Twiddlybits is on a

September 13, 2003

Twiddlybits is on a diet - she is using the Atkins diet to try to get down to a weight that she is happy about.

Good for her.

I posted a few words on her blog, and the discussion that followed made me want to elaborate somewhat. I warned her that she should not get too skinny, that it would be a terrible thing if her friends had to chase her down and throw food at her so that they could hug her without cutting themselves on her bones. It was a lighthearted comment.

That comment grew out of an observation that J made about science fiction conventions. There are spandex limits, she sez: some people who want to traipse about in spandex really should not do so. Spandex limits come on both ends of the physical spectrum - some people are TOO BIG to look good in skintight fabric, others are TOO SKINNY. Neither is all that attractive. However, there is a large middle ground where people do look rather hot. (For the record, Twiddly falls well within those limits and will probably remain within them after she hits her target size.) We can differ about the margins of that middle zone, with many pushing for scrawny eye-candy and others who favor a more curved look, but we can agree that there is a target zone.

What I find more interesting is the mixture of messages that we all receive on a regular basis from the media and from the people around us.

We are surrounded by images of remarkably thin, fit people and told that this is the model to which all of us, regardless of age and activity level, must aspire. Every Spears or Aguilara video, every underwear add showing cute guys with sixpack abs, every barbie doll, reinforces a body image that is remarkably thin and really only suits a small portion of the nation. The ideal image is that of an 18 to 20 year old: thin, with secondary sex characteristics but without the filling in that happens in the mid 20s. Those are the years where we combine the last of the adolescent hormones with the beginnings of a full-sized frame, and I must admit that the combination produces some very nice eye candy. I teach at an urban university, and springtime is a good time to admire thin waists, flat butts, and women whose chests suggest that they are on the pill.

And yet, we have another set of messages also percolating through the media. This argues that the most important thing you can do is feel good about yourself. People who are not size 4 still buy clothing, still go out in public, and they insist on having nice things to wear. They insist on being cherished and appreciated and loved. There has been a real explosion in "plus-size" clothing in the last ten years or so -- not just because Americans are fatter which we are, but because large Americans are tired of being told that they have to dress like slobs if they are larger than your average teenager.

Women have a much harder time with appearance and clothing. Some anecdotes might help explain what I mean. I have a big neck and big traps. I am a little fatter than I would like and than I should be - about 20% body fat. Because I have that neck I need to buy shirts with a 17 1/2 inch neck - pretty large considering that I am 5' 6" and a half. These shirts are cut for the average man who wears a 17 1/2 neck and 33 inch sleeves - lets just say that there is a lot of fabric in them. I have to order trim-fit shirts just to have them fit appropriately. When I buy suits or sport coats I have to get the athletic cut - and I am not all that athletic. The bulk of the population who buy button-down shirts and affordable suits are cut pear-shaped and so that is how the clothing is cut.

My wife also buys clothing at malls and through catalogues. She finds that the Lands Bean stuff generally fits her, but she has to hit Lane Bryant fairly regularly for clothing and she is not all that heavy (note, she is pregnant at the moment which throws off all such calculations). The norms are different men from women.

So, we can not really take standard clothing sizes as the best measure. But we still have to somehow balance the tension between the repeated messages praising the scrawny and the growing message to love folks the way they are. If we take either message to extremes we end up in bad shape, either walking skellingtons or immobile hulks.
How best should we decide where we belong and what size we should wear our bodies?

The spandex limit that my wife used, half-jokingly, at worldcon is a definition based on personal esthetic principles. As such it will vary a lot from person to person and will inevitably reflect the bias towards the scrawny.

I happen to like fitness, and have long argued - on and elsewhere - that we should decide how to wear our bodies on criteria of fitness and desire. If your body will let you do the things you want to do - walk in the park, play with the kids, chase down your partner for some snugglebunnies, run a race - then your body is fit enough.

While body size does play into this fitness criteria - very heavy people don't tend to take long brisk walks with the dawg - it is incidental. Fitness is a criteria that is measured by something other than the scale and something other than the display rack down at the mall - it is measured by personal desire and personal fullfillment.

And so, while I can understand why Twiddly wants to change her appearance and return to an earlier body shape, I also worry a little. Body shape is like a river, you can not cross it twice. Even if you do get back to an older weight, you will still be differently shaped. Even if you can get back to an older shape, you will still not look as you did. Rather than recapture the past (which can be fun - at one point when I was doing a LOT of running I could wear a suit I had bought 15 years earlier when I was 21) try to maximize the present. She is measuring her progress in weight, which is easy to measure and easy to track. But really, it seems to me, that what she wants is to have more energy for making snugglebunnies, more ability to use her body to interact with her lovers, and a different set of clothing choices.

Those are all laudable goals. I just cringe when I hear "I just want to lose XX more pounds and then I will be happy."

And back to work.

Posted by Red Ted at September 13, 2003 11:56 AM | TrackBack