Last Thursday I gave a presentation to a class at Carnegie Mellon University. Harper couldn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh, and I am
very grateful to my gracious husband Mike for stepping in as Seeing Eye Human and making this visit possible.
The class I spoke to was History 79-311: “Body Politics: Women and Health in America.” To prepare for my talk, I went to the experts. I asked the women in the memoir-writing classes I teach to write about “body image.” Their essays did not disappoint.
Myrna’s essay taught us that anorexia existed long before pop singer Karen Carpenter succumbed to it in the 1980s. Myrna wrote about growing up pudgy in a home where eating was “considered one of the great pleasures in life.” When she was sent away to camp at age 12, she saw it as a chance to lose some of the pudge and look more like the girls in magazines. The magazine girls were not as skinny then as now, Myrna acknowledged, but definitely trimmer than in life. This little 12-year-old girl starved herself at camp, devising ways to pick at her food to make it look like she’d eaten more than she had, always leaving the table early to dump what was left on her plate into the trash. It was weeks before the camp counselors finally noticed. Myrna’s parents were summoned and took her home. From her essay:
A picture of me taken not long after I returned home shows me scrawny, for the first and last time in my life. I stopped menstruating for several months. Perhaps I thought that, too, was an accomplishment.
Myrna’s fellow memoir-writer Kathy had the opposite problem. Her essay described one of the long-lasting effects of growing up a late bloomer.
I waited, waited, waited! Friend and after friend smiled knowingly as she joined the ranks of women, no longer a girl. I was still my mother’s thin child with a chest flatter than flat. (Her body type had been all the rage in the flapper era!) Furtively, I began to stoop to conceal the absence of a Marilyn Monroe bosom. My posture, once erect and confident, became the rounded shoulders I have today…
One of the most intriguing essays came from Sheila. She wrote about life as an identical twin, describing her body as a carbon copy of her sister Clare’s — up to a point. “A slightly distorted mirror image is a better description.” At birth Sheila weighed in at 5 pounds, Clare at four pounds, some-odd ounces.
Weight has been a comparison point for our entire lives. Clare was always a size smaller than me. I resented weighing more than her. No one, even strangers would let me forget the difference. “She’s bigger than the other one. Otherwise, they look exactly alike.”
The twins are in their 60s now, and Clare put on weight after being immobilized by foot surgery.
Finally, she’s as big as me. It doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would. All my life I wanted to be the same size or smaller than Clare. How come I don’t feel like celebrating?
There is not much to celebrate about becoming blind, but one thing I appreciate about not being able to see is that I can no longer judge people by how they look. I am left to judge others on more important things: what they say, and what they do.
In my scholarly research for Thursday’s talk at Carnegie Mellon I came across one study that found that blind women have lower body dissatisfaction scores and more positive eating attitudes than women who can see. From the study:
The high levels of body dissatisfaction and abnormal eating attitudes currently prevalent in Western societies have been attributed by many authors to the promotion of an unrealistically thin ideal for women. We investigated the role of the visual media by examining the relationship between body image dissatisfaction and eating attitudes in visually impaired women.
The results suggest the importance of the visual media in promoting unrealistic images of thinness and beauty.
All pretty interesting stuff, and I thank my friends in Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University for inviting me to present on the topic – I ended up learning a lot!