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The Quest for Appearances: A Novel

Posted May 16 2011 8:02pm

Last week, after accosting me at the end of a workout to discuss the Wordsworth lines with which he had earlier regaled me, Mandelbaum told me a story that I found a little disturbing.  I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Knowing that I’m a teacher, Mandelbaum had once asked me if I experienced many behavior issues in my classroom.  I told him, no, not many, except in the cases of students who genuinely misbehaved in many classes.  For the most part, I have good students.  He found this interesting, as he has a friend who retired from a local school district, and this friend often complained that his students’ behavior was getting worse every year.

After our Wordsworth chat, Mr. Mandelbaum said that he’d told his retired friend of my comments, specifically that I don’t have many behavior issues in my classes, and his friend’s very first response was a question:  “Is she attractive?” he asked.

In the context of this conversation, I laughed.  But in my mind, this question infuriated me.  The implication is that a woman would garner more respect — in the classroom or in any setting in which a power hierarchy exists — if she were physically appealing.  My lack of behavior problems, under this theory, is attributable not to my earned respect as a teacher or the kinds of relationships I have with kids but to my physical appearance.

I quickly got over how annoyed I was at this idea when I found I could easily provide evidence of otherwise “attractive” female teachers who did, in fact, have problems with student behaviors in their classrooms.  But the whole idea of the importance of physical appearance has had me thinking ever since.

To what degree, for example, am I in this fitness thing because of physical appearance?

I started lifting because I wanted to be strong, literally, and I wanted a connection to my body that was based on what it could do rather than what it looked like.  That connection is very appealing to me — I hesitate to say that the connection I have to my sense of body now is “spiritual,” but I do feel that my growing awareness of my body and it’s abilities is something akin to being enlightened.  Or at least to becoming enlightened.

Despite my original (and ongoing) quest for that connection, I still find myself often drawn to the ways in which my physical appearance is different because of this quest.  I just posted something a few weeks ago about finally accepting my body and no longer seeing flaws.  Turning to fitness was a way to inadvertently work out those body issues.  Even without body issues, though, I am still turning to my physical appearance for evidence of my diet progress.  I look in the mirror for new muscle definition, for veins, for leanness that I didn’t see there before.  I may not be seeing myself as flawed, but I am focused on appearances — on what I consider to be attractive — nonetheless.

For the last few days, I was trying to figure out why I didn’t feel at all superficial about this focus on appearance.  At first, I thought it was just the nature of what I am trying to accomplish — when one’s goal is body-related, appearance has to be part of the evidence one uses to indicate success.  I’m sure this is why some people still look at bodybuilders and see nothing but a “superficial” focus on physicality instead of the athleticism it takes to get that physicality.

But I’ve been thinking there’s more to this than the idea that it’s just the nature of the beast.  I’m beginning to think that taking ownership of one’s physical appearance is actually a way to defy the normal expectations of attractiveness in women.  Taking control over my body is powerful, especially when my goals for that body aren’t in line with accepted ideals of beauty for women.  I still think it’s a bunch of b.s. when women sex themselves up and then claim that they are empowering themselves through sexuality.  It’s not empowering if you’re doing exactly what society says you should.  But perhaps it is empowering, and not superficial, to reclaim one’s body, to remake it in ways that indicate strength rather than submissiveness.

Maybe I’m assigning too much meaning to something that’s actually insignificant.  I prefer, however, to think I am a rebel.  Or maybe “rebel” is just a great euphemism for “nut job.”  Whichever.  At any rate, I am very focused on appearances right now, and for that, I make no apologies.

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