Body Image, Body Reality, And The Ability To Alter It



My relationship with my body has always been pretty complicated. I remember as early as elementary school soccer practice looking at the other girls on the team and thinking they had better nicer looking legs than I did. By Jr. High I had come to full-blown despise the sight of my legs, which conveniently coincided with the grunge-movement’s popularizing of tights under shorts, something I took to with fierce commitment, building a collection of tights that would carry me through my four years as a Catholic High School girl, forced to choose between pleated skirts or pleated khakis — pick your poison.

Clunky Doc Marten Mary Janes helped me camouflage what I felt were my disturbingly thick ankles, but once I moved to New York for school I traded those in at Wasteland for a pair of knee-high twenty holes, and all but committed to nothing but pants for the better part of my college career. And swim suits? Bag that idea. 

As I wrapped up my time at NYU I learned that my body had started to attack my thyroid and I’d now be taking replacement therapy for the rest of my life. Little did I know that I would soon be longing for body I’d once despised as my weight began to tick upwards and my metabolism slowed to a halt. The imagined weight struggles of my youth became real. By then my list of grievances with my body had also grown.

…big wrists, no kneecaps, lopsided hips, thick calves, soft in the belly…and yes, in case you’re wondering, I do hate my cuticles.

Today, at 32, I’ve been overweight, I’ve been underweight, and I’m finally at a place where I’m generally comfortable in my skin. I mean, I still see all of those things when I look in the mirror, but I don’t dwell on them or let them ruin my day before it starts. I’m definitely not the thinnest I’ve ever been, but I’m certainly not the heaviest either. I try to dress for my shape. I leave the house most days feeling good about the way I look. Sure — sometimes when I examine photos to0 closely I want to curl up in a corner, or at least destroy all evidence of them before someone posts them to Facebook, and a few weeks ago while donning my swim suit in Palm Springs I might have caught myself wondering why out of all the women on the planet my legs are the worst, but I spend a lot less time standing different ways in the mirror trying to figure out which pose makes my thighs look the thinnest. Hating your body can be really exhausting.

And then a few weeks ago I had CoolSculpting on my lower abdomen. (Haven’t heard of CoolSculpting? You can check out what I went through and why HERE) And yesterday I had another treatment — called VenusFreeze, meant to tighten that creped skin, because yeah — I need that pretty bad on the belly.

Wait, what? Wasn’t I just talking about how comfortable I was in my skin? What kind of body-loving feminist does these things?

I know. I know. But it’s a weird thing. I came to this fragile crossroads in life where the technology to safely and subtly eliminate my problem areas and my ability to acquire the treatments that utilize that technology converged. (Or, less cryptically, as someone who writes about beauty I’m sometimes offered opportunities to try new treatments at cost or free of charge) And I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I’m proud that I can live comfortably in my own skin, even when that skin has creped and stretched from a pregnancy. But I’m also not immune to the lure of being able to eliminate that area I’m most sensitive about — that area I don’t like for anyone to accidentally touch — that area that makes me terrified that my shirt might creep up and expose it to the world — that area I might be comfortable with existing, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish it wasn’t there.

When I was 21 I had a nose job. I’d been drunk one night with my roommate stumbling our way to Blockbuster Video (where I think we were renting an actual VHS tape) and I ended up taking a wrought iron fence to the face. Shattered my nose, knocking the whole thing sideways, and cracking my cheekbones for good measure. I didn’t want to be all lop-nosed for the rest of my life and insurance was willing to cover it so I went for the reconstructive surgery, secretly hoping that they’d restore me to my former state without the nominal bump that had been there pre-accident. (A squiggle, one college friend had called it, noting that we had similar noses.)

In the weeks that led up to the surgery I was nervous, having constant anxiety dreams wherein I ended up looking like a member of the Jackson family. Just before the anesthesiologist put me under I grabbed my surgeon’s wrist and said “I trust you, but I just want to look like me. Please don’t make me look like Michael Jackson.” (He laughed and told me to count backwards.)

The anxiety level only increased in the weeks that followed my operation. I was walking around with a new face, but thanks to the cast over my nose I couldn’t see what it looked like yet. When I changed the drip catch, I saw a what resembled a pigs nose. I called my doctor frantic and he calmly explained that after all of that manipulation, they had taped the tip of my nose up so that it wouldn’t droop and distort from the swelling. When the cast came off, I was relieved. I still basically looked like me. Most people couldn’t tell I’d done anything at all. But the bump I’d secretly wished away was gone — I felt like my face looked weirdly blank, like my personality had been removed from it. In retrospect it was probably because it takes months for the swelling to fully go away and I couldn’t move my face as much as I was used to.

The point is, after a life time of looking in the mirror with my pointer finger covering the small bump on my nose, imagining how it would feel to eliminate that small flaw, when it actually happened, I wasn’t sure how I felt. It wasn’t that I was unhappy with my new nose. It was that I immediately realized that I was going to be just as critical of it as I had been of my original nose. I was still going to look in the mirror and think I would be happy if I could just…and at once I decided that the safe bet was probably to love the face I had and do nothing at all. 

But here I am. My stomach is hardly my face, but I do wonder if a flat stomach will make me happy, or if I’ll want to move on to my love handles next. I don’t take the decision to enter the world of non-invasive cosmetic treatments lightly. I enter in to it with the knowledge that improvements and alterations are a slippery slope, and the dragon you’re after may never be caught. I enter it the irony not lost on me that while I loathe the practice of photoshopping in magazines, here I am photoshopping my real body, for all intents and purposes — smoothing out the problem areas, erasing the stretchmarks, buffing out the places where the cracks have begun to show. Are the two related? Am I a perpetrator or a victim? Am I waxing way too philosophical about a little non-surgical enhancement?

Probably. I’ll keep you posted. But hey, at least I’ll have a flat stomach.

Feed Me Seymour