The title of this post most definitely does not reflect my personal relationship with my own body, oh no of course not, though (as we will discuss) I wish it did. It’s a line from a Regina Spektor song (“Folding Chair,” from 2009’s Far) that rolls through my head sometimes, which I absolutely love:
“I’ve got a perfect body / But sometimes I forget / I’ve got a perfect body / ‘Cause my eyelashes catch my sweat”
I love how this little sentiment subverts our expectation as to how one’s body should be judged. What is the “perfect body” anyway? Who is it for? Yourself, or everyone else?
Last week I visited the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, a dark and morbidly fascinating collection of medical specimens and wax models of human oddities housed in a physicians’ college. Most of the specimens date back to the early twentieth century and have that curio cabinet look about them, though they were ostensibly used for legitimate research purposes.
A lot of it was interesting—all of it left me feeling a little queasy. The models and specimens were, for the most part, divorced from the experience of the human who was afflicted, and were presented as isolated parts (syphilitic skulls, tumored eyes). Cold, scientific. But one exhibit I found to be sympathetic and particularly heartbreaking.
This exhibit showed a series of photographs of a boy who lived in the middle of the twentieth century. In the first photograph, he is a beaming 5-year-old boy who has just recovered from a fractured leg bone and is standing tall in his little 1940s shorts. In the next photograph, he is about 7, and we can see that something is wrong with his leg—it’s growing a bit crooked, skinny, weak. The photographs continue over the years, and soon we see that the malformation of his leg has also affected his posture. He can only stand with his head stooped forward, one shoulder collapsed, as he shoots up over six feet with one healthy leg and one long, crooked, bone-thin leg. In each of these later photographs he stares straight at the camera, stoic, defeated, with an air of despair. He died when he was about 40.
This was someone who would not be able to walk through a crowd without attracting strange looks, revulsion and/or pity. This was, I suppose, an imperfect body, one that had trouble functioning, one whose skeleton (or a facsimile thereof) was placed on display in a goddamn curio cabinet. Because of one long, pronounced flaw.
On the other end of the spectrum is the story of the Ukrainian Barbie “trend” that’s been circulating on the Internet—girls who are quite literally striving for physical perfection. Through plastic surgery and hardcore makeup regimens, women like Anastasiya Shpagina and Valeriya Lukyanova attempt to achieve the exaggerated proportions and pert, doll-like features of Barbie dolls and anime characters. It’s alarming and simply cannot be healthy, physically, mentally, or emotionally—yet this is their choice. This, according to their interviews, is what makes them happy and comfortable. Including possibly having ribs surgically removed to get that perfect tiny waist.
What is perfection? I think it’s worth asking ourselves that question. Whether or not we admit to it, there must be some idea of “the perfect” that we consciously or unconsciously believe in. If there was no “perfect,” there would be no such thing as flaws. Or if there were, they would be things like a malformed leg that made walking difficult and required medical attention---not a bit of cellulite or ears that turn out too wide.
In a recent Jezebel piece, Tracy Moore points out that it is often realism, not insecurity, that informs women’s reluctance to describe themselves as “pretty” (or, when they do, to qualify it with their numerous flaws or non-normative traits).
“For them, it wasn't that they couldn't think they were pretty. It was that they all knew, after lifetimes of being shown images of what is pretty, cute, beautiful or not in staggering detail, EXACTLY what kind of pretty they are or aren't, to what type of person they were most appealing, to what degree their prettiness abounds. Just saying they were pretty without acknowledging the exceptions seemed to be like admitting that you didn't understand how pretty works. And ‘pretty’ isn't a permanent state, either: it's a complicated, evolving assessment, discussed with a detached, almost economic appraisal.”
I get that “pretty” or “beautiful” are extremely abstract signifiers that we never like to imagine ourselves as fully qualifying for. But if not us, who does? Hypothetically, what would the erasure of all these supposed “flaws” get us to? A fake Barbie?
Whether it’s insecurity or realism, I don’t think there’s any problem with celebrating the body and face you have. It’s not perfect in the literal sense, but it’s not supposed to be. If it works, for the most part—if you ever feel good about yourself—if anyone has ever paid you a compliment—you might as well have a perfect body. The women who started and/or participate in The Nu Project, a photography blog of female nudes who embrace and celebrate their bodies as they are, seem to know this. (Warning: NSFW.) What I love about this project—besides for these women’s bravery in bearing all despite deviations from supposed “perfection”—is the sheer diversity of their bodies, the oft-needed reminder that there’s more ways to be and to look and to appear than the narrow parameters of beauty presented to us in the media.
Maybe all of us are perfect. Or maybe none of us are perfect. All I know is, it's a waste of time to feel shame---whether that's shame at feeling unattractive, or shame at feeling attractive and expressing that confidence aloud.
But also, I think it’s important to remember: we have bodies but we are not bodies. We are more. Accept the physical reality, then concern yourself with more important things, like being an awesome person. Right?