All women know that we are judged by our appearance—in the world of dating and romance, and in every area of life. To say “it doesn’t matter” is a lie, says Emily Rapp.
I’ve worn an artificial leg since I was 4 years old. In the ’80s, it was hideously ugly and strange, made of metal joints and literal wood. Now it’s swanky and hydraulic and outrageously expensive. I play favorites among my legs. Some just fit better than others; some have just the right paint color on the false “skin” that makes them look more real; some have feet that help me run, swim, etc.
So it was with great trepidation that I recently had to ship off my favorite leg—favored by me since 1998, when it was initially made—to the prosthetist for some upkeep. I’m back in what feels like a loner leg. A leg from my 20’s, when life was less complicated (although I can only say this in retrospect), my body was different, and I didn’t wear such tight jeans. So when I say I’m actually missing a part of me, I’m serious.
Shoving that beloved and necessary (and occasionally despised) part of me into a heavily insured box and sending it through the mail for maintenance work has me thinking about the emphasis on women’s various parts that is a major part of marketing/buying/selling/being for all things woman. This includes the magazines we read (which continually promise better butts and trimmer thighs, as if our bodies could be dissected on a butcher’s graph indicating various cuts of meat); perfumes to make us smell good; makeup to fix our enlarged pores; creams to solve the eye wrinkles and dark circles.
This emphasis on parts also has a less sinister-seeming cousin: the “play up your good parts” angle. Have a nice jawline? Short pixie haircut! Small waist? Cinch that sexy thing with a nice A-line skirt! Hide what’s good, show what’s great, knowing that these standards are totally ludicrous and based on some unattainable figure of a woman. We all know this, we all ignore it, it’s an old story, but that doesn’t make it a less powerful one.
No matter what we say and do, all women know that we are very much judged by our appearance—in the world of dating and romance, and in every area of life. To say “it doesn’t matter” is a lie. It does matter. Just in the wrong way.
A few weekends ago I co-led a yoga and writing workshop with my friend, writer, and yogi Jennifer Pastiloff. Part of what we did during the weekend was write lists to each person who attended, indicating their “five most beautiful things,” a method and system of observation that Jen invited people to extend in all areas of their lives. You could often find someone staring out the window of the yoga room, into the Vermont fall afternoon, scribbling away. We traveled home with 20-odd love notes.
It was the first time I’ve experienced an attention to “parts” that didn’t seem creepy or punitive or cruel, and it made me think that such subtle shifts in our thinking would be radical—if powerfully beneficial, perhaps more than we can even estimate—in the world of women’s beauty advertising, and the way we think about women’s bodies, and by extension, women, in general. What would it look like to find the beauty—just the pure beauty—of a person, and not a piece of beauty as some kind of compensation for a part less beautiful?
As I left my leg at the post office, feeling like I’d just said a long goodbye to an old friend, I thought about those five beautiful things that 20-odd other people had written about me. It made me less sad, to lose this piece of myself, even if it was only temporary. I remembered that the only ads for prosthetic knees and feet appear in magazines specifically written for people with disabilities, and there is little glamour to these shots. Still, as an amputee friend of mine once said, holding up the big, totally non-glossy but centerfold advertisement for a new kind of foot in what we used to call “crip magazines,” “mobility is sexy.” Indeed.
I understand body parts. I understand, of course, why they matter, maybe more than most. I’m just sick of thinking about them in what has come to be deemed as the “normal” way. The body as the problem. Enough already.
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.