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Please don’t ask me if your bum looks big

December 28, 2013

Let’s bond! I’ll tell you that I hate my pot belly and you can tell me that you hate the size of your arse. Then, I can tell you that your arse is fine and you can tell me that my belly is not so very bad. Then we can go on eating our desserts in piece, then go home and feel depressed because we both keep thinking how we “shouldn’t” have had that delicious, delicious sweet thing. You’d think that after a few times experiencing this, one might be inclined to skip the sweet thing next time, but it never works that way.

Maybe next time we meet, we won’t, because we recognise that that the other person has an opinion on our body, something which we only half-suspected before. You see, humans are very naturally inward facing. We recognise our own faults acutely, without the help of others. So, when we seek someone’s opinion, it always comes as a slight surprise when we get it. Speaking only for myself, I tend to feel a bit invisible and it seems odd to me that I have a reflection. I am a mind, and my body is a thing which holds my mind. Seeing it is a bit of an odd experience; knowing that this is exactly how other people see me is bothersome.

This could be the fundamental basis of why we seek approval for the way we look – we recognise that the way we look is a necessary starting point for other people shaping an opinion on us. Even your best friend in the world will not be able to “look past” the way you look. If a human is a complex biological computer, then your face and body are your monitor. Without it, people can’t interact with you. The presence of a monitor would be fine, in theory, if it were simply a means of identification. The problem comes when everyone’s monitor has to look the same way, because every day you are subjected to images of The Shiniest Monitor, and how Your Monitor can be as Shiny as This (even though that monitor has been digitally buffed on photoshop). Then come the eating disorders.

I occasionally mention thoughts about my body to other people. It serves no purpose, though I suppose I am looking for some kind of rebuttal of my claims that I don’t look quite right, too lumpy or whatever. In which case, the question is, why do I feel absolutely, 100% not even fractionally better when I invariably receive it? I can think of two reasons; one is that I don’t trust that the answers are truthful as I am already convinced that I am a certain way. Such is the power of advertising; it goes to the parts of your brain which are the weakest and most susceptible, giving you ideas which are drastically out of keeping with what you generally think. This is how I can sit here, writing this blog dissing advertising, yet still fret about my waist band size, the paranoia over which I know is caused by it. Logic doesn’t come into it.

The other reason is that the “compliment” is usually just an excuse for the other person to vent their own insecurities. And, who feels good about hearing (much less inciting) other people’s insecurities? All it does is open your eyes to how endemic the problem is, not to mention reminds you that you’re talking like all the hordes and hordes of people who internalise advertising, which you know you shouldn’t do and know you should be above.

The worst part of this culture is that we think it’s good for us to go through this charade, of you telling me you have a big arse and me telling you “No it’s not”, or damningly, “It’s fine,” suggesting that it is big but, y’know, never mind. In an ideal world, I’d favour the latter implication, but we don’t have the ability to accept that piece of information as being a compliment. Our perfect compliment is one which indicates our ability to conform, in a way which is more striking when talking about appearance.

We pay such notice to people who have their own “unique” style, because it’s a difficult thing to pull off without a bucket load of self-consciousness. When I select clothes in the morning, I don’t just go for “me” clothes or comfortable ones, or a mixture; I go for a mixture of that plus something which won’t draw too much attention. When you think of yourself as being invisible in all but voice and thought, the idea of anything that makes you visible is uncomfortable. So, you seek to look average, whatever average is at the time.

The fact is, when I tell you that you don’t have a big arse, or your arse is lovely just the way it is, all I am doing is reinforcing the notion that it matters a hoot what size your arse is. I would like to be able to say: “I’m not going to comment on that, because even though it would be hypocritical of me to lecture you about your insecurities when I have a boatload of my own and I understand that the stresses of society makes immunity impossible, I believe that we should not seek each other’s approval and it’s my job as your friend to refuse to exacerbate your insecurities by validating them with comments of empty approval. The truth is that I don’t much care what you look like in the broader sense, because you are you, I know you as you are and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Other people’s ideas about you are as irrelevant to me as the mating rituals of tropical birds. As long as you remain some variation of yourself, I’ll be happy. Not that it should matter what makes me happy, because it’s your life and your body and you should be able to do as you like.”

Alas, few people would stick around to hear the end of that sermon. So, instead I stick with a nice, safe: “You look good,” while my inner common sense screams blue murder. I know that if I say some variation of “No comment”, my friend will assume the worst; fatness, spottiness, nose out of alignment – whatever the major insecurity of the moment.

There is a world of difference between recognising that you’re having a tough day with your body image and seeking to be told that you look “good”. More about that in this article by Jessica Wakeman. I think the best way to tackle this, while we still live among advertising, is to make a conscious effort to change only what we can: our response to our friends in relation to our own insecurities. We think that when we complain about ourselves to a friend, we are not affecting them, but in fact we perpetuate the ideas that contribute to making them just as insecure as us and everyone else we know. I think the best we can do is stop actively seeking the approval of our friends, and seek their support instead – a support which focuses on our minds and how we feel, why we are feeling insecure and fragile.

Some friends will not give this to us and will not understand, it’s true, so you will have to pick your conversation partner carefully. Even people who have suffered eating disorders and know the score can be so set in their ways in regards to body policing that they become experts at seeing other people’s faults, when actually their ideas about bodies are just projections of their own fears about themselves, more than any remote interest in the behaviour of society at large.

The only option is to stop asking. If you’ve had to ask someone if your arse looks big, you’ve asked the wrong question. The real question is “What has made me think there’s a possibility my arse looks ‘too big’?” And the answer to that question will not come from your friend, sitting there picking over a wilted salad that they didn’t want to order. The answer to that is locked in your own head, buried underneath a mountain of burdensome advice about how best to lose weight. Unlocking it will be a long challenge and the urge to splurge your insecurities will always be strong. But the less they are expressed as if they are right or justified, the more they will fade. Maybe the next generation will be able to go out to eat without feeling the need to pre-emptively apologise for the weight they fear they are about to put on.

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One Comment
  1. caelodonnell permalink

    I venerate the potency of this article as it mines into an issue many people need favourable clarity on. The sincere quote from this piece “We think that when we complain about ourselves to a friend, we are not affecting them, but in fact we perpetuate the ideas that contribute to making them just as insecure as us and everyone else we know” is one that derives itself into an obliging philosophy of its own. The Message brings an avant-garde eloquence about it that alleviates us as a reader to position ourselves into the eyes of someone close to us, and instead of thinking about our own insecurities, we open up to the idea of people directly affected by our strict onuses regarding our appearance.

    Great Piece Adrian, I will be sure to remain up to date for future articles.
    Please feel free to check my new blog “The Journal” here – http://caelodonnell.wordpress.com/

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