The Skin You’re In: Body Type, Image, & Ideal

We come in many different shapes and sizes. You’ve heard of some of them. For men, there are the ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph body types. For women, apple, pear, hourglass, and rectangle/straight. I even found a website that had eight body types for women: straight, pair, spoon, hourglass, top hourglass, inverted triangle, oval, and diamond. That’s pretty extensive.

When I was twelve years old, my family went to Europe to see my cousins in Portugal. We got to spend a week in Paris as well. We saw what my brother termed at the age of 10 “the famous naked lady” (a.k.a. the Venus de Milo) in the Louvre. We saw beautiful paintings, both men and women, both clothed and unclothed, both rich and poor. Even at the age of twelve, I loved how the women portrayed looked so natural. They were different from the women I saw in magazines in the grocery store line, different from the women I saw on television. I didn’t quite know what the difference was then, but I admired the women in those paintings. My idols were not those in the magazines, but the ones painted by Monet, Manet, and Degas’ round-faced, fully formed ballerinas. Thus, I never really wanted to look like Jennifer Aniston or Kiera Knightley. They are beautiful, yes. But, I wanted to be more like the statues lining the great hall of the Musee d’Orsay – natural, comfortable in their own skin, not caring how they sat or lay or stood because their form was being shown as it was rather than how it should be.

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Kids can see beauty in a different way than adults. It’s the innocence. And I don’t want to lose that. I know now that I what I saw in those sculptures and paintings was important, and I’m glad that our parents took us there because it gave me a healthy view of the human body. The human form is beauty no matter its shape and size. A magazine photo editor seems to take away the passion, the texture, the light and soul of the model. But the impressionists, the classicists, and even the moderns show what we would now call imperfection – that passion and soul – the layers of the person inside and out. There was no Photoshop, no airbrushing during the Renaissance and the human body was portrayed as the very essence of beauty.

Even with what I believe to be a healthy view of the human body starting out, the years have worn and weathered my subconscious views of beauty and the way that I look at myself. There have been days when I have, rightly, looked in the mirror and seen a piece of art – a piece of the Renaissance standing before me and inside of me. Even at the age of 16, I wondered why any girl would struggle with self-esteem issues, eating disorders, self-harm, depression, and the like. All women were beautiful and I truly believed that. I’ve never seen an ugly woman in my life. It’s not that I was what the world would call “pretty” – I was just a short girl with curly hair that I didn’t really know how to fix. But, I was content with who I was – happy.

The world is unkind, though. I began to feel invisible, like many teens do, that year. And at the age of 17, I began my journey through clinical depression and anxiety. When you feel invisible to the opposite sex, even for a day, you begin to think differently. I still didn’t feel ugly, but I didn’t feel good, and I started down a road that I’m not sure I could have helped not going down.

I don’t think I really, truly felt ugly until I was halfway through college. I got back from a summer in Nepal having gained a few pounds because I couldn’t jog there and the people fed us so much. A guy friend of mine was talking to me about my summer there, and I showed him how we had to eat with our hands. I thought it was funny and interesting, but he had such a disgusted look on his face and I won’t forget that feeling of inciting disgust on the face of someone who had been interested in me for quite a while. He began to sit at a different table from me during meals, with other girls. Sometimes at night when that disgust in his face made its way into me, I’d leave the apartment and just try to run – more to hurt myself than anything, really. I’d run as hard as I could and then get frustrated that I couldn’t run that hard for very long and then find a corner to cry in. I felt hatred toward myself, toward my body and I wanted to punish it. I remember the first time I went to Wal-Mart after midnight because I couldn’t take it anymore, buying diet pills with the little money I had, looking through them all, reading their promises, wanting them to work quickly. I’d skip breakfast and feel like I was helping myself lost weight, but then I’d crave carbs and eat as much, binge-eating, as I could because I was a tired, sleep-deprived, stressed college student.

There have many different times in my life when I have gone through this similar cycle. A sudden hatred of myself that carried on into a hatred of how I look – watching movies where the female protagonist is both strong and skinny. And so my beauty idols all became bony, tight-faced actresses who have enough money to have trainers and make-up artists and yoga instructors and nutritionists at their disposal 24/7, not to mental people toning, contouring, and editing their bodies both on screen and off screen.

But, I still prefer the female bodies of the Renaissance to the female bodies in the ads. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I can relate to their body type. But, I know from my introduction to them at the age of twelve that this is just not true. I relate to them because they are real. They have genuine bodies, beautiful and healthy. And that’s what I want.

I do have days when I look in the mirror and see a masterpiece. I see the brushstrokes across my face, intricate and detailed and lovely. I see the shape of my body and think back to the Musee d’Orsay. And that is how it should be.

We need to, as men and women, to remember what true form is – and true form happens to be the form with which you were born. True form is who you are – a true, genuine you. Apple, pear, banana-morph, whatever. Each person is a work of art – unique in size, colour, and spirit.

The shape of you and the shape of me is a masterpiece. I am strong inside, but you will never see my bones through my skin. You will probably never even see muscles when I flex. But, the skin I’m in is a skin I want to be in. And I will continue to strive toward that ideal, whether it is the ideal the world has or not.

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