Sunday, April 03, 2005

So I've been trying to think about what rubbed me the wrong way about this post of Hugo Schwyzer's about an exercise he did with the church youth group he runs. In it, he had all the kids, girls and boys, go around a circle and discuss what they did and didn't like about their bodies. The value of this, he says, is that it taught the kids that everyone, including the conventionally attractive, has body issues. And then maybe they'll realize that everyone has body image issues and that their self-perception, rather than their bodies, is flawed.

Now, I think that Hugo is pretty well clued in to the aspect of our culture that tells girls that they should have "perfect" bodies. But he's not so attuned, I think, to the bit of beauty culture that tells girls and women that since perfection is unattainable, even the most beautiful woman must be engaged in a constant, doomed struggle against her own inevitable flaws. It's very Christian, in a sense: just as the good Christian will, try as he might, never overcome his own sinful nature, the beautiful woman can never, despite her constant vigilance, overcome creeping ugliness. And therefore, one aspect of appropriate femininity is the constant, doomed quest for that elusive perfection. This is enforced through fear (you're going to wrinkle! You're going to get fat!), and it's also enforced through fear of vanity. It's rude to admit you like you're body, and it threatens to make you look foolish. Chances are that you are not all that, so if you admit you're satisfied with how you look, you will appear to be conceited and have delusions of acceptability. Better to preemptively admit that you're aware of your imperfections than to look like you think you're better looking than you really are.

So I worry that Hugo's exercise is going to backfire. He thinks that the kids will recognize that their good-looking peers are insecure too and will recognize that those insecurities aren't grounded in reality. But I think that, for girls at least, it might just hammer home the notion that all women, no matter how beautiful, must criticize and discipline their bodies. And if the beautiful girls recognize they're not good enough and must fix themselves, what does that say about what the mousy girls should be doing?

That's what's going on with the girls who said they wanted to look like Mary Kate Olsen, I think. I mean, come on. Nobody really wants to look like Mary Kate Olsen: she's an overgrown munchichi. But she's our current celebrity anorexic, and they want to emulate her supposed self-control and self-denial. (It's sort of ironic in light of the persistent rumors that Mary Kate's thinness is of the more chemically-induced variety. But anyway.) They chose her as their role model not because of how she looks but because of what she does to look that way. Given that, I can't see why they'd see the light when they realized that their attractive peers felt their bodies also needed to be fixed and disciplined. It's more likely that they'll decide they should emulate the pretty kids.

I have an indelible memory from the first time I attended a church "youth group." The second I walked down the stairs to the building's basement, I saw the big guys with their varsity jackets were clustered around the pool table as some young girl walked by it, brushing her hand across the felt-edge of it, like everyone was immitating some secular movie they'd seen. I was obviously way in over my head, socially. And thank god, because the youth pastor (brother of the woman who was creating all that evil liberal stuff like Murphy Brown) was a bit nutters with the End Times line.
I think an exercise like that could be effective if it were followed by a really good "fight the power" sermon, advocating that we all decide together to shift from an idea that none of us look good enough to the idea that all of us look good enough. Talk about how the establishment wants to take away our power by making all of us feel inadequate and pressuring us to waste our time and money trying to meet an impossible physical standard.

Also, a good Christian viewpoint on it would be "did God make a mistake when he gave you that kind of nose?", pointing out that for people to prefer one body size or style over another is a lot like preferring one skin color over another and is disrespectful of God's creation.
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