Sunday, May 07, 2006

Body Image

No, I am not this Bill Yaryan. I know he has my name, and I'm aware that this picture of him, with that award-winning prodigious protuberance, is all over the web. But it's not me.

I suppose I shouldn't care. What if I were named John Smith and the world were full of other John Smiths? Or I could be named Jose Gonzalez, or even Mohammed, with all the name confusion and competition THAT would involve.

Let me be honest. The fact that he is named Bill Yaryan does not bother me so much as that he's large, excessively large. And seemingly proud of it. In days long gone by, when I was string-bean thin, I would have laughed at the difference. I'm obviously not him! (pointing to my wimpy stomach). But those days have passed, and as I move through my seventh decade on this planet, my stomach has grown accordingly. I, too, have a protuberance, though not (yet) an award-winning one. I gaze at my rotund reflection in store windows as I stroll the street, and I mourn my transformation from a boney, gawkey kid into this amply-endowed elderly gentleman.

I am troubled by my body image, by the self conveyed through appearance, and I share this malaise with countless people on the planet, particularly those in First World, enlightened countries where youth and health are emblems of worship. I can identify especially with women who are forced into the false facades of fashion, spread by seductive advertising and the media's focus on celebrity. The cosmetics industry would collapse if women would only recognize that true beauty and worth come from within, not from a bottle or tube or lipsuction. But we don't teach that in schools. And even men are getting facelifts.

I am also troubled by the widespread idea that our bodies are infinitely malleable, and that we can sculpt them as we please, with enough effort and the correct diet or supplements. The gyms, pools and bike paths and full of part-time athletes anxious to win the gold, or at least live forever. There is nothing wrong with seeking and staying healthy, but I detect in many of my friends a compulsiveness to fend off wrinkles and double chins, a desire to recapture the vigor and sheen of their youth.

Most people are satisfied to tell others that they've been "working out" alot. Twenty some years ago I participated in the fad for running and I reveled in the thought that I was an athlete, at least temporarily. There is no question that I felt good, in body and mind, from the exercise. But I don't run any more, and I am aware of the others around me who have failed to get in shape, their bodies capitulating to gravity and cellulite. If you're wealthy, though, like my 63-year-old friend in Spain, you can defy fate by getting a face lift and a boob job.

What I resent (and here comes the rant) in all this obsession with the body is that it turns the victims of genetics and the choosers of alternative priorities into failures. We pity the mishapen and the prematurely aged. If only they'd exercised more and kept in shape! It's not unlike blaming the cancer victim for causing their condition by not eating the right foods, exercising, etc. Yes, there is an obesity epidemic in the modern west, but it's the fault of a greedy (i.e. capitalist) food industry eager to profit from the poor, and NOT the fault of the eaters. Yes, exercise is good for you, but why is cheaply produced corn syrup in pratically everything we buy?

There is so much more to worry about and work on in this world that is more important than our body image. And even if I might be happier looking like Tom Cruise (or, for me, Sean Connery), I'm too busy campaigning for world peace and an end to hunger than to pump iron and huff and puff on a tredmill.

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