Saturday, September 15, 2018

Who You Lookin At?

The reading slump is over! Woo Hoo! I finished Dietland last week, and with that, I'm a reader again! Whew, that feels so much better.

Before I get too far into this, yes, I know there's a show out on AMC, but I didn't know that when I started the book. It's on my list to watch as soon as I can get it on DVD or streaming. If you've watched the show, this is not about that. No spoilers!

This isn't a regular book review, anyway. 

Except for one significant flaw (my opinion is over on GoodReads) Dietland was a pleasure, a visceral, physical pleasure to read. The violence is extreme, but even as the civilized part of my brain, the part trained to value nonviolence and reconciliation above all, objected, the instinctive animal part thought, "Huh. Seems fair." And then she purred a little bit and licked her lips.

It felt pretty good to give that unreasonable, reactionary Me a lil scritch behind the ears before I locked her away again.

So Dietland made an impression and has stayed with me in the few days since I finished it. A large part of the story is about visibility--who is seen and who is doing the seeing. The central character, Plum, spends about two-thirds of the story trying to make herself invisible. When people in public do notice and react to her, it's never to give a compliment.

Thoughts of visibility were running through my mind this morning as I was getting ready for work. I was thinking about how, when I look at myself in the mirror, I seem fine. Not supermodel gorgeous by any means, but certainly attractive, with soft, flowing hair that I love to feel brushing my back and bright hazel eyes that look green or brown depending on what I'm wearing, which makes me feel a little bit magic. In my bathroom mirror in the morning, I look and feel good.

But at some point during the day, I will catch a reflection of myself in a window or see myself in someone else's cellphone picture and that confidence I left the house with deflates. My gut pooches out too far. My lips are too thin. My beautiful, flowing hair has somehow transformed into a frizzy rat's nest. I look like a tired 41-year-old. At best, I look like someone who can safely be ignored.

Why do I perceive myself so differently according to where or in what surface I'm doing the perceiving? Is the difference that the first happens in the privacy of my own home whereas the second is a public exposure? More importantly, how does this (flawed?) perception of myself change how I behave in the world? In Dietland, Plum believes she is hideous, that her appearance means she doesn't deserve basic respect, and she behaves accordingly, hiding herself away as much as possible and never confronting people who are cruel.

I "hide" myself a lot, with neutral clothes, hats and hoods, thick-framed glasses. 

What would my life be like if I couldn't see myself in those cell pictures? If I went through the whole day, every day, perceiving myself the way I see myself in my own bathroom mirror? Women's lives 100 years ago, before the proliferation of public photography, were not all beer and skittles,* but is this one area where our lives have actually gotten harder? Certainly we didn't have to compete with digitally altered models, which has a real-life effect on how real-life women are perceived by real-life men.

Oh, so many questions I have and not a single answer.


My niece's first birthday is next Sunday. In her single year on Earth, I've taken countless selfies with her on my lap, the first when she was about sixteen hours old--and have promptly re-taken them until I get one of myself I can stand to look at.

I do love this picture of both of us, even though it's a little blurry. Happy Birthday, my sweet Nugget!
After every picture I almost involuntarily verbalize those self-criticisms. I have to stop. Cam is getting old enough to understand my reactions if not my exact words and--no hyperbole--I would rather drive a nail through my own tongue than add to the burden of impossible womanhood she has to grow up with.

Maybe that's a little dramatic. Cam will be fine, in the sense that most of us are fine. In the sense that it's "normal" for us to doubt ourselves, to alter our behavior and our bodies in a futile quest to look like Victoria's Secret models. (But have you ever actually looked at VS models? I don't mean how big their breasts are or how skimpy the "underwear" is. Except for skin tone and hair color, they all look exactly the same. It's scary. Are they aliens? Androids?)

Dietland makes explicit how American culture values women primarily and always for how well we meet impossible standards. What if I could discard that influence? What if I moved through every day feeling the way I feel when I first get dressed in the morning? What if I could convince myself that those bad selfies or store-window reflections were inaccurate distortions, not reflective of my real beauty?

More unanswerable questions, I know. I keep trying, though. Dietland is a good motivational manual.


PS: If your first reaction to this post is to "reassure" me by telling me how pretty I am, stop. You've missed the point. Tell me I write well. Tell me I'm a good auntie. Tell me you hate my politics or you love my spaghetti sauce. Do not comment on my appearance. 


*"Skittles" is a game. Beer is . . . beer. I looked it up.