Our Bodies, Your Selves

Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary, known as Sisi, was 5’8” tall, about 110 pounds, and exquisitely beautiful. With the help of leather corsets from Paris, she trained her waist down to about 19 inches in diameter. Fat women repulsed her. Her astonishingly long, thick hair had to be pinned onto her bed frame at night when she slept to give her head and neck some relief from the weight.

Empress Elisabeth, 1865, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

She was a deeply unhappy woman who controlled her body so strictly because it was all she had to control. She kept her figure through a restrictive diet, quack medicine, and long, long, brisk walks around the grounds of the palace. In a time when women’s value still didn’t extend much beyond their land, title, beauty, and fertility, she made the most of what she had. Her corsets, while mostly meant to make her more alluring, were her way to rebel against her mother-in-law who demanded she be constantly pregnant in order to produce a male heir or two. For modern 21st century women, such a victory seems poignantly pyrrhic. But are we really all that different?

Empress Sisi lives in my apartment building. She walks down every block of the city where I live, and occupies a few desks in my office. She is on the nightly news, in the House of Representatives; she drives my metro train. She exists within, and chooses between, a chokingly small number of acceptable options for being, and looking, female. We have yet to break the mold in which we have formed women since religion constructed it in the image of the young, chaste maiden. Nothing yet has surpassed it in value. Although we have embellished this idol with different ornamentation through the ages, women’s bodies remain the vessels into which we pour our hopes, fears, and values.

For almost the past millennia, women’s bodies had been prized for the function of childbearing. The perpetuation of the species wasn’t a sure thing until relatively recently; if you were unable to bear a child, you were as valuable as any other broken thing: not very. Modern man has received as his birthright the luxury of nearly guaranteed survival, and so the modern woman’s body reflects our modern society’s other obsessive-compulsive needs. The Venus of Willendorf, that most famous fertility symbol of antiquity, is repugnant to us now.

Articles about women who have had a child mete out punishment for letting their figures go, and accolades for maintaining them. The perpetually groomed Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wearing a relatively loose-fitting blue dress and high heels, was lauded in a roundabout feminist way for bravely showing what a post-pregnancy stomach looks like when she walked out to greet the many-headed media hydra with her newborn prince in her arms. Had you not been told she’d just produced the child she held, her stomach might have escaped your notice.

Our perverse conflation of worth and shape has contorted our biological programming. Interview transcripts with female celebrities often describe their “coltish legs” tucked under them. Colts are prepubescent. So, too, is our ideal female body: young, hairless, untouched by gravity or acne, slender, with no discernable odor. The major fashion houses cut for figures that, were they children, would be playing soccer and eating Lunchables, but as adults are built for fistfuls of vitamin pills and espresso shots. Why is this?

America has never been very good at being democratic and capitalist at the same time. We are as enamored with, as we are worried by, our relatively classless society, so we reinforce the barriers every generation of so. Since the Baby Boomers, as our lifespans have lengthened, so too have the odds of achieving a comfortable quality of life (never mind what “middle class” could possibly mean in 2016). In the 1950s, we only had to compete against those around us; we kept up with the Joneses on our block. Today, as our economy has become so imbalanced as to enable the rise of the eponymous “one percent,” maintaining parity with our neighbors has become impossible — not just because of the obscene concentration of wealth, but also because of the sheer number of people we’re competing against. Thanks to the Internet, the Joneses, the rest of the 99%, are everywhere. We are under constant pressure to look good enough to fake it. And whether you believe in the essential goodness of mankind or believe we all would revert to a Hobbesian state of nature if given the chance, you can always bank on our proclivity for self-differentiation no matter what the cost. Our declaration of independence might as well have eulogized the pursuit of wealth.

The socio-economic inequities that have created food deserts and “Whole Paycheck” have turned our bodies into our currency, the most immediate sign of our place in our social strata. Our BMIs are our membership fees, the local farmers markets our affinity clubs. The new outsiders aren’t (necessarily) the uneducated or the immigrant, but those who must work more than one job to pay their electric bill and don’t have time to buy whole grains and fresh produce, let alone cook them. Nor can they easily afford the pricier microwaveable entrees that are marginally healthier than their cheaper sodium-laden cousins. Those without access to nutrition, the means to procure it, or the time to invest in its preparation, have a higher risk of health problems. Given we treat our nation’s poor with toe-curling contempt, while making sport of commenting about women’s outfits, it makes perfect rational sense why women of means would not want to risk being categorized in this lower bracket — to be taken for lazy, classless moochers. So they sign up for gym memberships and ellipse themselves into oblivion. Meanwhile, smart women who would be classified by some dating sites as having “more to love” have difficulty finding jobs they deserve, while we pay supermodels more money than the annual GDP of Tuvalu. It is hard not to retain the subtle lesson that our value as women is negatively correlated to the amount of space we occupy.

To watch women like Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Kerri Walsh Jennings, and Simone Biles compete in the Olympics is like stepping into Bizarro-World, or finding a translucent fish at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Where did they come from? How can they survive all of the pressure? These women have muscles; they have brawn; they have…size. They are defined by what their bodies can do (swim, vault, run, jump) rather than what they can’t. I can’t help but wonder how many people who have stood in line behind them at a Starbucks have mistaken their size for something else. Ledecky is 6’ tall and weighs about 150 pounds. Giselle Bundchen is 5’11” and weighs 126 pounds. Her seemingly endless catwalk during the opening ceremony was as transporting as a live-action video game, and left you just as disoriented when it was over. Ledecky’s seemingly endless 800m freestyle race was equally hypnotic, and left you in awe of what the human body can do when treated like the machine it is. And yet, you still would have chosen to look — and, most importantly, be treated as if you looked — like Gisele. In this contest, Gisele is the Katie Ledecky of ultimate physical perfection.

Meanwhile, men continue to compete for the acquisition of goods. No man’s outfit meant for polite company this side of a beach shows as much skin as any outfit a woman could conceivably pick. With fewer sartorial options, and with their focus freed from their own body, they turn to accessories: watches, wallets, and, often, women. Just as it’s no coincidence that hemlines rise as economies fall, so too does it correlate that a beautiful, slender woman on the arm is an enormous validation in difficult times. The book “The Game,” by Neil Strauss, a bible-looking tome with leggy silhouettes of women embossed in gold on its black cover, was published in 2005 — a bad year for the US economy. The end of that year saw the worst economic growth in the prior three, with far worse on the way. “The Game” spent a good while on the New York Times best-seller list.

Tucker Max’s book, “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell,” debuted the following year and quickly climbed to #1, and spent five years on the best-seller list.

Today, with our economy enjoying some stability, the cult of the Pick-Up Artist (always referred to by its acronym) is still a strong business. Witness the rise of Real Social Dynamics, which, to one satisfied customer, presents “the cutting edge of knowledge when it comes to meeting women.” That satisfied customer runs another similar site, Double Your Dating, that promises to give men a way to attract “BEAUTIFUL women” (emphasis in original, as if that needed to be stated) and “an effective way to tell if she’s ready to be kissed so you won’t get rejected.” When women’s bodies become the currency used to advance in the status game, getting rejected becomes as publicly humiliating as the waiter at Spago’s quietly whispering to you that your credit card had been declined. Of course you would manipulate your finances so that wouldn’t happen. (One article about Max’s oeuvre was entitled, “The Rapiest Quotes from ‘I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell.”)

An object’s value is its ability to perform its function. It either serves its function, or it doesn’t, in which case it’s a bad object and will be discarded for a new object that functions better. As awareness has increased about the pervasiveness of sexual violence against women, a song like Robin Thicke’s single, “Blurred Lines,” sparks conversations and debates about consent that last longer than the song’s initial popularity. We are also beginning to untangle the various meanings and motives trapped within slut shaming. This is undoubtedly progress.

But it leaves many women wondering how long it will take to get to the root of the issue. When can high heels and lipstick be the objects, not the women who wear them? When will we release the American woman’s body back to her? When will we release her of the weight of our hopes, expectations, vanities, and phobias? When will we release her of ourselves?