Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Body Image Warrior Week: Decoding Dress

Yesterday I wrote about the need to not conflate body image and eating disorders, something that's too easy to do and that doesn't help us get to the root causes of eating disorders. But that doesn't mean that body image isn't also a crucial part of the puzzle. When Sally McGraw of Already Pretty reached out to a group of body image bloggers about the possibility of banding together to do a project under the umbrella of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I saw that she wasn't positing body image as being the end sum of eating disorders, but rather as something worthy of discussion in its own right. And thus, Body Image Warrior Week was born. Throughout the week I'll publish a handful of pieces written by different members of the inaugural collective—which you can be a part of. Click here to find out more about how to participate.

Today I'm thrilled to host Decoding Dress, who faithful readers will recognize from her many appearances on my weekly roundups. With her consistently keen insight, balance of analytical thought and sly humor, and a gift for sharing her views without ever seeming dogmatic (and some pretty fabulous outfits too), Decoding Dress has become one of my favorite reads. And with this essay, she just might become one of your favorites too.

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Next week: Grooming tips from our man in Athens. (Those curls!)

The Ideal Form of Me, or, How Plato Turned Me into a Body Image Blogger

I didn't set out to become a body image blogger. I just wanted to write about clothes.

Well, that's not really sufficiently precise. Lots of people write about clothes. I wanted to write about my own clothes. Of course, lots of people do that too. What I really wanted to do was to write about my relationship with my clothes. Back when I started my blog, Decoding Dress, I couldn't find anyone else who was doing that, which made it seem like the perfect niche for me. And by "niche" I mean "Does anybody other than me actually care about this stuff?"*

It turns out it was the "my relationship with" part that got me into trouble. By inserting myself so intentionally into the mix I pretty much guaranteed body image would become a major theme of my writing, whether I intended it to or not.

To wit: most outfit blogs are, of course, about the outfits (shock-n-awe!). Note, however, that for those of us with the good fortune to have been born into situations of privilege in one of the world's highly developed nations, the clothes we wear are rarely about protection from the elements or adherence to social norms against public nakedness; they are, rather, the real-world projection of our inner sense of self.** (That’s why we compliment a friend’s outfit by telling her, “That’s so you,” or return a piece we’ve tried on to the rack saying, “It’s just not me.”) In other words, our outfits occupy the narrow frontier separating our real, physical selves from our mental images of ourselves. So you can talk about the clothes all you want, but as soon as you bring up why you chose them, what you loved or hated about them or how they made you feel, you're talking about body image.

It took me a while to figure that out though. It wasn’t until I dragged the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c.428-c.348 BCE) into a post about miniskirts and red lipstick that the extreme to which my entire blogging project was going to revolve around body image started to become clear to me:

The lovers of sights and sounds like beautiful sounds, colors, shapes, and everything fashioned out of them, but their thought is unable to see and embrace the nature of the beautiful itself […] In fact, there are very few people who would be able to reach the beautiful itself and see it by itself. Isn’t that so?
— Plato, The Republic
See what Plato’s doing there? He’s drawing a distinction between the things we perceive as beautiful and beauty as a thing in and of itself. This is his way of introducing what has become known as his Theory of Forms.

This all may sound abstruse or even arcane, but you employ this theory all the time, probably without even being aware of it. How do you know that an apple—this particular apple—is an apple? You know it because you have in your mind the image of an apple—not of a particular apple, in this case, but of a general apple with a set of characteristics common to all apples. Students of platonism have traditionally referred to this general apple as the Ideal Form of an apple (after Plato himself) or as “Appleness.” (Seriously.) Platonism holds that this ideal form of an apple isn't merely an image, but actually exists (though not in any way that can be conventionally perceived by our senses). Every particular instance of an apple, then, is understood as just an approximate expression of its Ideal Form, inherently flawed. The same goes for everything you experience or imagine...including yourself.

And that’s where the problems start.

This framework, which has come to govern so much of how we understand and experience the world, tells me that there must exist an Ideal Form of DeeDee—DeeDeeness, as it were. And what are the characteristics of DeeDeeness? For some weird reason,*** in my mind the Ideal Form of DeeDee isn't characterized by the wrinkles that seem to be multiplying exponentially around the corners of my real mouth. It doesn't include the flab around my midsection or my size 11 feet either. DeeDeeness is hourglass shaped, smooth skinned and wears a size six shoe comfortably.

In other words, with alarming frequency, the characteristics I use to recognize myself aren't necessarily characteristic of the real me. They represent someone that I not, have never been and likely never will be. It’s like trying to recognize myself—judging the validity of my own claim to be DeeDee—based on some other person’s attributes. In doing so I treat an image of some other body as if it were the platonic Ideal Form of my own—only acknowledging myself to the extent that I embody the characteristics of this alien image. Where I do not embody them I consider myself flawed, approximate.

What. The. HELL? Where does this even come from? It's the syllogistic equivalent of judging something to be an apple by the extent to which it is small, round, blue and goes well in pancakes. I’m way too smart to be doing this, way too smart to be doing it to myself.

But I am doing it. After nearly a year of considering these issues critically under the glare of a flaming introspection fetish and far more education than is generally good for me, I’m still doing it.

The dirty little secret of Decoding Dress is that about 90% of the time, the answer to the question upon which I’ve based the whole project, “Why do I wear what I wear?” is simply “So that what I see in the mirror might more closely approximate this Ideal Form of me.” But unless and until I can acknowledge the irrationality of the Ideal Form I’ve chosen and embrace in its stead one that actually has some significant essential connection to who I am, I will never see myself as more than an approximation. I’ll never actually become myself.

And so I think (and write) about my body image, my mental projection of myself, in the hope that someday the image will fall into line with the reality. Perhaps, if I am diligent and do not cease from my self-exploration (as T.S. Elliot might say), then “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I wish the same for you.

*Apparently a few people do. The really cool ones.

**If that sounded like I was riffing off a Matrix quote, that's because I was.

***I’d love simply to blame this on patriarchal culture, but I’m pretty sure it’s more complex than that.

DeeDee is a yearling fashion and beauty blogger endlessly fascinated by why we wear what we wear. She’s still not sure where all this is headed.
Complete (for now! anyone can participate!) list of Body Image Warrior Week participants:

Already Pretty // Beautiful You // The Beheld // Decoding Dress // Dress with Courage // Eat the Damn Cake // Fit and Feminist // Medicinal Marzipan // Not Dead Yet Style // Rosie Molinary // Virginia Sole-Smith // Weightless


  1. “So that what I see in the mirror might more closely approximate this Ideal Form of me.”
    "And so I think (and write) about my body image, my mental projection of myself, in the hope that someday the image will fall into line with the reality. "

    That's great! I really enjoyed this. :) I find myself doing the same and in many ways that's also a big part of why I started my blog too. I've lost a good deal of weight over the past couple of years and now I'm really trying to update my body image in my head. Part of that includes readjusting the idealistic form that I had in my head for so many years to the reality of what my body is. And then learning to accept the reality and learn to love it. The part where you wrote about having the image fall in line with reality really struck home with me and that's something I'm currently working on at the moment. Although that begs the question... since our bodies are constantly changing over time, can we ever truly get our ideal form to match with reality?

    1. Thank you, June, for your kind words AND for cueing in me a very relevant memory. At a conference once I met, and subsequently had dinner with, a woman who had several years before gone through a gastric bypass and subsequently lost over 100 pounds in a relatively short period of time. She shared with me how, when she went shopping for clothes, she still began with sizes in the twenties, even though she'd been a size 10 for years. It impressed upon me how persistent our self-image can be.

      Regarding your last question, we're in uncharted territory, philosophically speaking. Platonism, nor any of its successors, never considers alterations to the ideal form. Your point about the reality of our bodies being a moving target is well-taken, however. It reminds me of a post I wrote once in response to the question, "If I still want to change my body, do I really love it?" If you're interested, you can find it here: http://decodingdress.tumblr.com/post/7922685066/the-body-image-movement-body-sovereignty-you

      Thank you again for your insight and encouragement!

    2. Wow, thanks for that link! It's definitely something that I've thought about and have even posted about before: http://braslessinbrasil.blogspot.com/2012/01/body-positive-but-trying-to-lose-weight.html However, I just loved the way you put it. :D I'll definitely be passing on that post to others!

      As to the body image after weight loss. It's very common for men and women who have lost weight to have difficulties identifying what size they are. I know I struggle with this often and will see a picture of someone and think "oh she looks about my size" and she'll either be quite a bit larger or smaller than me once I find out her clothing size/measurements. Clothes are insanely difficult for me and I often find myself wondering "why in the world doesn't this shirt fit anymore? it really looks about my size". Progress pictures and measurements have helped but it's still a work in progress.

    3. June and DeeDee, that disconnect is indeed difficult to navigate and really illustrates exactly how little body IMAGE has to do with, well, bodies. I lost a good amount of weight a few years ago and for the first time ever didn't have ample hips. And every single time I'd look in the mirror I thought, in these exact words, "little toy hips." I don't think I was dysmorphic about it, it was more that I couldn't see my form as actually representing me. It was representing a toy. In a way it was sort of a relief when I gained weight and got my hips back--not because I thought I looked better hippier (I swing both ways, curvily speaking...) but because I recognized my form again.

  2. Wow, I loved this essay. It reminded me of the times I've put on an outfit, then changed because "It doesn't look like something I would wear." Well, obviously it IS something I would wear, otherwise I wouldn't be wearing it, right? But I guess what I'm doing is recognizing that the ideal Anne Form would not wear that.
    I like that concept, in a way. When I worry about staying "true to myself," it's nice to think about this strong, stylish Anne, my ideal form, that I have the capability to be. It does get trickier when it comes to body image, though.

    1. You make a great point, Anne -- the concept of a platonic form of the self extends beyond our images of our physical bodies to encompass everything from personal style to ways of speaking. I've just begun to realize, for example, that when I say "I'm terrible at dressing for the office and looking professional," what I really mean is "I feel more 'myself' in clothes that aren't traditionally considered 'professional.'" (Which, of course, really means "The ideal form of me doesn't wear traditional 'professional' office-wear.")

      I'm working to change that, but up to this point it's been largely by studying office-appropriate attire and trying to copy what I see on others. Your comment helps me see that I also need to be working on my self-conception -- so thanks for that!

      And thanks also for your kind words -- they really do mean a lot!

  3. "Where does this even come from? It's the syllogistic equivalent of judging something to be an apple by the extent to which it is small, round, blue and goes well in pancakes. I’m way too smart to be doing this, way too smart to be doing it to myself."

    Glorious! What a post. I'd be behind you all the way, except I'm not ready to let go of my crazy idea that the Most Real Me doesn't have thick ankles and pores the size of Montana.

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