Now you’re expecting me to list all the healthy tips and tricks that will promise a skinnier, firmer, flatter you by Spring Break. Ha! I tricked you. No, I will not be offering any weight loss, fitness, nutrition, or diet advice in this blog. But I hooked you with that title, didn’t I?
The perfect body. I hate that word, perfect. I hate how easily it gets paired with the word body. In our culture, a perfect body is one without flaw. And that typically means airbrushed to death and petite with curves, but only in certain places (tits- and ass-type places).
Striving for our perfect body ideal turns beautiful people into calorie-counting, self-doubting dieters: “Oh, I couldn’t possibly eat that…it’ll go straight to my thighs!”
It drives us to passively insult our bodies by extoling others: “You’re so lucky; I don’t have the figure to pull off that outfit!”
It teaches women (and men) to fear their weight and hide their softer sides and to look in the mirror with disgust and shame. It teaches men that women should be flat-bellied, big-breasted, and hairless below the eyebrows. And it robbed me of all that precious time I wasted in my teens and twenties thinking my thighs were too fat for skinny jeans and my stomach too soft for a bikini.
But our perfect body ideal is not universal. A year ago, I wrote a blog post (So Cosmo Says You’re Fat….) about how women are more than their bodies, even though our media tries to convince us otherwise. I talked about my life in Ghana, West Africa, where women have a totally different take on the perfect body. My co-workers often complimented me with “Have you put on weight? You look so nice and fat today.” And my Ghanaian friend, Freda, expressed envy at my cellulite.
Well, last summer, Freda moved to New Jersey with her husband. She no longer says “nice and fat.” Now she thinks she’s too fat, and we all know that fat = bad. In under a year, Freda traded in the round-hipped, soft-bellied Ghanaian ideal and joined the ranks of self-doubting dieters. But Freda is not alone.
I recently finished Dr. Cynthia Bulik’s (head of UNC’s Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders) book Crave for a class I am taking. The book focuses on binge eating disorder and touches on our society’s destructive impact on body image. Dr. Bulik writes about how women compare themselves to the perfect bodies of models and celebrities, and how striving for the perfect body leads many women to disordered eating and self-loathing. There it is. The Perfect Body. Ugh!
What makes this so-called perfect body perfect? Who decided that perfect equals smooth and skinny? Not my friend, Freda. Not the women in Ghana who call each other “nice and fat.” And definitely not me. I think Dr. Bulik would agree that assigning the word perfect to the superskinny-spray-tanned magazine bodies only reinforces the ridiculous ideal that we fight so hard to change.Those bodies are only perfect because we keep calling them perfect. And that needs to change.
Assuring women that they don’t need to strive for the perfect body is not enough. We have to redefine what perfect means.
So then, what is a perfect body?
I’m gonna whip out my BA in Classics for a minute and lay some etymology on you (ah, Murphy Hall….always in my heart). Perfect comes from the Latin word perficere, meaning “to finish” or “to complete” and perfectus, the past participle of perficere, translates “having been completed.” Therefore, a perfect body would be a “finished” or “completed” body. A completed body.
This reminds me of how new parents welcome their fresh-from-the-womb infants, counting fingers and toes, as they take in all the parts of their new baby. Ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes and one nose. In reality, this is not quality control, folks—I don’t know any parents that would hand their baby back if missing a toe or sporting an extra finger. Rather, they are surveying this fully-formed, completed human being that began a mere 9 months ago as an idea, a kiss, a collection of cells. Just taking it all in. This complete little human being.
Can you imagine critiquing a little infant the way many of us pick at our own bodies?
Last year, I wrote about how we are more than our bodies. But, the truth is, our bodies are still a big part of who we are. They are a part of what completes us. And how we feel about our bodies, how we treat our bodies, reflects how we feel about ourselves.
So, I guess I didn’t trick you, after all. Since the day I was born, when my parents held me that very first time and explored all my little fingers and toes, my body has been complete. It is already perfect.
And so is yours.
More on Dr. Bulik and the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders here.
Awesome body image resources:
A more clinical perspective: http://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-body-image.html
 Men: I cringe every time I hear you talk about your own body shame. I don’t mean to leave you out of this conversation. I have focused on women for this blog, because I am a gal, and I am speaking from my own experience. However, I do understand that the Perfect Body ideal affects ya’ll too, and I welcome your comments!