Let’s talk about body image.
It’s a topic that’s been on my mind recently, with Protein World’s… heroic late charge to supplant both Nestle and News International as the world’s most toxic brand, but to be honest it’s always on my mind anyway.
I waste an inexplicable, unjustifiable, amount of time fretting about my body. I think about it more than I think about work, sex or internet cats. It’s both tough, and embarrassing, to put into words the mix of pride, fear and disgust I feel when I look at my body in the mirror.
Pride – because it’s something I put a lot of work into.
Fear – because I’m scared of what might happen if I can’t keep that work up. The river of push-ups, burpees and squats I’ll need just to stay where I am runs exhaustingly out into my future; and
Disgust – when I look at my body – the miraculous flesh and bone engine that both creates and houses my consciousness – I only see what I think’s wrong with it. I almost constantly feel I’ve let myself slip, and I really do hate myself for it.
Successful people can look like anything from Stephen Hawking to Malala Yousefzai to the nurse with massive bags under her eyes.
So what’s going on? How did I get so stressed about my body?
Don’t get me wrong, the human body is a remarkable thing. Its brain contains more than 80 billion neurons, more than any other primate. It can learn languages, do ballet, play drums, but I’m not talking about any of that. I’m talking about the ability to keep my body fat percentage down to a painfully low level for no purpose other than looking like some guy on a magazine.
Why do I give a shit about having a six pack? Part of it is symbolism. Somehow, power over my body’s come to stand it for power over everything else in my life.
There’s a siren voice, whispering in my head:
Worried about a friend you might have pissed off Tom? Do some push-ups, you’ll feel better.
New book not going so well? Run 12 miles. That’ll do it.
I look in the mirror and I see belly fat or muffin tops, but when I see belly fat and muffin tops I think slipping deadlines, disappointed dad, or whatever other rat is currently chewing on the cables of my mind.
As a thought pattern it’s destructive and narcissistic as hell, but really, really hard to shift. So, how did my torso come to occupy this privileged position at the centre of my semiotic universe?
A lot of it comes down to control. When your grip over the rest of your life is slipping away, food and exercise can feel like the last fortress in an embattled kingdom. I convince myself that whatever else is going tits up, I can control what I put in my body and how I move it.
This is also where Protein World and ads like this one come in.
I don’t have any new insight on the role of the media in promoting unhealthy body image. Suffice to say what everyone knows: when we hold up film stars and models as symbols of success, and then paste pictures of their toned, photo shopped bodies over every visible square inch of our cities, we’re basically saying ‘This is what success looks like. Success looks like abs.’
Which is bullshit, obviously. Success doesn’t look like anything. Success, self-discipline, courage, these aren’t visual qualities. Successful people can look like anything from Stephen Hawking to Malala Yousefzai to the nurse with massive bags under her eyes, up to her elbows in other people’s blood and working a double shift at A&E, thanks to whom a dozen other successful people are still breathing.
It’s worth stating the obvious here: as much as I grapple with this stuff, women and girls have it orders of magnitude worse: the signals are stronger and the standards they get held to in the media are poisonous, slippery and self-contradicting.
If any of this sounds familiar, if you find yourself thinking, day after day, ‘I’m slipping, almost there, just a little bit thinner/buffer/leaner and then I’ll be happy’, then all I’d say is – judging by my experience- you won’t. I don’t think I can get out ahead of this one, the game’s rigged. The standards rooted in our minds are not attainable.
Which leaves only two options, worry about it, or don’t, and the latter, though by far the more sensible, can be screamingly hard to hold to.
My second book The Glass Republic is set in a world where looks are currency and where beauty is the source of all power. At one point, Espel, a girl who grew up poor in those terms, says:
‘I don’t want them to think I’m beautiful, what I want is for it not to matter that they don’t.’
In my head, back when I wrote than sentence, both I and they were me. I’m still looking for a way to make it true.
A longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy, Tom Pollock has spectacularly failed to grow out of his obsession with things that don’t, in the strictest sense of the word, exist. He has his master of fine arts degree from Sussex University and also holds a master’s degree in philosophy and economics from Edinburgh University.
Article originally published on Talklife.