Content warning for racism, semi-nudity, images of infection! The cover image for this post is a medieval mask of shame.
Maybe you know the term ‘BOBFOC’? In case you don’t, it stands for ‘Body off Baywatch, face off Crimewatch’. Pretty sexist and unpleasant right? But I’ll be honest, it sums up my own complicated feelings towards my appearance.
Everyone has their own chequered story of body image and self esteem. It’s an inescapable, ever-present theme in the world of fitness, and life itself. This is an industry that, at its worst, thrives on and contributes to people feeling thoroughly miserable with their appearance. There are rich profits to be mined from our insecurities. Our feelings about how we look are shaped by our families, history, and culture.
Now I’ll share my story with you. It’s not exceptional – it’s one variation on the life-long relationship that we all develop with our own body. Let me just set the scene. I’ve been prompted to write this post today, as I’m sitting in a oversized beanie with a sore, swole… face. A familiar feeling. All of this has happened before, and will happen again.
Let’s go back a few years to begin with. Like many I first started thinking about my self-image as a teenager. Make no mistake, I was lucky. My body has so far consistently fallen into the categories considered acceptable by mainstream European culture; white, young, slim, able-bodied. Some of these external features will change over time, some will never change, some could change in an instant.
Self-image has little to do with objective facts though.
I never got bullied or picked on for my appearance.
I had moderate acne as a teen, a pretty normal thing, and I still have quite extensive acne scars. Most people who I mention this to, say they don’t notice them.
I have very thin and stringy hair as a genetic feature.
I was pretty shy as a teenager, which again is a normal thing at a time of body and hormone changes, accompanied by the insecurity of having no idea what you are doing.
In terms of sexual partners, nobody ever approached me. I never approached anyone else.
Somehow, as a young person, I internalised the following messages.
- The message that I was giving to myself was that I was unattractive. This was based on my perception of other people’s reaction (or lack of) to me. It wasn’t at all about how I felt at that point.
- And, because I should want people to find me attractive, if anybody at all did show an interest, I should feel grateful.
In practice this meant that pretty much throughout my earlier life, any time someone has made a move, I have responded. It was so infrequent. I couldn’t hope for better, I thought. I should take what I can get. Whether I was attracted to them did not come into the equation. I found it hard to even define what was attractive to me. At that time, I thought of myself as a loser.
In my late teens I became a fan of punk, and part of the whole subculture. The appeal of the visual style was that the idea was to look bad on purpose. This I could do! I cut my thin hair into spikes for years. It looked like chives.
I drifted out of punk. Some reasons were social, and also because my worldview – and music taste – changed. I started looking more normal and less like I had been caught in an explosion in a badge warehouse. I even grew my hair, just to see if there was anything even semi-nice that I could do with it, style-wise (the answer is: no).
In my early 20s, at last I found martial arts and boxing. Again the pressure was off to look good. These were sports and a way of life that were entirely about what you were doing. In the heat of performance, the question of looking good was not even compatible. This was the time of my life when my confidence and self-assuredness grew the most and the fastest. I was starting to feel more and more capable, and this trumped any other considerations of self-worth based on how good I looked. My training was guided by a wider social purpose which also helped me to feel that I had value beyond my appearance.
Learning to fight had helped my self-image, but there was still more learning to come.
At this point:
- I had realised that there are more important features and characteristics than looking ‘sexy’
- At times I felt that my body and mind were capable and able to perform well
- I knew that my body looked healthy, but I still believed that my face was unattractive
- I wasn’t feeling distress about this belief
One fateful early morning, I fell off my bike and smooshed my face into concrete.
I went to work that day with the seeping wound on full display. There’s just no way to cover a giant graze on your face. Later that evening I had to go down to London and chair a panel featuring the musician Brian Eno, anthropologist David Graeber, and economist Frances Coppola, on camera. I sat with the graze facing away from the audience, but I also made a point of mentioning the giant scab upfront, as people would have been silently wondering about it. Every time I spoke it was uncomfortable. There was nothing I could do about it though. I just had to accept it as something unfortunate but temporary. I was lucky not to have damaged my eyes, teeth or any bones.
Before the wound healed, it became infected with impetigo, and this became a new regular lodger in the skin of my face. I struggled for quite a few months with the gross crusty rash recurring. It came back when I was on a caving trip in Lanzarote. It came back on a long weekend in Amsterdam. Time and time again it came back. It still does from time to time – just like today, as I write this blog post.
People would really stare. I tuned it out. What else could I do? It reinforced to me that I was relatively lucky – yes my skin looked gross and weird, and I couldn’t hide it, but I still had all my functions and senses.
In the course of writing this blog post I came across this great piece on ugliness by the disability activist Mia Mingus.
“Because we all do it. We all run from the ugly. And the farther we run from it, the more we stigmatize it and the more power we give beauty.
Our communities are obsessed with being beautiful and gorgeous and hot. What would it mean if we were ugly? What would it mean if we didn’t run from our own ugliness or each other’s? How do we take the sting out of “ugly?”
What would it mean to acknowledge our ugliness for all it has given us, how it has shaped our brilliance and taught us about how we never want to make anyone else feel? What would it take for us to be able to risk being ugly, in whatever that means for us. What would happen if we stopped apologizing for our ugly, stopped being ashamed of it?
What if we let go of being beautiful, stopped chasing “pretty,” stopped sucking in and shrinking and spending enormous amounts of money and time on things that don’t make us magnificent?
Where is the Ugly in you? What is it trying to teach you?
There is only the illusion of solace in beauty. If age and disability teach us anything, it is that investing in beauty will never set us free. Beauty has always been hurled as a weapon. It has always taken the form of an exclusive club; and supposed protection against violence, isolation and pain, but this is a myth. It is not true, even for those accepted in to the club. I don’t think we can reclaim beauty.
Magnificence has always been with us.”
The fact that I have white skin, even though it may sometimes be infected, swollen and disgusting, means that I escape racist discrimination as I go through life. This is an unearned advantage, also known as a privilege.
I might have internalised the idea that I was an unattractive individual as a young person. But our racist society is set up to systematically teach this to people of colour from childhood. Have you heard of the doll test? Check out this heartbreaking and angering video as young people talk about how beauty or ugliness is linked to skin colour.
Today, psychology has better tools for measuring attitudes about race. The modern method of assessing attitudes on race is the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, which tests unconscious bias. Give it a try. Go ahead, open a tab to do it now and come back. It takes about 10 minutes. Most white people and many black people hold unconscious bias against black skin, which is created by societal influence and the (sometimes, but not always, subtle) structures which remain in place to uphold the poisonous idea of white supremacy.
My own local pharmacist used to sell skin bleaching soap. I made a complaint about this. The pharmacist, who was Asian himself, smirked and said to me, ‘it doesn’t work’. I replied that this didn’t matter. The message was that darker-skinned people should feel the need to actively lighten their skin, that this was desirable and that they needed to buy (fake) bleaching products to achieve this. That their natural darker skin tone was unacceptable and something to fix. I’m happy to say that the pharmacy stopped selling the soap.
If you have white skin, just imagine growing up and moving through a world which sends you this message on a daily basis.
In the last couple of years, my training focus has shifted to strength training. This inevitably means further body changes and mental changes.
Muscle growth, like combat, is something that society tells us is fine for men, but less so for women. We are told that it is incompatible with femininity and that all-important sexual attractiveness. Or at least, that was the case until recently, when some marketing genius decided that ‘strong is the new skinny’, and all of a sudden women everywhere (= in the West, with disposable income) started feeling the heat to be not just slim/thin, but ‘toned’ and ab-tastic too.
I have been on the receiving end of harshly negative comments about my body as it became stronger, but these were unusual and reflective of the self-image of the commenter more than anything else.
Like learning to fight, my strength training is motivated by seeking changes to my mindset, so each week as well as striving to lift more, rest, and eat protein, I also work on focusing my mind on what is really important about life, and being a good human. What should I be giving my mental energy to? The answer is almost never what other people think of my appearance.
The fickle winds of fashion will change again. My training has connected me further with the question of what can my body do.
Can I lift my bodyweight? Twice my bodyweight? More?
Can I do a handstand? How long for?
Can I dig, carry, push, pull, throw, hike, climb?
These are the lessons that I have learned and which help me to stay mentally healthy:
- Those features that I see as flaws about my appearance from the neck upwards teach me to be humble, and to accept the things which I can do nothing about. If you can’t do that, you are set up for a lifetime of feeling bad.
- Having people stare at you judgementally is character building. I have only experienced this on a short term basis. Some people go through it every day. This is daily life for people who are very fat, or who have permanent disfigurement.
- I have to be thankful for what my body can do right now. It won’t last and it could all be gone in an instant.
- Our head is an interface with the world. It is how most of us see, smell, taste, hear, talk, kiss. Not to mention think.
- Although it’s good to focus on what you can do, over how you look, even this is not the same as value. We all have an inherent value as a human which doesn’t depend on any sort of performance, and doesn’t change.
- All of us will age and our physical abilities will degrade. For some of us it happens faster and sooner than others, but none of us can avoid this.
- What about our mental, emotional and ethical abilities? These aren’t visible to the naked eye – neither are they destined to crumble with the passage of time.
My closing thoughts on beauty, at this point in my life. What I have come to realise, is that our biggest focus should be on our character. It is our character and values which shape how we act, our priorities and how we relate to others.
There is so much truth in that supposedly insulting description that someone ‘has a good personality’, meaning, they are ugly. Personality really is everything! It is something that you can change, something which actually matters, and which moves from the inside outwards.
You all know this. There are people whose faces bring a warm thrill to your chest, not because they are objectively beautiful or sexy by some local or fashionable standards, but because you know that person and you love them for who they are. Their face is attractive because it is their face.
Strive for things which are meaningful to you. That can include body changes, health improvements, lifting numbers, developing skills. But most of all strive to develop a balanced character and sound self-esteem independent of any external achievements.
This is the foundation to build relationships with other people.
Use your face to experience the world and to express your character to those who know you or might want to know you.
Further reading: Femininity and the Physically Active Woman, Precilla Y. L. Choi
Further listening: Exercise: The First Road to Character, Must Triumph podcast – ‘Exercise is another way to say, this is who I am.’