"Well, Doc, I see a moth, my father, and a 22-inch waist."
As a kid, there was nothing I loved more than taking every personality quiz I could find. I gave myself Rorschach tests (the administrator was possibly biased and definitely untrained), took the Myers-Briggs annually starting at age 8, gobbled up every YM quiz known to girlkind, and drove my parents insane with a book called “1001 Ways to Find Your Personality,” determining my core self based on everything from swimsuit color to favorite art epoch. (I eventually repaid my debt to the teen-mag world by penning this quiz on “What Kind of Feminist Are You?”)
I still like personality tests in the way I like astrology: It’s not so much that I believe being born on May 27 means that I’m adaptable, cerebral, and a bit inconsistent (moi?!); it’s that having a personality imprint in front of me gives me a baseline from which to compare, much the same way I never know where I want to go for dinner but can always pick when given the choice between pizza and Mexican. But when I came across Cult of Personality by Annie Murphy Paul, I paid attention. Her beef with personality tests--especially the sort that are administered by institutions to determine professional “fit”--is that they’re often “invalid, unreliable, and unfair,” more entertainment than science. Her argument is compelling, but since I largely approach them as entertainment already, what I got out of the book was a questioning of my own drive to compulsively categorize myself.
There’s something comforting about being able to locate oneself within a larger pattern. Identity is such an amorphous creature that it’s no wonder we yearn for tools to help us stake our claim: I’m an ENFP, let me do the talking. It’s an anchor, something to hold on to as we navigate our complicated lives--especially in a culture like America’s, whose success is pegged upon a mix of individualism and solidarity. It can give us a sense of revelation to see ourselves presented in a neat little paragraph package, or so says this “charming, ingenuous, risk-taking, sensitive, people-oriented individual with capabilities ranging across a broad spectrum.” (I blush, Myers-Briggs!)
And if that’s all true for personality, imagine what power that has when applied to the vessel that’s such a handy receptacle for our griefs, stresses, anxieties, and pride--the body.
To be clear: I don’t think we seek our personalities through apple/pear/hourglass. I think we look to them to help guide us toward making smart sartorial decisions. But when we heap so many expectations onto our bodies--their size and their shape--is it any wonder that we might be looking to body-type assessments for something a little more critical than whether we should wear pencil skirts?
“Dress for YOUR Figure!” pages are perennially popular in women’s magazines; that’s why so many ladymags feature them. Readers love them; they’re cheap to produce--everyone wins, right? But when I noticed that one of the most popular search terms that lands people at this blog was “am I an apple or a pear,” I started to wonder if everyone was winning. Most of us are amalgams of body types, yet we keep on looking to see if “our” bodies show up. Beyond apple/pear/hourglass, of course, there’s The Body Shape Bible, which features 12 types (none of which are mine, incidentally), The Body Code Quiz (which called me a “Visionary,” along with Twiggy and Gwyneth Paltrow, whose bodies mine resembles only in that we’re all homo sapiens), Joy Wilson’s Shape Guide (which introduces strawberries into the fruit salad of women’s bodies), Shop Your Shape (I’m a spoon!)--and so on and so on.
What this says to me is that we’re all hungry for validation that our bodies--in all their short-waisted, full-hipped, apple-bellied glory--belong somewhere on the grid of attractive human beings. It speaks to that ever-American desire to be recognized both as an individual (“this advice is specifically tailored to me and my needs”) and as a part of a larger group (“obviously I can’t be alone in my rounded belly if there’s a whole page on how to turn an apple into an hourglass”). And that drive to compulsively categorize myself that I felt at age 8? It shows up in a small twinge of happiness I feel whenever I see hourglass flattery advice that also happens to work on my non-hourglass figure. Maybe I’m not so far from my ideal after all, I’ll vainly hum to myself. And if the odd A-line skirt helps me bridge the gap between my real body and my ideal one--well, if that just means I need to check a different body box than I’d like, so be it.
On its face, it seems to be pro-woman on all fronts--these magazine pages are among the few to acknowledge the existence of women size 10 and up, and there’s often an air of empowerment that accompanies the advice. If I’ll make the argument for Jersey Shore as a beauty democracy, certainly dress-your-body pages can’t be far behind--with just a few words and pictures, ostensibly readers can learn how to mimic an hourglass shape with a series of small tips that maximize our best features and artfully conceal the other bits. (Of course, I usually just wear a sandwich board, so none of this applies to me.) And there’s a lot to be said from a feminist perspective on this--Mrs. Bossa’s insightful series on what it means to “dress your shape” gets into this, particularly with its culmination, a roundup of quotes and photos from other feminist-minded fashion bloggers. “What’s really happening here is about making my beautiful, unique body look like someone else’s...on the other hand, I like this vision [dressing to mimic an hourglass] of my body,” writes Allyson of Decoding Dress.
That mimicry is what it’s about, isn’t it? Doesn’t all the fashion advice in these “dress your figure” bits just try to make us all look like hourglasses? As much as websites and magazines spin it in a go-girl way (“You’re an apple! Play up your fabulous legs!”--huh? But read “apple” advice enough and that’s what you’ll see), at the end of the day we’re trying to locate ourselves on the matrix so that we can stake our claim on land that isn’t really ours. I was doing it at age 8 with the Myers-Briggs, feeling the thrill of seeing “myself” on the written page without really knowing what the grand purpose was. We do it with astrology, draw-a-person tests and related memes, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, enneagrams, and other forms of modern voodoo. They're all meant to be useful, and, on occasion, entertaining--and we love these tests for reasons far beyond their utility. Am I alone in attaching value beyond the circumference of my hips to these body-type breakdowns?
Tomorrow I’ll take a stab at answering the question that’s brought so many readers here: Are you an apple or a pear? (Hint: You’re neither, but we’ll get to that tomorrow.)