In fair round belly with good capon lined

Once an obstetrician, always an obstetrician. I am recently retired, admittedly, but I nonetheless carry with me the joys and expectations of those days -everything from a mother’s sudden, relieved smile, to the first cry of her baby as it emerges wet and glistening from her birth canal. No less, the gradual changes in the woman herself as she evolves from Girl to Mother as the being she carries develops in the inexorable way of life. A time when her self-image expands to an us-image, and the mirror -once no friend, perhaps- becomes a welcome calendar of change: a map on the journey.

None were more surprised, I think, than Julia. I had first seen her, in my dual role as gynaecologist, for various adolescent challenges as she worked her way through her formative years. She was always an attractive, although excessively thin woman, and yet she continued to worry about her figure. In fact, I worried she was teetering on the edge of an eating disorder, and each successive time I saw her, she seemed to be staring even more intently into an abyss. Eventually, despite multiple attempts at specialist referrals, she disappeared from my practice for several years.

She resurfaced one summer, a changed woman. Now in the mid-trimester of her first pregnancy, she glowed with the prospect of motherhood, and seemed delighted in her new and ever-changing shape. No longer the angular stick-figure of her early years, gently flowing curves now softened her hips and rounded her growing abdomen. Each time I saw her, the smile on her face had grown as well.

“It’s all very interesting, don’t you think?” she asked me, one time as she neared her delivery date.

“What’s interesting, Julia?” I said, as I measured her abdomen and checked the position of the baby inside.

“The roundness…”

I smiled. “The baby, you mean?”

She shrugged. “Everything…” Her voice trailed off as she thought about it some more. “I used to like all of the angles in my body. I used to think it was beautiful to see my hip bones when I was in a bathing suit…” Her smile enlarged and suddenly she giggled. “Interesting, eh?”

I suppose we’re all biased against one thing or another, aren’t we? At my age, though, it’s hard to keep track anymore. I seem to blunder into something whichever way I turn, no matter my intent. I have no quarrel with political correctness, or anything -I am quite happy to be correct- it’s just that, well, some of this stuff is invisible at first or even second glance. Effectively camouflaged in the background of my everyday life, it’s a Where’s Waldo that’s getting harder and harder to solve.

Maybe I should watch more YouTube, or follow the news on Facebook more closely, because (blush) I do neither. Of course, that’s how you learn about what’s trending in the biasphere -if you really care, that is. I suspect I don’t. I just try to be polite and considerate to all and sundry; only occasionally does my naïveté surface to any noticeable, and hopefully harmless, extent.

So I have to confess, to being caught amidships with an essay in the BBC Future series that somehow makes its way unaided to my inbox from time to time: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181115-anti-fat-bias-round-shapes-are-sold-to-overweight-customers It would seem that we all have cleverly disguised anti-fat biases -and were I a salesman, I would apparently be less likely to meet the eyes or smile at someone of that persuasion.

And, believe it or not, ‘An undercover shopping experiment has now shown that this  bias even extends to the shapes of products that customers are recommended: customers of a greater weight are encouraged to buy rounder items… the researchers found that when wearing [a] prosthesis [to make the actor seem obese], the actor was recommended rounder watches and rounder bottles of perfume… Online experiments with study participants who weren’t shop assistants confirmed the bias Vallen [the study author Beth Vallen, a researcher at Villanova University in the US] and her colleagues measured in the real-life setting. Participants were shown a picture of a potential customer and asked to recommend products, selecting from pairs of images that were either round or angular. “We wanted to show that this was a bias that reflects the thoughts and decisions processes of all people, not just sales people,” says Vallen. This turned out to be the case: they found the same effect of matching rounder products to people with a higher BMI. It also held across different types of products – from watches to mirrors, lamps and candles. And it happened whether the imaginary customer was male or female.’

I must live in a protected bubble, I guess. My watch, for example is round -I didn’t think they came any other way, to tell the truth. Anyway, ‘The bias goes beyond an urge to match people of a particular body type with a particular shape of product… it is the stereotypes associated with the product and the people that are at play. In particular, one stereotype is that overweight people are friendlier. Rounded shapes are also seen as friendlier.’ Come on, eh? ‘actors were recommended more rounded products when they were smiling than when they were stern-faced – an effect that held whether they were wearing a body prosthesis or not.’

This rather idiosyncratic finding seemed to take the researchers by surprise: ‘“We don’t find any evidence that overweight people themselves prefer round products, or that normal weight people prefer angular products,” says Vallen.’

So is this telling us anything important -other than that grant money must be getting easier to come by? It made me remember the Julia of so many years ago, and I wondered whether or not Vallen might be on to something -something so ancient that it was locked, like Bluebeard’s secret, in a room we had not dared to enter in all these years. When I think of Julia, I can appreciate what Vallen may have inadvertently uncovered. But, far from the horrors of Bluebeard’s skeletons, it may be an atavism that can speak to us in modern times: maybe rounded shapes are somehow friendlier…

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Eternity Gazing at Itself

We see what we think others see; we see what the mirror sees. And yet, I prefer to see what Kahlil Gibran sees:  Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.

Body image is such a mutable thing. So mood-dependent, so soul-laden, it sometimes seems to defeat all words and define us -despite our pleas for mercy, our hope for acceptance in a world gone mad with self. And beauty is what satisfies the fickleness of the group. There is no objectiveness to allure, no criteria to fulfil; it is a feather that flutters briefly through the landscape like a butterfly in the wind. “You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes,” says Alan Watts. You are the magic that is you –unique, and special.

But for some of us, the strangeness of our difference is hard to bear. It is something to be hidden, not celebrated. A BBC article I found a while ago told the story of a woman’s courage to change –she couldn’t alter the permanent damage from a previous life-threatening accident, so, instead, she decided to change who she’d become in the intervening years. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40862546

‘Sylvia had spent ‘most of her life trying to conceal the extensive scars which cover her body –the legacy of a childhood accident. […] at the age of 48, she decided it was time to stop hiding and come out into the open. […] My mum was boiling water in saucepans for our bath. She would pour the water into bowls and she put the bowls on the bathroom floor. We were just playing around, me and my siblings, and I ran into the bathroom and shut the door. We were told not to go in there. I went in there and my sister pushed the door, and that’s when I fell backwards into the bowl of boiling water, causing very bad burns.’

The scars from her third and fourth degree burns were extensive: ‘“There’s not actually any part of my body apart from my face that is normal. My burns start from the top of my neck all the way down to the top of my bottom, and then around the front of my stomach and down my left leg. And then on the rest of my body I’ve got lots of little pinprick holes all down my arms and my legs from where they took skin. […]I went into shock and was having fits. Then the ambulance arrived. They gathered my family together and told them that I wasn’t going to make it through the night. They baptised me and I had my last rites.

‘“When I was growing up a lot of people used to tell my mum, “Oh, she’s beautiful, she’s pretty.” But in my head I always thought, “Why are they saying, ‘You’re pretty’? I’m not. Underneath my clothes I’m burned.

‘I always felt ugly, so it’s affected me mentally as well as physically. Children would call me different names like “witch” and “snakeskin”, and they were really nasty. I was told that I would never have boyfriends, never get married, never have children. Showing my back was always going to be a negative thing.

‘I loved swimming – once I was in the water I was in a different world, it was great – but I was terrified about people seeing my body. When everybody got out of the water I’d wait until they went to change and be the last one to sneak out.

‘I got to a point where I was attacking everybody around me and it was the only way that I could deal with my emotions. I’d literally call people up, like my sisters, and be really nasty to them, a really vile, nasty, horrible person.”’

But Sylvia did eventually find a loving partner, and yet her fear of others seeing her scars persisted. One day, after being photographed at the swimming pool with her mother like an animal at the zoo, they decided to leave and go to the beach instead. But her mother seemed so upset, Sylvia decided to do something she’d always been afraid to do.

‘At that moment something just clicked in my brain and I decided that I was going to draw a line and make her happy. I took my dress off and I walked down to the edge. People were looking at me and I looked at my mum and I smiled, and I went, “Mum! Look! Look at me!”

And she started to smile. I put my hands on my hips and I started to pose on the water’s edge and she was so happy. I went over to her and I said, “From now on I’m going to let people take pictures, and every time they do I’m going to smile and I’m going to pose.”

‘I think that moment on the beach was just a turning point where I realised that no counselling, nothing on Google, was going to help me. It was time for me to help myself. I went out and bought a swimming costume – it had a big hole in the back – and then I set up my swimming classes at my local pool in Highbury, north London. I invite people with disfigurements to come and swim. When I’m in the water and I’m swimming I just feel at peace, I feel calm, and I can think of lots of wonderful things. […]

‘It’s been such a long journey. It’s like taking off a coat and saying, “This is me now, and I don’t care what people think.” I’ve noticed a big change in my life and I’ve been able to accept the way I look.’

As Jean Cocteau said, ‘Mirrors should reflect a little before throwing back images.’ And so should people. It seems to me that there are at least two types of courage. The first, and most obvious, is the type that risks bodily harm –soldiers in combat, firefighters, and so on. It’s the one we can all see, the one that makes newspaper headlines, and wins awards. Medals. Accolades… And yet perhaps that’s really just the outward trappings of the other type –the inward struggle to overcome the fear that we are not who we want to be –need to be, with whatever hand Fate has dealt. Both require bravery –and while one may confront an external challenge, the other, no less brave, defies far more nebulous and malicious ghosts.

But the triumph over unseen odds, however unfortunate they may have been to the recipient, is seldom met with applause, or acknowledged with praise. It is an inner contest, a silent war that few can see, let alone appreciate. It is an unrecognized philanthropy of self to self, and so perhaps its rewards are even greater, although they may pass, unnoticed in the larger scheme of things. The determination to act, and the bravery to succeed, need no commendation really. It is enough to have succeeded in accepting oneself, and reveling in the affirmation of all around. It is no small thing, although it may seem so.

Sylvia may never receive a decoration, nor mention on the local evening news, but in a way, she already has her medal –she can wear herself on her lapel at last.

To measure you by the smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam – Khalil Gibran again.