Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

This is Not the Body I Ordered

There’s a reason people like me don’t have children. When I learned in college there was a psychological condition in which
people grappled with distorted body images — perceiving their bodies as being heftier than they actually are — I got excited. How interesting it would be to induce yet a different perceptual distortion through mindful child-rearing!

Perhaps I had Lewis Carroll’s tale Through the Looking Glass on the brain, with Alice’s continual changes of size in relation to her environment. You could have a child, I figured, then keep getting new furniture that kept enlarging in proportion with him as he grew. You could arrange it so that he only came into contact with environments that maintained the same proportional relationships with him as when he was an infant. As the child grew, so would the trees, storefronts, restaurants, home interiors. With all this carefully controlled, he might never feel “bigger” than he once had been — at least not in relation to the objects the world is filled with.

John Tenniel drawing for Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass

Of course, there was always the people problem: what if a new baby came into the family, one observably smaller than the existing child? The child’s perception of his new brother or sister’s size would be difficult to control without a lot of prosthetics. What if the child noticed his own limbs were getting longer in relation to his torso over time? And — just working this through — wouldn’t you, as the parent, have to be careful to growexactly in proportion with your child? How much could you really manipulate that?

Clearly, the whole thing was feasible, if expensive and time-consuming, all for the sake of controlling children’s perceptions — that is, all except for the people part, which was where the whole experiment in child-rearing breaks down. If what psychologists say is true, that we get a sense of self in relation to other people, the experiment was doomed to failure from the start.

In “body dysmorphic disorder,” the mind-body distortion that so fascinated me in Abnormal Psych, sufferers hold an image of
their bodies as being grossly defective in some way. Probably the most common form BDD takes is in those with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, in which sufferers’ image of their size and shape is out of keeping with the observable reality. We think of the girl who squeezes off her food intake, or who binges and then forcibly purges, in a terrible spiral that, unchecked, can be fatal.

Photo by Ross Brown.

The girl looks in the mirror, flanked by a friend. What her nearby companion sees, both in the mirror and beside her, is a thinning or vanishing figure, while what an anorexic sees in her reflection is grotesquely fleshy. As someone with BDD complained on website Experience Project, “It makes me feel angry to know that the world sees a different person when they look at me than I do. … Ridiculous, I know, but when someone calls me beautiful, how can I possibly believe them when my reflection shows a monster?” Treatment would tear her uncomfortably away from her compulsion, as it “would mean losing the ability to see my flaws.”

People who see their bodies as detestable can focus on other things besides weight. A high school senior may spend more than an hour per day checking the size and shape of his nose in various reflections, hoping for an impossible reassurance that it has changed. Humanistic neurologist Oliver Sacks described asomatognosia, a condition in which sufferers, not recognizing one of their limbs as their own, may long to have the disowned appendage amputated.

While men may also unrealistically perceive themselves to be overweight, another variation of BDD has been noted in some men, called muscle dysmorphia or body dysphoria. Ever dissatisfied with the size of their muscles, they may dive into body-building and train beyond any rational point. Some Japanese men believe their body odor to be so socially unacceptable that they have made themselves recluses rather than offend others or draw attention to themselves.

BDD may be a disorder not about the body at all but rather about a distorted, unrealistic compulsion toward perfectionism. Some researchers paint it as a disorder of overuse of the left brain — when sufferers look at what others would see as “big pictures,” they see only the details, treating all visual information as if it were “high-frequency” information. Instead of seeing their bodies as wholes, those with BDD may see it as a dumping ground for defective parts.

If you’re in an experiential mood tonight and want to put yourself into a state of more conscious body dysmorphia, check yourself out on the “Human Aesthetics Calculator” on http://www.thephilosopher.co.uk/humaes/human-aesthetics.htm. If you really want to put yourself through this, you can measure your wrist and then compare the resultant calculations the site will perform for your ideal chest, neck, waist, hip, thigh, calf, bicep, and forearm measurements, depending on whether you want to emulate Michelangelo’s David, Mattel’s Barbie, an American body-builder, or a Polynesian Islander (listed as a now-vanished ideal). Just see if your body stretches the 7 head-lengths favored by Rembrandt, the 7.5 head-lengths Dürer preferred, or the 8 of the perfect body of classical times.

The Human Aesthetic Calculator graphically shows how the disparities between the images we hold of our bodies and the bodies themselves are mediated by cultural ideals. In our weight- and image-conscious media culture, most of us experience some dissonance among how we’d prefer to look, how we think we look, and how we actually look. Whereas those with eating disorders associated with body dysmorphic disorder see themselves as conforming less to the cultural ideal than they really do, our everyday dysmorphia may make us seem (and feel) better than the real. It’s well documented that women tend to underrate their attractiveness, while men overrate theirs. My style seems to be more like a man’s in some respects. For example, I only realized quite recently that it’s not a mistake every time I catch sight of myself in a yoga studio mirror or shop window and see that my legs have not gotten any longer in all these decades of delusion.

Familiar Norman Rockwell image.

There are many other ways in which our idealized images of our bodies fail us. We pass by a shop window and suck in our bellies because the image doesn’t correspond to the one we prefer to hold — we may walk off clinging to the hollowed-out image, writing off the we just saw as a mistake. And is it not a form of dissonance when, as we age, we keep scanning the mirror for signs that yesterday’s sunken face will have been an accident of the last two and half years?

How odd and yet how common not to recognize our bodies –especially our changing bodies — as our own. What would it feel like to recognize ourselves in the mirror, or in our bodily experience, as someone other than someone else — as ourselves?

What has been your experience of the visual fact of your body?

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September 25, 2010 - Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S.

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