Yesterday’s column (The Shape Part) sparked an interesting debate on the subject of balance, or obsession, or knowing when enough is enough already.
Human beings in wealthy countries spend a lot of time preening. Once our basic needs for food, shelter, safety are met, we preen, and we stare at one another. We size each other up.
Turn on the Nature Channel, and consider the courtship displays of virtually every species on the planet, including plant life. Making ourselves appear to be as attractive as possible is a biological imperative, an urge, a need we share with every other living thing.
So is it any wonder that the market for beauty and fashion products is gargantuan, bottomless, borderless? Because the market is huge and competitive, advertising must inflame and perpetuate our obsession with the way we look. And it does that so very well. We constantly perfect and alter images of real human beings to help these advertisers present ideals for skin smoothness, dimplelessness, breast size, hairlessness.
Thought Barbie was bad? Played any video games lately? We can present thighs the circumference of arms, arms the circumference of wrists, make shorter people taller, wider people thinner. For the men we present ripples and striations of muscle that have no basis in human anatomy. We have the technology.
Luckily, we know all of this, and we are not plants. We are not birds. We are human beings, at the top of the pecking order and endowed with the faculty of reason, the gift of choice. With our superior powers we can easily find the balance between presenting a socially acceptable face to the world and spending too much time and money, sweat and pain, on our look.
It’s interesting that there are monastic orders across religions and throughout the world that attempt to eliminate thoughts of personal beauty to give time and room in the day for spiritual attention, service, good works. By eliminating mirrors, shrouding the body, shunning makeup, covering the hair or removing it, the priest, monk, nun is released of thoughts of personal beauty, is not distracted by thoughts of the beauty of their brothers and sisters. That’s the idea. It’s a little imperfect as a deterrent, it turns out.
Each of us must find our own place, our own way, our own right balance. Most of us will choose a level of attention that lies somewhere between monastic denial and Michael Jackson.
Where that level of attention is for each of us will depend on a lot of things. Age matters, life experience matters, how public or private our lives are, the culture we live in, our immediate social circle and its accepted norms, our family preferences. We will experience the pressure applied by the impossible standards of beauty we perpetuate, and we will succumb to a greater or lesser degree to these images or peer pressure or both, depending on our gullibility. Choosing to actively ignore ideals of beauty is just about as time consuming as going with the flow.
For those of us who have a real problem maintaining even a healthy weight, we may already be concerned about the time and energy that go into maintaining good health. We have to work harder than other people do, spend more time on exercise, more time preparing healthy meals, counting calories, keeping our journals, focusing on the changes we need to make to yield good health. Or maybe it’s just that we have to spend more time than we want to. Either way, we have to work beyond what’s comfortable.
If we add to all of that a desire to see a little cut in our biceps, is that over the top? For some of us yes, and for some no. We each have a line we cross that separates focus on our health from obsession with thinness and beauty. It’s a fuzzy line.
If I become driven to work out because of a desire to lose more weight or squeeze into a still smaller size, I know I’ve crossed my personal line. Fitness work is changing my body shape and helping me maintain my weight, but I know I’m crossing my personal line when I start to entertain thoughts about further weight loss.
For some people, the line is crossed when they can’t face the world without mascara.
For some people the line is crossed when they are considering their third face lift.
Some find the line on their credit card balance statement, and others when they obsess about tucking in their shirt and wearing a belt.
Sadly, we each have to find our own line of obsession by getting close to it. Experience is key. And if we’re working over a long period at losing weight and getting fit, we can expect that the line will move over time, as different goals become possible. As maintenance becomes easier, as our fitness experience builds.
If we’re lucky enough to have our basic needs met, comfy enough to have beauty as a concern, then we do need to exercise reason and choice to find the right balance of focus on beauty and health and fitness. It’s a struggle, a struggle of luxury.
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