There’s a lot of stuff written about women and body image. It seems to me that it’s all ironic: while women are writing about body image, good or bad, they’re also perpetuating the obsession with body image. At the risk of adding to the irony, here’s my take on body image.
Look how you want to look. Wear what you want to wear. Stop judging others by their appearance. Value people for their kindness, or their intellect or their humour.
Stop telling little girls (or little boys) that they are pretty and start asking them what they think about something instead, or which book they’re reading, or what sport they enjoy playing.
It’s okay to express your opinion about your own body but mind your own business about anyone else’s. For example, “I choose not to have cosmetic surgery.” rather than “Nobody should have cosmetic surgery.”
Love your body. Without it you are nothing. Care for your health. Not to meet some arbitrary standard of beauty, but because your health is what sustains your body, and without it you are nothing.
That’s about it really.
I don’t worry about what famous people are doing with or to their bodies. I remember reading a piece by a 50-ish writer about how she was angry with a whole group of middle aged celebrities and actors for having cosmetic surgery and, in doing so, placing unwelcome pressure on her to do the same. It was a funny, well written diatribe but, even before I was diagnosed with cancer, it struck me as hypocritical. You can’t go on about wanting to be valued for your intellect, your humour, your compassion and your strength if you’re obsessing about how Cate Blanchett’s suspected eye-lift has undermined your confidence. Really?
I’m never bothered by what famous women do to themselves, other than being grateful that I don’t work in an industry where my personal appearance is so important that I’d let someone cut into my body. There’s a lot of banging on about the ‘message’ they send. The message I hear is that personal appearance is much more important if you want to be a celebrity than it is for anyone else. I don’t aspire to be famous. I think having your private life (or someone’s made up version of your private life) printed in magazines is a special kind of hell. The idea of not being able to leave my home without being recognised appalls me.
I’ve known since I was a teenager that there’s only a very tiny number of women considered suitable for modelling, and most of them are made up and digitally enhanced beyond recognition. If you saw them in public you’d probably think they were a very tall, very thin woman but you wouldn’t necessarily find them beautiful. It never bothered me that a Vogue talent scout was unlikely to stop me in the street. I always thought modelling would be a very boring job with a short life span. I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life and spending it as a human coat hanger just didn’t cut it.
On the day I received my diagnosis, my husband said this to me:
“You are not your breasts. I want you to know that the most important thing to me is that you survive this. If you need to lose your breasts to do that then so be it. I love you. That’s not going to change.”
I’d independently had exactly the same thought. I imagined myself with what I would call my ‘dolphin chest’, all smooth and sleek. I recalled my friend, Jo, who talks about how she looks at her mastectomy scars as evidence of a life-saving operation. She cherishes her scars, her body and her survival. I told my surgeon that my priority was best medical outcome and that any cosmetic consideration was secondary. If I needed to have both of my breasts removed to live, then I would do that.
Turns out I don’t need to. I’m not even going to lose the cancerous breast. I had my planning session with my surgeon last week for surgery in January 2014. Now that three of my tumours have vanished and the fourth looks like it’s on the way out, she’s planning on breast conserving surgery. I’m lucky because the cancer is in my naturally larger breast so she’s confident of a good cosmetic result. It’s possible I’ll get a breast lift as a bonus. Okay. Excellent news. I like my breasts and keeping them is definitely better than losing them. I’m still okay with losing them at some point in the future if that’s what I have to do to stay alive.
Since Angelina Jolie’s famously public double mastectomy there’s been a lot more acceptance of this option for women with a high genetic risk of breast cancer. Curiously, it’s not always the case that taking away your breast tissue will provide you with the lowest chance of recurrence. My surgeon tells me that taking the breast off makes no difference to my survival odds. She also tells me that there may be an advantage in having breast tissue; triple negative cancer has a high rate of recurrence and a tendency to metastasise somewhere else in the body. There’s a possibility that leaving breast tissue means that it’s more likely to appear there, rather than in a vital organ. It’s much easier to treat breast cancer when it’s still in a breast.
I’ve never been particularly vain. I’m not ‘high maintenance’ and I’m married to a man that thinks I look beautiful without the assistance of makeup, hair product, expensive clothing or uncomfortable shoes. I save dressing up for special occasions and he makes the appropriate complimentary noises when I do, but he’s inclined to grab the camera and photograph me when I’m out in the garden in my unflattering sun hat, wearing a man’s shirt for protection along with practical cargo pants. He says he likes having pictures of me looking as happy as I do when I’m gardening.
I adore him. Gentlemen’s Quarterly are unlikely to use him as a model but I love every inch of him. He is, simply, the most attractive man I know. You might not think so, but then you need to apply my standard for ‘attractive’ to understand what I mean.
My standard for attractive, whether we’re talking about men or women, is a simple one:
1. Attractive people are healthy. They don’t need to be rake thin but they’re not obese either. They eat healthy food most of the time and it shows. They also enjoy ‘sometimes food’ some of the time without being guilty about it. They enjoy staying fit. They have a vitality about them that’s appealing, regardless of their genetic inheritance. They don’t subject themselves to fad foods and diets.
2. Attractive people smile most of the time and laugh easily. Everyone describes themselves as having a good sense of humour but attractive people will be described this way by their friends.
3. Attractive people are kind and generous. It doesn’t matter how lucky you were in the gene lottery, if your unkind, greedy or mean you are not attractive. Attractive people tread gently on the planet. They stop the car to move an animal off the road. They minimise their environmental footprint. Their kindness and generosity is not limited to humans.
4. Attractive people have good personal hygiene. Yep. There’s no way around this one.
5. Attractive people are interesting. The use their minds. They know about all kinds of things and they’re happy to share their knowledge. They’re also interested in you.
6. Attractive people are positive. They talk about what’s good, possible, worthwhile, healthy, constructive and beautiful. They spend much less time than most of us talking about illness and pain, or complaining. They don’t gossip about other people. They look on the bright side.
7. And finally, attractive people are comfortable in their own skin. They don’t obsess about their appearance. They aren’t anxious about the size or shape of any particular part of their body because it’s all their body and they know that it’s the only one they have. Hating it means hating themselves.
When I want to work on being more attractive, this is the list I use. I don’t think wrinkles or grey hair or weighing ten kilos more than I did when I was thirty have anything to do with how attractive I am.
There’s a whole industry out there that tries to make us feel bad about our appearance in order to get us to spend money. But we don’t need to pay attention to their messages. If you don’t read ‘women’s magazines’ (really just endless advertisements) or spend too much time in front of the television then this stuff can’t touch you. If you surround yourself with people that appreciate you then the temptation to see your crows feet as a crime against the state will vanish.
I love my body. Right now I love the way my body is fighting cancer, coping with chemotherapy, enjoying yoga, making food and words and gardens and paintings. The last time I loved my body this much I had given birth to my daughter. My belly was stretched from pregnancy and it insisted on forming a loose bag of flesh beside me on the bed. My breasts were swollen and tender. I looked at my baby girl and thought, “I made another human with my body!” Now I look at my slides and check, over and over, that the three tumours are gone. I feel the dull pain of the remaining tumour caving under the impact of my excellent cancer drugs. Wonderful. Go you good thing.
Does my bum look big? I have no idea.