Posts Tagged ‘self-image’

I’m off to Mexico tomorrow, and, up until a couple of hours ago, I possessed exactly zero pairs of non-running shorts. Ergo, I sucked it up and made a speed shopping trip between a quick lunch and a (not so quick) meeting so that I might procure a pair or two. And in the dressing room, my internal dialogue was not along the lines of These Are Cute or These Are Heinous, but instead, something more like this: How does my butt look? My thighs? Does the color make my skin look even paler than it already is? Does the cut make me look shorter than I already am? (I suppose it’s no wonder that up until today I owned no shorts. I have better things to do than entertain this variety of nonsense. Like sterilizing mason jars for bulk snacks. Or hunting for unicorns.)

Turns out, though, there’s a reason I do this, and you likely do it, too. And it’s not that we’re obsessed with our looks or have poor body images or are bereft of self esteem. Nope. According to a new study, people–men or women–are basically programmed to view women as a constellation of parts. Arms. Abs. Butt. Lips. Eyes. Toes. Whole person? Not so much. Via Eurkalert, check it out:

When casting our eyes upon an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts. Consider, for instance, photo mosaics consisting of hundreds of tiny pictures that when arranged a certain way form a larger overall image: In fact, it takes two separate mental functions to see the mosaic from both perspectives.
A new study suggests that these two distinct cognitive processes also are in play with our basic physical perceptions of men and women–and, importantly, provides clues as to why women are often the targets of sexual objectification.
The research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found in a series of experiments that participants processed images of men and women in very different ways. When presented with images of men, perceivers tended to rely more on “global” cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole. Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of “local” cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts.

Now, said study could only show that this is the case, not why this is the case. I, however, am not above speculating: Blame the media, society, your parents or teachers or coaches or friends or Barbie or Vogue, whomever you like. There is no shortage of scapegoats, and they’ve all likely earned at least a little bit of that blame. Even still: argh.

One upside: the study found that, when circumstances were altered to encourage the participants to take a more “global” approach to evaluating the subjects, they were more likely to see the women as whole people. We’ll stay tuned for the study that figures out how to alter the circumstances of life-in-general accordingly.

In the meantime, though, I kind of have to wonder: what if this sort of reductionist objectification isn’t just limited to our physical selves? I mean, it’s bad enough that we’re basically conditioned to view women as Ms. Potatoheads, legs and arms and teeth and butts and breasts and thighs. But what about the rest of it, the other ways we pick ourselves apart? In the same way we judge ourselves (and others) according to a running checklist of physical attributes (I’m tall and I have good hair and pretty toes but no boobs but good abs but my arms could be more toned and my teeth need whitening…), do we dissect ourselves on the other stuff too?  (Well, I’m not that organized but I’m very successful but I should be more physically active and my spiritual life basically consists of praying for good parking spaces but I have good friends but my romantic life’s in the toilet but I am super good with money…)

Am I onto something? Methinks yes. That stuff’s tougher to brush off, sure, but, think for a minute, about that Ms. Potatohead study. It makes you mad, right? It’s clearly wrong, isn’t it? A woman is clearly more than a bucket of parts, isn’t she?

So what if cataloguing the other stuff is just as wrong?

It feels helpful, in a way, to keep score–like we could plug in all the data and then some magical algorithm will spit out a number. To tell us what, though? You are doing ThisWell at life, I guess. But that would be nonsense, because things can look great from the outside and be terrible inside. And things can look not particularly impressive on the outside but be pretty incredible from the inside. A random sampling of body parts gives you no real indication of the whole, but it’s kind of impossible to describe in what way, precisely, that is so. Why the parts, taken separately, are so inadequate. So I just wonder:  What if the dissecting we do of ourselves, the inventories we take of our lives are just as false, just as misleading? What if our value as a person has nothing to do with the score on the checklist? And what if we are, truly, greater than the sum of our parts?

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We embarked on some personal archeology this past weekend.  Which is to say, we cleaned the garage.

We do this periodically.  What’s interesting is that we get rid of stuff in layers: our own private dig.  We keep things we don’t use, if we have a place for them somewhere, only to finally send them off to junk heaven a few years down the line.  And so every time we tackle this job from hell, we get yet another reminder of the way we were.

Among the things we excavated on Sunday (some of which we chucked, some we saved): An ornate, heavy 70’s-era wrought iron wine opener, the kind with a fat lever, that stands three-feet tall on a bar (Never used it.)  A paper shredder.  (Never used that either)  A year’s worth of paper grocery bags equivalent to all the days we forgot to bring our cloth bags.   Black garbage sacks of deeply unattractive clothing and shoes.  Florist vases.  Coffee mugs with stupid sayings.  The cedar-lined foot locker my husband brought to college when he was 17.  Early edition Nancy Drew books.  My grandmother’s cutglass punch bowl.  Of course we saved this one, though we haven’t made punch since we were newlywed and broke.

(At this point, I should probably mention that just before my husband left for an emergency coffee run, we had a CSI moment when he chucked a box of old files into the overflowing recycling cart — along with his car keys, which fell to the bottom of the bin.  Guess how we got them out.)

But the most revealing was the stuff left over from our family’s youth.  Fisher Price people that came with us twice to Europe.  Boxes of picture books. Plastic trophies with signed softballs.  Cabbage Patch Kids.  A disco ball and lava lamp from one kid’s college days.  A box of hippie posters, Tarot cards and the like  from the other’s.  What we didn’t find — had we thrown these out at the last go-round? — were the numerous boy-band posters or boxes of 80’s era cassette tapes.  Bell Biv Devoe, anyone?

So there you are.  We could wax nostalgic about a lot of these things.  But there’s a lot of blackmail material, too (ahem:  boy bands?)   But here’s the thing.  No matter how embarrassing these artifacts are, how incongruous with our current self-image, we deny at our own peril this roadmap of who we were that has led us to who we are.

All this crystalized for me when I clicked onto Maureen Dowd Wednesday morning and found a reference to Tuesday’s Oprah, which reunited Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, the stars of 1973’s iconic love story, “The Way We Were.”   Surely, you’ve seen the movie.  If not, you probably recognize the lyrics of the theme song?   Misty watercolor memories. Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind…

Anyway, Dowd led me straight to Oprah where I found Redford talking about why he repeatedly turned down one of the most romantic leads ever.  His role, a good-looking preppie and would-be novelist for whom things had always come easy, was too one dimensional, Redford said.   100 percent true to type.  And thus, uninteresting.  He kept saying no — until he found that flaw, that inconsistency that suddenly made the role real.

And here’s the point.  Staying completely true to type, refusing to own our inner geeks, denying those hints of who we were or those embarrassing inconsistencies is not only dull but exhausting, too, when every decision we make — from what we wear to what we do — must conform to the standards set out by some arbiter of taste.  Or type.

Look no further than Facebook, where the individual presentation of self is often calculated and predictable.  One-dimensional.  Which is too bad, really.  Because how much more interesting, for example, is the intellectual who can talk about both Donnie Darko — and The Hangover.  Or the feminist who once played with dolls and can teach you how to hide your under-eye circles.  Or the fashionista who laces up her soccer cleats once a week.  Or the big city scenester who also loves cheesy holiday movies that make her cry.  Or the foodie who loved doughnuts even before they were declared cool.  Or the writer who can freely admit she doesn’t have a novel in the drawer — and likely never will.

Something we heard over and over again when we were researching our book was that one sure route out of the choice conundrum is to know yourself.  Your real self.  That’s not who you’ll find on your Facebook page.  It’s more than likely the self that’s hidden in the back of your garage.

But meanwhile, back to Redford:  The flaw he excavated?  Deep inside the facade of the preppie for whom everything came easy was a guy who was terrified of expectations, especially the ones pushed on him by Streisand’s character, who wanted him to be, well, more.  And there it was.  The crack that made him real.  That gave his character depth.  And there, too, was the clash that ultimately led to one of the most heartbreaking moments in movie history.

Whew.  Cue the music.   (Note:  spoiler alert)

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