How Do I Compare?
by David Leonhardt
Body image is a big issue for some and a small issue for others...but it is an issue of some kind for almost everybody.
Some people feel they are too wide. Others feel they are too thin. Some are too bald. Others too graying. Some too tall. Others too short.
Celebrities are not immune. Michael Jackson thinks he is too tanned. Pamela Anderson thinks she is too top-heavy. No, bottom heavy. No, make that top heavy. It gets hard to keep track. Even Oprah has had to struggle with body image.
I was reminded of this issue while shaving off my beard. Until recently, my face pranced around fully nude, flouting all local ordinances of public decency. Amazingly, my face was never arrested for this.
For the background on my recent beard-growing experience:
I was keenly aware that seven-month old Little Sister would not recognize me without the beard I have sported for the most recent quarter of her life. She gets upset enough when my wife puts her hair up.
So I slowly shaved off my beard, letting Little Sister watch and touch so she would know that the "after picture" is still her papa. Here are the before, during and after pictures, by the way:
This got me thinking about how much we depend on body image for recognition. When somebody loses 60 or 70 pounds, people don't always recognize her. Nor if she cuts her long, flowing hair really short. Nor if she grows a beard.
In the animal kingdom, creatures recognize each other more by smell. Which is Mrs. Meow won't let Mr. Meow in after that barroom brawl with Mr. Skunk.
Some animals rely on sound to recognize each other. That's why birds chirp, wolves howl and trees bark.
And some animals rely on sight. The peacock struts his feathers to lure the peahen into thinking she's found Mr. Right. She falls for that trick every time. So much for thousands of years of evolution.
We humans rely on body image to recognize ourselves, too. A positive body image says, "I am a success." A negative body image says, "I am a failure."
How big a problem is body image? Just check all these email offers to regrow my head fur, lose surplus luggage and enlarge various body mechanisms.
I knew the body image industry was getting out of control when my wife called to me. "Honey, I got another of those emails."
"Which emails?" I asked.
"It asks how I compare to the other men in the locker room."
"Uh-huh..." I wondered where this was going.
"Well, I'm worried."
Uh-oh. Suddenly I was worried.
"I've never been there."
"Where?" I asked.
"In the locker room."
"That's great news," I said with relief.
"But how will I know," she complained, "how I compare to the other men in the locker room."
"How do I compare?" That is the question some evil sorcerer has planted in far too many hearts. My little brother was a body-building enthusiast in his youth. Now in his flabby years, he is too shy to wear a swimming suit in public ... except under his parka.
Why do so many people limit themselves by asking, "How do I compare?" Why do we allow other people to set our standards? Why don't we paint our own portraits? I wrote a short fairy tale on this in my book, Climb Your Stairway to Heaven. The fairytale is reprinted here:
So who sets these standards? TV, advertising, catalogs. Skimming through the Sears catalogue, I discovered that women are supposed to be anorexic and men are not allowed to leave the gym. Thin hair is a no-no, and gray hair is out of the question. And nobody in Catalogue Land ever ages. What an education! I guess I'm just not normal.
But I don't have time to worry about being normal. I have to keep my eyes open for police officers. After shedding it's fur coat, my face is once again flouting those public decency ordinances.
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