eyelash treatments and I’m sure a dozen other things I haven’t even heard of before. We are required to devote our lives to chasing an ideal that is, by definition, unattainable.
Why do we participate in this? We know the odds are stacked against us, that the dice are loaded, that we will never ever catch the carrot, and yet we keep trying as if it will mean anything if we do actually attain it. We do this even though I suspect that deep inside, we know we are all set up to fail.
That inherent failure at physical “perfection” is such a given in our culture that it’s expected that a woman will hate her body and want to change it. In fact, it is so expected that a Miss Universe organizer thought it was appropriate to write a question in which one contestant was asked what she would change about her body if she could. Miss Angola answered the question perfectly, I thought:
“Thank God I am very-well satisfied with the way God created me, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I consider myself a woman endowed with inner beauty. … I have acquired many wonderful principles from my family, and I plan to follow these through the rest of my life. And now I would like to give all of you a piece of advice: Respect one another.”
Yes, you can argue that it is easy for a woman like Miss Angola to be satisfied with her body. After all, she was crowned Miss Universe. But to assume that women like her are free from insecurities about their bodies is to believe they exist in a different world from us. If anything, a woman whose body and face supports her economically feels these pressures just as acutely, if not more so, than the rest of us, because if people find her too “imperfect,” she can’t pay her rent and she doesn’t eat.
We can opt out of this. We don’t have to accept the idea that the only kind of beauty is the “perfect” beauty, that the only way we can be worthy of love is to be “flawless.” We can take a cue from the natural world and see the beauty that flourishes in all of its millions of manifestations, all of its colors and shapes and sizes and textures. We can understand that we are part of this world, and that as such we are also beautiful in all of our millions of manifestations, in all of our colors and shapes and sizes and textures.
I will start with myself. My body has a million little things that might be considered “imperfections,” but I will not treat them as if they are mistakes to be erased. They make me who I am and I will not apologize for them. My imperfections are mine, and I will love them, even if the rest of the world says I shouldn’t.