I watched the television show Fleabag recently (an excellent mix of funny, poignant and wrenching) and was struck by a scene in which a feminist speaker asks her audience, “Would you give up five years of your life to have the perfect body?” The protagonist and her sister raise their hands, but no one else does. We, the television viewing audience, are invited to think the sisters are shallow. We woke viewers understand that life is more important than having the perfect body, as much as we may complain about the latter.
This fable of Jean de La Fontaine’s came to mind.
A wretched man called out for death to save him every day.
The melancholy man said : O Death! How beautiful you are to me. Come quickly. Come end my cruel fortune.
Death thought that in coming she was obliging the man. She knocked at the door. Entered. Showed herself.
The man cried out: What do I see? Take this object away. It’s so hideous. I’m filled with horror and fright just looking at it! Stay back, oh Death! Oh Death, go away!
Maecenas was a gallant man (and close advisor of the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus).
He once said: Even if I’m impotent, legless, gouty or armless, so long as I’m alive, that’s enough. I’m more than happy.
Never come, oh Death! is what we all want to say to you.
I don’t want to die anytime soon. Dying scares the crap out of me. But I also don’t want to be so unhappy I’m counting the days until I escape my cruel fortune. That is, until Death actually comes knocking, and then I decide that my unhappy situation isn’t so bad after all. Is quantity of life really more important than quality of life? Or does Maecenas (and La Fontaine) have it wrong?
When my father was dying, he made the decision to stop radiation treatments. He chose quality of life. I will never know if he shortened his life. It doesn’t matter. There’s no doubt he was happier in his last months than he would have been, sickened by radiation.
Society’s obsession with women’s bodies may seem like a small matter compared to cancer, but the amount of psychological (and physical) pain that women subject themselves to in the pursuit of the perfect body is significant and material. The question the fake television feminist asked is provocative. If someone asked me whether I’d be willing to give up five years of my life to have the perfect body, I’m not sure how I would answer. Before I made the decision as to whether or not to raise my hand, I want to better understand the parameters of the thought experiment.
Would I think I had the perfect body? Or would I still be unhappy with my body, even though it was perfect? Whether or not I actually have the perfect body is irrelevant, if I’m still wasting time obsessing about my figure.
We all know way too many people (perhaps even our own selves), who spend a lot of time feeling not-beautiful-enough or not-thin-enough or whatever other negative feelings we can have about our bodies. There’s currently a media trend called “thinspo” (short for “thinspiration), which is supposed to inspire women to be thinner. I question the use of “inspire” in that terminology.
I was not inspired the first time someone alerted me to the “thigh gap” aspiration. I was with a fellow woman lawyer. We were wearing shortish skirts, walking across a plaza surrounded by tall, glass office buildings. She made a comment about my thigh gap. I didn’t know what she was talking about, so we stopped to look at our reflections in the glass. She pointed out that even if I stood with my feet together, my legs didn’t touch at the top (or at least not up to the point where my skirt intervened).
As if the list of body matters I needed to watch out for hadn’t been long enough, I got to add thigh gap to the many possible concerns (if it’s on your body shaming list, here’s an insightful article from the Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, Anatomy of The Thigh Gap). That afternoon looking at my reflection in the office building glass was more than 25 years ago. If I’m honest, I’ve spent at least one week (cumulatively) a year since then actively unhappy with some aspect of my figure. That’s almost 6 months. That’s a very conservative estimate. I’m not the only woman racking up these statistics.
Though I do not feel so wretched as to call out for death, the Fleabag question made me wonder—how many years would I give to never think about the thigh gap or any other inadequacies in my appearance?
Sure, you might say that learning to deal with our imperfections makes us stronger and better equipped to deal with life. But even that phrasing is flawed. Imperfection implies the existence of perfection. There’s no such thing. More. The pursuit of perfection is to chase after disappointment. Life already serves up oversized helpings of disappointment to most of us. We don’t need to proactively find more sources of unhappiness.
Thinspo is not inspiring. It’s a barbaric assault on my psyche. It’s a waste of life.
Here’s the good news. We don’t have to give up years of our life for the good fortune of thinking we have the perfect body. What we think is (and has always been) up to us. Let’s not wait for Death to arrive on our doorstep to appreciate life. We fear Death’s hideous features, because we want more time. We want more time, because we have wasted so much time on unhappiness. Banish the thigh gap. Add years to life.
Death will come, whether we call her or not. In the meantime, bask in, gorge on and revel in all the beauty life offers, including our own.
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