Monday, April 16, 2012

Body Image: That's Not Me!

The other Bill Yaryan
If you search on Google for the name by which I was known most of my life you will come across this picture on a website devoted to the "Ultimate Beer Gut."  According to the caption next to the photo, "Bill Yaryan sent us this picture.  We are transfixed by the beauty of his massive, monolithic appendage!  We challenge anyone to top this."  Of course I was horrified; what if someone I knew thought it was me?  The web page is dated 2001 and I've uncovered nothing else about the other Bill Yaryan.  Perhaps he died of a heart attack, diabetes, or any one of a number of conditions made worse by obesity (and drinking beer).  But the sad fact is, since 2001 my own stomach has grown apace, although not to the proportions seen here.  It's hard to see my toes (or anything else) when standing, and my innie (navel) has become an outie, much to the amusement of my wife who claims she prefers me fat to the skinny kid I used to be and still am inside.  One's body image rarely keeps up with reality.

The Bill Yaryan that was me
This is how I once looked, and still do in my mind.  The picture was taken during our weekly volleyball game on Venice Beach in 1973 when I would join my friends in the music business to smash the ball around and pretend we were athletic.  I was 34, in the prime of my life.  My hair was long, as was the custom of the time, and my abs were flat, which was pure luck given the crap I ate and the substances I abused.  Being young and dumb, I never imagined the future, nor could I really see myself beyond an appetite for adventure and pleasure and a blindness to consequences.  My first marriage ended on that beach when my wife came to a game with our small kids to find out where I'd been sleeping the previous week.  I turned my back on them and drove aimlessly from there to northern California and the consolation of friends.  Her hatred of me and the damage I inflicted on our children has lasted far longer than my svelte mid-life physique.

Because it's personal for me, I have long been fascinated by identity, by who we think we are.  Body image is central for many.  I am not only a man, an elderly one at that, but an American, a Buddhist-Catholic, a political radical, and an expat who lives in Thailand.  I am also fat.

We have two scales tucked under our bed, analog and digital.  I have trouble seeing the numbers on the dial, so I use the digital scale, but it is disturbingly erratic.  For much of my life I weighed 150 lb/68 kg, but when I moved here nearly five years ago I hit 169/77.  At this morning's weigh-in, I was 179/81.  My passion for sweet things and my disinterest in exercise is taking its toll.   But were it not for my wife, I would probably not be considering that most boring of pastimes, a diet.  I have learned much about Thai body image from her.  Women in Thailand are generally slim, flat chested, with small noses, prominent cheekbones and what I think of as tan skin.  Nan is short and built like her mother, with bigger than average thighs and upper arms.  She carries an umbrella under the hot sun for fear she'll become "black." Her sister is taller and skinny, and dreams, like many Thai women, of getting a boob job.  Nan's friend had an operation to make her nose bigger.  Skin clinics have multiplied like pimples, and laser surgery is available for all unwanted blemishes (Nan wants it to remove scars from mosquito bites she got in Brunei which she scratched until they bled). When I first came to Thailand and browsed in a drug store, I was shocked to see cream that claimed to turn brown nipples pink.  All skin creams here are advertised as "whitening lotion."  The desire of Thais to have whiter skin is a national obsession.

We blame our concern about body image on the media and that is partly true.  In Thailand, practically all the models and actors are white, slim and rich, except for the occasional rural villagers who are almost never featured in advertising or in television dramas.  The image projects our desires.  I was amazed to learn that in Japanese hentai, women are portrayed with huge breasts even though Japanese women, like Thais, are almost all small breasted.  This goes as well for erotic cartoons drawn primarily for lesbians, so it's not just a male predilection.  We want to be what we are not.  Why are women taught almost universally that underarm and leg hair is ugly and should be removed (the ideal sex object today is always shaven)?  In Thailand, women remove underarm and facial hair with tweezers, even in public (men, too; I've seen motorbike taxi drivers examining their faces for unwanted hair in rear view mirrors and removing it with tweezers).  Beards, in a country where body hair is rare, are not considering beautiful.

"Our sense of body image, of our ownership of our bodies, is integral to our sense of identity," writes neurobiologist Susan Barry in Psychology Today, and it changes over time.  I like my white hair and deeply wrinkled face, even though when I approach the mirror I half-hope the 34-year-old will look back at me like in some science fiction fantasy.  If it's me, I own it, right, and have some sort of control over what I/it does.  Our body is the standpoint from which we view the world.  But the body is notoriously flexible.  Walking with a cane, we experience the tip as an extension of our sense of touch.  Does our body extend with our senses outward into space? Ask a blind person.  Our mechanical worldview has taught us to think of the body as a machine which, when broken, can be fixed by the right doctor.  Our brain sits in the hot seat, running the show, pulling levers to turn intentions into actions.  But when we begin to interrogate consciousness, our sense of having a soul that creates thoughts, we find -- smoke and mirrors.  Who is it that is conscious and that thinks?  A brain is a what, not a who.

According to Wikipedia, body image refers to "a person's perception of the aesthetics and sexual attractiveness of his or her own body."  The phrase was coined by Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder in a 1935 book, The Image of Appearance of the Human Body.  Our body image is produced by comparing physical appearance (as we see it) with some idealized standard.  Because beauty is often more crucial to their self-esteem, women may view themselves more harshly than men.  In my youth people told me I looked like Frank Sinatra or Humphrey Bogart, celebrities not known for being handsome, and I was not bothered by that.  I judged my appearance by the women who were attracted to me, never in large numbers, and assumed I would never be an Arnold or a Brad.  That was OK by me.  Nan compares himself to the Thai actresses and models she reads about in a fan magazine that comes out every 10 days.  They are invariably thinner, white and more beautiful to her eyes, no matter what I say to affirm her attractiveness to me.  Our body image is not overly moved by what others think and say.  In matters dealing with my body, only I can say.

The body is our own personal billboard.  We advertise ourself to the world by the styles we assume, the way we walk and talk, and the masks we let others see (only rarely taking them off).  Bill Cunningham, street photographer for the New York Times, has chronicled the often outrageous fashions real people choose to wear (and they can be seen in a terrific new documentary, "Bill Cunningham New York").  Today the body is the site of our performance.  We adorn it, pierce it, plaster it with makeup, and draw all over it.  I grew up before the current fad for tattoos.  The only people I knew who had them were tattooed in Yokosuka or Manilla while in the military, or during high school on a drunken night at the Pike, an amusement zone in Long Beach that was sadly demolished at the end of the 1970s.  My friend Jerry grew to hate the pair of dice he had tattooed on his upper arm at the Pike and covered it over with a huge panther's head at a shop in the Pacific.  I have seen old men who got tattoos during World War Two, and what happens when skin ages, as mine is doing now, is not pretty.  The ink in old tattoos looks like it's on paper and got caught in a rain storm.  So when I see the tattoos today on young skin everywhere I tut-tut like an old fart wondering: "What were you thinking?"  Yet, if it weren't for my aging parchment skin that bruises easily, I might consider getting a few tats to celebrate my 75th birthday.  Maybe even a tiger like Angelina's.  And certainly some holy khmer lettering to provide protection.

My interest in identity, however, is more ontological than aesthetic.  Who is the "me" that analyses and judges the attributes of the physical body?  This "me" is no more substantial than the white American who possesses a penis.  I am not ready to go the whole materialist hog and claim all reality is only molecules in motion.  Or to follow the shaman who says it's turtles all the way down.  I have come to disbelieve in the eternal metaphysical soul that transcends the body and survives death (like the "me" that dreams at night in distant places).  I'm ok with the notion of karma so long as its use is metaphorical and ethical, and does not make claims that contradict the Buddhist doctrine of anatta which denies a self in the essentialist sense. I do not believe that this personality of mine that has developed over time, for better or worse, will reincarnate in any way after I die, in another body.  But I'm also not ready to embrace scientism, the ideology that only science and its priests can describe and explain the workings of matter in all of its manifestations.  That soulless machine is not me!   There is something else happening here!

1 comment:

Janet Brown said...

Body image is such a non-issue as we age, isn't it? But recently pain from body parts that are wearing out make me conscious of my shell again--and I resent it!