Body Issues II

January 23, 2004

Bodies, Perceptions, and Power
Body Issues I

Stephen Coonts, a nice guy and adequate novelist, wrote a pretty good memoir about flying an antique biplane into every state in the lower 48. At one point at an amusement park he sat and watched people go by for about an hour, just watching. At the end, he notes, "People really do come in all shapes and sizes." When I read that I was reminded of a comment made by a friend after she and a batch of our friends came back from hitting the hot tubs: "people really are funny looking."

We all have a set of aesthetics, a collection of shapes or sizes that we admire. These shapes affect the way we interact with others; they should not but they do. S-Train gives a good example when he talks about how the staff at his fast food restaurant talks about one of his regular customers. Body shapes, no, bodily ideals, also convey power. If we react to you based on your appearance, then your status will depend on how you look and how you present yourself.

Does a puffy body mean that someone is self-indulgent and weak willed? Or does it mean that they are too busy with helping others to take time to exercise themself? Does a lean body and a runner's face mean that a person is focused, dedicated, and self-disciplined, or does it mean that they hit the road to avoid dealing with the people in their lives? Do muscled arm and weightlifter traps mean that a person is focused and able to maintain a long-term plan, or do they mean that they are narcissistic and work poorly with others? The correct answer, of course, is none of the above - insufficient data.

Self presentation includes body shape, it also includes grooming, fashion decisions, manners, body language, and all the various bits that make up our public face. Men wear a tie to a job interview not because their ability to do the work is related to a piece of cloth tied around their neck, but because wearing this impractical garment signals that they perceive the occasion as formal and important, and that they want to make a good impression. We read other people's clothing and grooming constantly, and one challenge is to learn to distinguish between cultural accents and personal representation - do you refuse to hire someone with long hair? Short hair? An Afro? Corn Rows? What about someone who attends a job interview with unwashed, uncombed hair? We constantly read other people, we judge them on the assumption that their outward veneer will reveal their inner character, or at least their willingness to signal their desires.

Body shape, like it or not, is one of the things that signifies status. At one point big was in, for it said that you were so rich that you could eat more than you needed to survive. Renaissance Italian women's clothing tried to make the wearer look pregnant, because pregnant was sexy. At the moment, thin is in. I was at my college reunion a few years ago - it was an elite school and the folks who are doing well are always more likely to attend. The most striking thing about the folks who were there was how skinny everyone was. I was in the heavy five percent in my class, and I am only slightly overweight. I was also lifting at the time, and was in the muscled five percent even though I have scrawny little arms - muscularity is another class signifier; muscles are blue collar.

So, as a guy, I have a fairly easy set of physical norms I can use to signal my status: lean and angular for upper class status, and either puffy-fat or puffy-muscular for working class status. These are not absolutes, of course; I know some buff lawyers and judges and some scrawny day laborers, but body shape is one of then many class indicators like tooth maintenance, hair style, clothing choices and jewelry. While no one of them is complete, a set of them does give a pretty good picture of a person's status and the things that are important to them.

For women, body politics are endlessly more complicated. They share with men a predisposition for firm, youthful skin. They share with men a tendency to assume that lean is higher class, puffy is lower class. But beyond that women have to decide how to use their secondary sex characteristics - do you dress up the girls or do you hide them? As DW put it, "Nipples can transform the most conservative school marm outfit into stripper gear in no time flat. ... Without nipples, breasts under clothing are an abstraction. They are potential breasts, swellings in the fabric that may be attractive and arouse the interest, but usually don't arouse more. Cleavage helps. But add nipples and suddenly those are kinetic breasts, bouncing around and begging to be touched and nuzzled. For those easily moved by such things (like me), the lustful reaction is involuntary and spontaneous." She goes on to give some anecdotes about selectively emphasizing or hiding nipples as part of office politics.

Women are looked at more than men are, and that constant gaze and constant judgement means that most women are far more body conscious than are most men. Many women internalize those gazes and try to reshape themselves to meet what they think people want to see. There is a complicated power dynamic here, for body shape reflects class status and also femininity and, to a surprising extent, self-worth. People come in all shapes and sizes, we use body shape as one of the many visual clues to a person's status, personality, and desires, and those visual clues have a lot to do with the way we relate to other people; the challenge is to read them correctly and act on them appropriately.

Posted by Red Ted at January 23, 2004 10:06 AM | TrackBack