April 10, 2014
A part of the Health [Care] April Film Series at the Days-Massalo Center, Beauty Mark is a documentary film by Diane Israel that examines contemporary conceptions of beauty and gender norms, as portrayed in the media and as applied on a day-to-day basis. In her movie, Israel self-examines the distorted relationship between her body and her mind going beyond the common conceptions of media representations of the body. Beauty Mark discusses the cultural, psychological and emotional influences people undergo in their childhood and early adulthood and how they affect the perception of body and beauty in general.
Seeing Israel’s journey of, as she refers to it, “facing her demons” and learning more about the wide spectrum of eating disorders made me realize just how relevent eating disorders are to our contemporary society, particularly on the Hill. Previously, I thought having an eating disorder meant being anorexic or bulimic. I could not have been further from the truth. Israel, a former endurance athlete, introduced me to the concept of “exercise bulimia,” which manifests itself from a person’s need to burn the calories they have consumed. Yes, it is that person who feels the need to spend an hour in the gym every time (s)he eats a dessert or the friend who feels the need to work out everyday or else (s)he can not stand her/himself. Israel herself suffered from exercise bulimia; she would train three times a day and eat only an energy bar for lunch and a salad for dinner. As a result, at age 28, she found herself suffering from complete exhaustion and starvation, unable to get out of bed for months. She spent those months rehashing her life and started asking herself why she was so afraid of being fat.
This question has stuck with me since seeing the film. Why exactly are we so afraid of the idea of being “fat,” by which we might designate as buying jeans a size or two bigger than normal? Do those of us who carry the “freshman fifteen” on our hips and bottoms really become less attractive? I do not think so. Undoubtedly, our perceptions of our body goes back to childhood and has a lot to do with the way our parents raised us. If a girl was constantly praised for her Barbie-like beauty or if a boy was compared to professional athletes, then chances are gaining a few pounds of body fat would tremendously damage those kids’ self-confidence. After all, at some point in our lives, we all go up a few sizes; it is hormones, it is stress, it is life.
Media is another key reason for why we perceive beauty the way we do. The picture-perfect models from catalogues and the runway, male and female alike, create unrealistic expectations for the average person. That said, there are people who are naturally fit and they don’t need to diet or exercise to keep their figure. The truth is that we all come in different shapes and sizes, and it is important to understand that those shapes and sizes change as we grow. Growing up, I was super skinny, to the point where it was not pretty, but it was all natural. I ate well, and my workouts consisted of running around the block and ballroom dancing. There was nothing that could make me gain weight. In the later years of my puberty, however, things started changing. One summer, for only two months, I got feminine hips and a bottom just like that. I was freaking out. Slowly, over the next two years, I accepted my more feminine-like body, but by then, it was time for college and the freshman fifteen did not pass me by.
The bottom line is that in the span of our lives, we will undergo many physical and personality changes that we simply have to accept. I know that the more I obsess over my weight, the less pretty I feel and the less likely I am to feel comfortable in my own skin. Once I accept the change, however, I “magically” feel and look better. As Israel’s former partner says in Beauty Mark, “Nobody is born self-confident, this is something you work for.” Though being self-confident and accepting of oneself is sometimes challenging, (especially with the media trying to wash our brains with its stereotypes of beauty,) learning to love yourself is a life-long process that determines the quality of our lives. Despite media and societal influence, in the end, deciding how we perceive beauty and ourselves is up to us. I believe that being beautiful on the outside does not guarantee having a happy life, but that truly enjoying and loving life, with all its ups and downs, is what makes a person truly beautiful.