EMBODY is my "word of the year" for 2018. It's become a pillar for me and came as the culmination of a long, negative "relationship" with my body that I have been vigilantly trying to correct, understand, walk into joy with, and hopefully help any like me along the way.
1. The Realization of The Body (The Literal Embody)
2. Embodying What Is Beautiful
3. Comparing and Contrasting Beauty and Sexual/Physical Desirability
4. Practical Steps
5. The Creativity and Artistry of Bodies
6. The Embodiment of Others
Defining my terms:
In this post, when I refer to “sexy” I’m using it as such: the word that sums up hotness, gorgeousness, the-physical-look-romantic-partners-want, cultural ideals physically, “what you look like,” idolized image, erotic or romantic physical attraction, etc.
I know that there is a sensuality of spirit, and that “sexy” is a vague, overused, kind-of-taboo word… and there is more to it than look. But that’s how I’m using it.
I started my last post on the topic of embodying beauty (and defining it) with a series of questions that run through my mind (along with other similar ones) every day, and, to some degree, have for the last 18 years.
Why is it devastating to so many to not be “the most” beautiful, especially physically? Can being just one of the physically-beautiful (in general or in a specific category) people in the world be enough? All the while being able to admit there are plenty of other beauties, including many far greater ones? Why do we have to live in denial to be “at peace” with ourselves?
In short, how come some people get to have sexy-hot-culturally-ideal bodies and faces, and how come some don’t (regardless of personal effort). And to what extent should those “who don’t” (or don’t anymore, or could have more, etc) go to achieve “that”? And how do we accept our bodies with great joy to ourselves and those around us? I’ve sought to process this through three different (helpful to consider, I think) dynamic categories that impact so much of our life experience:
1. The Fear
2. The Money
3. The Reality
While sexuality and being desirable have always been prized throughout history, from what I understand, there has been in most past eras a greater comfort and naturalness with bodies and the desire of the body, that has been twisted in our modern, media driven times. There were natural limits on comparison (you know, not having access to the internet, for example) but there was also natural freedom. People lived and slept and made love and gave birth beside each other… and raised kids who married and then often lived and slept beside you still. People of past generations were much more comfortable with the reality of death (from killing animals to eat, to watching sickness take many loved ones in your lifetime, to war, etc) and also had a deeper sense of honor for the body—both in life and in death.
We could talk about arranged marriages and marrying for “function not love,” the Catholic Church, the Victorian Era, or the (often misunderstood) Puritans. We could study and stew over marriage-and-sex and sex-outside-of-marriage and polygamy and monogamy and adultery and The Patriarchy, and so much more… but I think the simple broth we’re left with (once all the bones and vegetables have been taken out) is essentially this:
Sexiness indicates desire, and what is desire but “that which I want”… so sexiness is “wanted-ness.”
And we become afraid. For those of us insecure about how we look, I think ultimately we’re insecure about whether we are or deserve to be wanted. I have gleaned from conversations, personal reports, and the writings of strangers, that there is a nice-sized swath of people who may have their insecurity or two, but in general don’t have consuming “self-loathing-body-issues”; but the vast majority that I’ve talked with or read from in this category are people with somewhat “ideal bodies.” White, slim, clear-skinned, feminine, long-haired women. They “fit.” They belong in The Wanted Box. Of course it’s good that they don’t have self-loathing! But there’s an element that’s like “Well… of course you don’t. You didn’t have to do anything, or barely had to, and you’re wanted!”
Last post I mentioned a podcast from TED Talk Hour discussing beauty. Every segment of it fascinated me, but I think my attention was especially caught by Cameron Russell’s words. In our modern day, there probably isn’t a much higher standard of “ideal sexy beauty” than a Victoria Secret Runway Model. Her candor on her life, success, and body were refreshing:
“For me, being fearless means being honest. And I am on this stage because I am a model. I am on this stage because I am a pretty, white woman, and in my industry, we call that ‘a sexy girl.’ I'm going to answer the questions that people always ask me, but with an honest twist.
So the first question is, how do you become a model? I always just say, ‘Oh, I was scouted,’ but that means nothing. The real way that I became a model is
I won a genetic lottery, and I am the recipient of a legacy,
and maybe you're wondering what is that legacy.
Well, for the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we're biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall, slender figures, and femininity and white skin.
And this is a legacy that was built for me, and it's a legacy that I've been cashing out on.”
Well… dang! There you have it! And she’s exactly right. If you’re one of the few who won the lottery, in this time in history, you can be paid, marveled at, envied, and prized because of your sexy body!
“When I was writing this talk, I found it very difficult to strike an honest balance, because on the one hand, I felt very uncomfortable to come out here and say, ‘Look I've received all these benefits from a deck stacked in my favor,’ and it also felt really uncomfortable to follow that up with, ‘and it doesn't always make me happy.’ But mostly it was difficult to unpack a legacy of gender and racial oppression when I am one of the biggest beneficiaries.”
I’ve talked dozens and dozens of times with Caleb about what a bummer it is to have missed out on Greek and Roman life in the age of mythology, or the Italian Renaissance… I would have been it back then!
“Venus is the Roman goddess whose functions encompassed love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory.” “Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, desire, beauty, sex, affection, and the attraction that binds people together. Apart from her natural beauty, she also had a magical girdle that compelled everyone to desire her.”
The physical difference between the pinnacle, ideal sex-and-beauty goddesses of old world and today are… stunning. The slimness valued in our age would have been thought of as sickly and not ideal for mothering children, enduring hard-working farm life, and longevity. Robust softness was an indicator of higher chances of a happy, safe, long life… makes sense why it was appealing. And, yes, while proportion, symmetry, and health have always been valued and received as “beautiful” and everyone has different preferences, the push for “more more more” led to sexiness becoming more and more narrow. Instead of imaging a vast majority of women, throughout time and history, the ideal has become smaller (literally). The female form isn’t just sexy on it’s own anymore (according to “them”), it’s the female form that looks really similar to mannequins in mall windows… or Barbies. Form that is rare, and makes the chase for it extra exciting. Form that almost always requires computer tools, professionals, surgery, or genetic lottery winners.
This can leave those who aren’t (either lottery winners or professionally re-crafted) heavy with disgusting-ness and weighed down with a heap of desire…and nowhere to put it.
For people like Caleb and I (and we aren’t the only ones), you have to add to the equation the distance we tried to keep from our sexuality, as we came into it, because of being frightened. Afraid to dishonor God. Afraid to dishonor our future spouse. Afraid to lose something we could never get back. Afraid to become damaged. Afraid to have regrets. Afraid to fail. Afraid… afraid…
“Perfect love casts out all fear.”
I, personally, was not just afraid of the sensations my body… but of my body itself. Who it might “cause to stumble.” Or who it might lure to real or mental adultery. The difference between attraction, admiration, lust, sin, goodness, desire, respect, healthiness, dignity, knowledge, anticipation, and, well, love were harmfully blurry for me.
So, we open another can of worms: given how much both culture and church openly discuss sexuality (“Sex is liiiiiffee! Do whatever it is you feel!” and “There is basically nothing worse you can do than mess up sexually.”), there is also a startling canyon of silence on the topic. Between millennials and their parents (and their parents, etc). Between spouses. Between close friends. I realized recently that there is a real Bermuda Triangle at play:
1. Sex and money issues are the number one cited reasons for divorce (supposedly. I can’t find a statistic… but I hear that often).
2. Sex and money are intensely taboo subjects, among even the most intimate friends and family. You can talk about most anything… but not that. That’s too personal. That’s distasteful. That’s private. Sssssshhh.
3. Yet, there is probably nothing society/money-makers at large talk to us about more than what to think about sex and how to spend our money (“go for it”; “buy my product”).
Couples are, undeniably, crashing to ruin, over sex, while having nowhere to really turn to heal this part of their lives, while being force-fed sex sex sex/desire desire desire/want want want every single day. No wonder it’s all a mess. No wonder we’re scared.
Scared of not being wanted.
Scared of being un-wanted after being once-wanted.
Scared of ruining everything.
Scared of caring.
Scared of God.
Scared of addiction.
Scared of rejection.
Scared of not getting to have and grow love; or family.
Being afraid has caused a panic for affirmation, and a spiral-of-despair if it’s not found, when it comes to sexual desirability.
Other than dress for royalty or very specific occasions, clothing for most of history, for most people, has been about function. With limited resources and a great need for protection against the outdoor elements in which they lived and endured, clothes were made as a tool for life.
Couture Fashion is traced back to the era of Marie Antoinette, her world at Versailles, and France during the late 1770’s. But it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the modern day, made-to-wear, accessible to “most” (not just the royals) came into existence. The Industrial Revolution is one of my favorite times of history to study (worldwide), observing all the technologies and advancements that made the way, the time, and the money for wide-spread frivolities and fun — allowing ‘commoners’ an unprecedented joy in human history.
It was in the 1920’s that the beauty industry erupted, following closely on the heels of fashion (which makes perfect sense). Advertising, cities, and small-business were mid-explosion and all those small family trades had the chance to “make it big” instead of being isolated in their little town or village. Soap and simple cleaning products from companies like Proctor & Gamble got the ball rolling, but it wasn’t long before powder, lipstick, and mascara were in the hands of the public. The 1920s can claim the beginning of “Vogue”, “The Queen,” and “Harper’s Bazaar.” By the 1930’s, fashion and beauty were widespread and “household.” (Read this, among many other essays and posts!)
Earlier this summer in the midst of researching all of this for my own benefit, I was booking a flight for my grandmother. I asked her for the date of her birth and when she said it my jaw-dropped. “1936?? You were born in 1936??” My grandma. Sitting down the road right now, struggling to make sense of her iPhone, in 2018. She was alive when Revlon first introduced nail polish. Oh my gosh.
It hit me how new all of this is. Not beauty or desirability, of course. But the in-your-face-ness of this industry. Megan from @bodyposipanda writes often about the way companies could (and did) decide something was “a flaw,” create a product “to fix it,” and then happily take your money… off to work on the next “flaw fixer.” Hire the models, paint and sculpt them, edit their images, pass them around everywhere, and offer this little bottle of perfume… this little bottle of desire. Like giving candy to a baby. (Cash or credit?) Women desperate to be chosen (and kept) made great effort to be choosable and keepable (Mrs. Maisel, anyone? Watch it if you haven’t…).
The obsession grew. People hadn’t had the luxury to care so much about their aesthetic! Now, first world could. And it didn’t take long for human nature to take over advertising. Of the Seven Deadly vices, Pride and Envy are at the “top” (bottom?) of most ranking lists. “According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the struggle aroused by envy has three stages: during the first stage, the envious person attempts to lower another's reputation; in the middle stage, the envious person receives either ‘joy at another's misfortune’ (if he succeeds in defaming the other person) or ‘grief at another's prosperity’ (if he fails); the third stage is hatred because ‘sorrow causes hatred.’” I receive emails and see online ads every day, to this day, specifically marketing based on jealousy, flaunting, pride, manipulation, and discontentment. And we fall for it. “Every time I wear this I get showered in compliments!” “Be the star of the show, and make your friends jealous!” “Everyone will be green with envy this spring!” To make ourselves feel better we have to put others down. Show up more impressive, more enviable, more desirable. And when they do, we find pieces to nit-pick and bash… “I’m not vain and self-absorbed like she is.”
From Love Thy Body (By Nancy Pearcy):
“The Body Obsession, The Body Rejection
Is it true that Western culture devalues the body? Don’t many people place a ridiculously high value on physical appearance and fitness? Consider the widespread obsession with diets, exercise, bodybuilding, cosmetics, plastic surgery, botox, anti-aging treatments, and so on. We are surrounded by Photoshopped images presenting unrealistic ideals of physical beauty.
A Christian college professor once told me, ‘It seems to me that people tend to go in the opposite direction—they make an idol of the body.’ But to be obsessed by the body does not mean we accept it.”
“‘The cult of the young body, the veneration of the air-brushed, media produced body, conceals a hatred of real bodies,’ writes theologian Beth Felker Jones of Wheaton College. ‘Cultural practice expresses aversion to the body.’ Even the cult of the body can be an expression of the two-story dualism. An obsession with exercising, bodybuilding, and dieting can reveal a mindset akin to that of a luxury car owner polishing and tuning up an expensive automobile. Philosophers call that ‘instrumentalizing’ the body, which means treating it as a tool to be used and controlled instead of valuing it for its own sake. When we do that, we objectify the body as part of nature to be conquered. Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo writes, ‘The training, toning, slimming, and sculpting of the body . . . encourage an adversarial relationship to the body.’ These practices express the will to conquer and subdue the body—and ultimately to be liberated from its constraints."
It would drive me batty if someone genuinely suggested that all photographs are beautiful. They all might be valid. They all might (potentially) have worth (even if just emotional worth). They might contain a beautiful subject. But all pictures are NOT created equal, and without question, some are better than others. More… beautiful. It’s offensive to suggest otherwise. Offensive, because, of course, in this case I am the artist. “Don’t lump my best work in with my awful work and act like ‘it’s all the same!’ It’s not!”
Certainly businesses and people with power have fed a beauty myth… however, I think there is some legitimate standard for physical beauty. And I think it’s okay to recognize it, accept it, and have fun with life… even if you aren’t one of the “top 10%” or “1%” or what have you. There are so many kinds of beauty, so many ways beautiful qualities create an actual physical beauty, and so many freedoms to a beautiful self-awareness.
"Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good." (John Steinbeck)
Now that you don’t have to be obsessed, you can enjoy.
Now that you don’t have to reject, you can partake.
Now that you don’t have to overreact (either direction), you can be content.
Now you can just calm down, admit so-and-so is more physically desirable than you, and be merry. You don’t have to try so hard, now you can enjoy yourself. There is something so freeing about the truth!
It’s okay! You aren’t the first place winner! You aren’t last, either! Some people find you attractive, some don’t! You’re prettier than some people, and you’re not as good-looking as others! And it’s very fluid and subjective and case-by-case anyways! And it matters… your body is a part of you. And you matter. Phew. Okay. Onto the things that are worth building a life on, strong enough to hold the foundation of you, and things that do just matter more.
EMBODYING THE DESIRE TO BE DESIRED
+ EMBODYING CONTENTMENT
I have found a lot of freedom and comfort in my own skin with acknowledging and wrestling through these things. There are not fast band-aid answers. This was a super flyover starting point. It’s been a full year and a half now, after 17 years of deep struggle, of intensive note-taking, private study sessions, thousands of hours of conversations, lots of tears, and getting to a healthy, stable place to start the trek “out.” I’m deeply grateful to have a husband like Caleb to get in the trenches with me… robotic answers or passive niceties won’t do here. This was and is the big stuff of my heart, and he is my fellow soldier with whom I have a strong foundation of love. But I know not everyone gets to do this journey with a devoted soulmate like him. Either alone, or with a not-so-helpful partner, or anything else… I just want to encourage you to keep going, and find someone you can really talk to. Message me! But don’t give up. This is too important and the conversation and comprehension of all these topics needs to change for the good of men, women, and children everywhere.
The desire to be pleasing is of God and wonderful. The desperateness to belong and “be known and loved” is also directly from His heart and is outstanding. Being confused by the strength and force of “in your face sexiness” and the true beauty of it is very reasonable, because it is…a handful.
I’ve come to think of “sexy” like a well-placed adjective. (Brilliant, huh? Since, ahem, it IS an adjective? ;) ) When writing or speaking there are few things more thrilling than having the perfect descriptor come to mind. It tells the story, the point, the message, just as you meant. I love how many adjectives are available. I love how I can people-watch and discern what a person is like, then describe them. Thoughtful, flustered, calculated, charmed, flimsy, meaty, blue, sensational, wobbly, fine, lovable, wise, sincere, careful, gracious… sexy. Some characters in this story get that “universal, cultural adjective” as a descriptor for their looks. It tells the story of them. Or at least part of it.
They are not worth any more. They are not capable of any more happiness (maybe some advantages, but not happiness… but there are disadvantages too…), they do not escape pain, boredom, anxiety, or depression. Sure, maybe some have an unhealthy way of embodying rivalry, superiority, and intentional belittling. Maybe some do it unknowingly. And maybe some (as Cameron Russell appears to) handle the reality with grace, honesty, and a dedication to what is good, at least as far as she understands it (research her a bit, she’s a fascinating woman!). You have not a bit less value, gift of experiencing pleasure (in all forms), or joy. Choosing to see the beauty in what is beautiful, giving us eyes to more forms of beauty everywhere - including in our own lives - is one of the healthiest things we can do. Instead of zeroing in on our insecurities, we can open wide to the many lovelinesses. Instead of hating what we don’t have, we can celebrate what others do have. Instead of chasing the wind on a treadmill, we can be deeply, happily content. Instead of complaint, we can have gratitude to the Beautiful Artist.
We can combat our fear with bravery, not become disillusioned with the prompts and teases of people making money off of our desire for good things, and being as honest with the truth as we can… all carried in a bag made of Joy and Good Humor… this changes everything.
Up Next: PART 4 - Practical Steps