Thursday, 13 May 2010

Our Friend, the Mirror

For a long time I have wondered what it is about us human beings that makes us so judgemental of our own bodies. Everyone has their insecurities. We want to look slimmer, curvier, sexier, more this and less that. Even though it is tempting to think that this is a new phenomenon, it is not. Societal pressure to look a certain way has existed way before fashion magazines, although undoubtedly the pressure has intensified during the recent decades, due to the world of information overload we currently live in.

As I decided to stop watching too much tv yesterday, I got my hands on Siri Hustvedt's book The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves. In her search to find an answer to her strange symptoms of shaking uncontrollably while speaking in public, she discusses our relationship to our bodies, and how diseases (be it mental or physical) are like strange alien components that reside in us. Especially the diseases of the mind are often seen as invasive of not just our brain, but of ourselves, our personalities. We are split in two: mind and matter, our conscious self and the body we inhabit. Disease can lurk in either one, or both, but at the end of the day, making the distinction between mind and body is quite impossible. But we still make the distinction. Why?

Hustvedt reminds us that apart from some primates, elephants and dolphins, only human beings can recognise their reflections in the mirror. We have the ability (or the curse?) to look away from ourselves and see our own image. We can observe ourselves visually, from the outside. Essentially, we have the ability to objectify ourselves. There is a difference between body schema and body image. The former makes it unnecessary for us to consciously calculate a walking distance before we take the first step, and the latter allows us to have conscious thoughts about our bodies. With the ability to objectify ourselves, we make the connection between ourselves and how we define our bodies - from the outside in. That is how we are.

I haven't read the book far enough to tell what this all means, but it seems to me that our ability to have a body image must serve some kind of an evolutionary purpose. I doubt that the purpose is to make us feel bad about our bodies though, and I don't believe for a second that body image is designed to make us want to look like someone else. From the perspective of the perseverance of life in general, it wouldn't make much sense. For me, for now anyway, the fascinating revelation about all this is the knowledge that body image is not just in our heads. It is not a result of women's insecurities, it is a biological fact. The perspective that opens from this recognition feels empowering to me. We are not just victims of weak minds. There might just be a purpose and an explanation to all of the feelings, both positive and negative, we have about our own bodies.

Blue blouse: second hand Calvin Klein / Plato's Closet
Cardigan: Benetton sample sale
Polka-dot skirt: second hand / Salvation Army
Belt: second hand / Salvation Army
Socks: H&M
Shoes: Jessica Simpson
Necklace: second hand / America's Attic


Sal said...

Huh. I'm curious to hear more. Self-awareness seems like an important tool for ANY animal, but body image? What biological impact could that have?

a cat of impossible colour said...

I love your posts. And I also love Siri Hustvedt, incidentally.

I just read your guest post over on Sal's blog, and I wanted to come by and say bravo! It was a wonderfully-written article, and very honest and thoughtful. Really amazing. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I almost bought the book you mentioned last time I visited Akateeminen kirjakauppa. I read some pages of the book, but finally decided to leave it was way too expensive and I was a bit concerned about the language, weather I could read it in english or not. I mean it's hard enough as it is, as a topic. I love Siri Hustvedt though, "What I loved" was SO good.

I also read your guest post.. and even though we have discussed these things many times over the years, it felt strangely different to read about it. It felt really important, it wasn't just us, trying to make sense of it all over a cup of tea and a pile of fashion magazines...and remember how we sometimes joke(d)about stuff like that, of your bones "sticking out" or the fact that "I don't have calves." Or when we were remembering our school nurse, like when she said in front of the whole class that I was an example of a girl "late in puberty." Those are important thoughts you wrote, my dear sis, and I'm really proud of you. I'm sure we will joke about stuff like that in the future too, but it's so good to note that these are serious matters. I don't want my son to grow up thinking it's right to judge anyone based on his or hers physical appearance, I want him to see beauty in diversity. And you know, to tell you the truth, I don't know how I would react if that one lady would pass us by again some day, the one who told us we should be eating something else beside apples... Remember, at the flea market? We both fell silent then. It felt really bad, and even as we were adults, it took some time to get angry..because it was so vulgar and personal for a stranger to say something like that in public. I think we would fall silent today aswell.
"the other skinny sis"

FashionTheorist said...

That book sounds very interesting - I'm intrigued to hear what conclusions the author comes to, and what your impression is of them.

I love your blue-on-blue outfit. The necklace is particularly lovely and flattering.

Teenysparkles said...

I am almost sorry that I'm waking up to marketing and the effect it has had on my self-perception. Watching a shampoo advertisement the other night "silkier, smoother, shinier and stronger hair" sounded really nice - and then I realised that human hair just isn't meant to be like that; but all my life i've aspired to this assuming that it meant my hair was CLEAN. All. of. my. life. What a waste of time and money. Anyway, sorry, that was slightly off topic.

Anonymous said...

Amazing guest post, at Sal's, hon. Superb, xoxo, CR

Rad_in_Broolyn said...

I also wanted to thank you again for the brilliant post on modeling. It was well needed and a great read.
Your question is an interesting one. While other animals might not be able to recognize themselves, I wonder if they still have body images? Aren't sexual pecking orders determined by some physical characteristics (I read Olivia Judson's column in the Times, but only sometimes). Or do you suppose that animals are more intune with their bodies in a utilitarian way, that makes the aesthetic less important?
I have some friends in philosophy who would strongly disagree with mind-body dualism. It's an interesting concept, but not an easy one to parse out.
I love your recent layering of socks and sandals. You are really rocking this look!

Eyeliah said...

I like that you are using this time off so efficiently. You are reading up on insightful and important matters, growing vegetables, guest posts (I saw on Already Pretty, great post btw one day I will tell you about my very limited modeling experiences). I’ve been reading books on birth order and why that makes us who we are as well. It is quite interesting to read these quasi ‘self help’ (hate that term) books to learn more about ourselves.

Karenina said...


Sounds like you're getting into some really interesting territory; you might want to check out some of Laura Mulvey's work on the construction of the male gaze in cinema (which I think has a lot to do with the way women are always watching themselves be watched) and John Berger's classic, Ways of Seeing. Both deal with how the classically male artist/photographer/filmaker's gaze has actually shaped the way women psychologically view themselves.

Women's notion of themselves as object (and objectified)is, to my mind, a social construct and is incidental to evolution at best...why we seem to be ready and willing to accept this "way of seeing" is something which I cannot answer. Perhaps deeper reading will bring you to some interesting conclusions.

I have a bit of a funny story that may throw a wrench into the theory about animals having body schema, but not body "image"; I have a cat who used to be very, very fat (think big, round, white puffball that people mistook for a pillow). She was very shy and actively tried to avoid people she didn't know. Now, with a new diet, she has lost a ton of wieght, is much more active and outgoing as hell. She hops right up into stranger's laps and looks them in the eye, as if to say "aren't I beautiful?" (I may be wildly anthropomorphizing here, but I do see this). So I would say that my cat is aware of how other beings perceive her, and her now more "acceptable" body has changed the way the sees herself. Or, maybe I'm just a crazy cat lady. ;)

Keep up the great posts!

Charlotte said...

I knew Siri in graduate school--we lived in the same dorm at Columbia--and it's important to know, for the record, that she was absolutely gorgeous, the kind of woman who stands out in a crowd simply because she's so lovely. Radiant, in the way that make-up can't supply. So knowing that SHE has body issues is similar to reading Virginia Woolf's sincere derisions of her own writing as trash.

firefly said...

Yes, there might be an explanation and a purpose for this, but it is still the fault of our culture that we exaggerate this negative type of body image and prey upon insecurities.

wardrobeexperience said...

gorgeous outfit!
i don't like jessica simpson at all, but her sandals are amazing...

no time for reading an intellectuel book these days... that makes me feel a little lowbrow...