My Body Reflects My Changing Choices

Despite shifts in priorities and preferences, self scrutiny remains

When I was a teenager, I would sit outside and let my head bake in the sun, hoping to bleach my honey-blond hair into a lighter shade. I sought soft highlights that would evoke a certain outdoorsy health and confidence. Throughout my youth I cherished my blond hair and peered with disappointment at the roots as they darkened. Everyone in my family followed the same pattern, from my own father to my mom’s taciturn brother back in Kansas: blond as children, then settling into a pedestrian shade of brown. I thought blond hair was prettier and more attention-grabbing and I didn’t want this destiny. I was pleased that my blond was lasting past early childhood. Perhaps I could confuse the trend after all. And the sun would help.

What we want from our bodies changes with time as our sensibilities change. Our bodies become the mantel in the front room, a reflection of the collective aesthetic. The bricks painted white around the fireplace look goofy the next decade, when blunt stones are favored. It is as if we are ourselves the décor, matching ourselves to trends, then often cringing when looking back. The plaid sofa in deep russet tones where I napped as a teen seems little different than the Sun-In doused hair and spray-set bangs: both became relics. Both seem laughable. What were we all thinking?

One can’t help but imagine that our present selves will one day look dated and ill-advised as well. Tastes will change, all the burnt sienna turned to dusty rose turned to gray. So too must go the body, chasing ideals when all the ideals do is shift.

What, then, is the body without its selected presentation? Is there any wholeness that represents what a body truly is, impervious to time? Even the naked body resides within both a point in time and a sense of performance. Our willingness to share that body, whether in uncovering ourselves or in seeking affectionate touch, is fixed by time-delimited culture and our understanding of ourselves in relation to it. The popular narrative has much to say about our choices here: reveal too much of the wrong kind of body at the wrong time, for example, and one may well be mocked, rejected, even scorned.

We send messages with every choice to hug another, every selection of neckline, every haircut and prim, ironed shirt. Our bodies become ambassadors, telegraphing what we believe ourselves to be. The conscious component of all this — our daily choices of self-presentation — ages along with us. My sun-bleaching goals of decades ago seem both futile and foolish to me now, as do all those many perms and odd shades of eyeshadow paired with hot pink shirts. It is also true that our bodies can whisper about us despite ourselves, betraying our self esteem, our mood, our ability to read a social tableau. Even something as simple as one’s gait will project an image to others: masculine or feminine, bold or meek, smooth or unmetered. Those non-deliberate messages also evolve with us as we age.

There may be one constant within all these changes: the chronic self assessment of one’s body. The aesthetics may change but the scrutiny does not. I have not stopped peering at myself in the mirror while cataloging a host of pesky shortcomings. Now I am grateful my hair isn’t graying yet. Now I like my hair color. But will that priority too seem silly one day? The body remains, from our earliest years to our last, fundamentally a way to communicate. We draw messages in, to inform ourselves about ourselves, and craft messages out, presenting a tale to tell, projecting a certain image that we hope we can choose. The particulars of all these messages are bound to our age, culture, and time, but the telling, both to us and from us, is unceasing.