In water we are all weight­less: Of mer­maids and whales

The Compass - - SPORTS -

A story has been mak­ing the rounds on Face­book and Twit­ter. Per­haps a well-mean­ing friend has de­liv­ered it to your in­box or brought your at­ten­tion to an online post. It has no known author, but tells a para­ble of a wo­man — of cloth­ing size un—known who re­sponded to the ad posted out­side a gym ask­ing whether women would rather be a “mer­maid or a whale” this sum­mer.

It’s a commentary on body im­age that many women — and the men who love them — have seized upon.

In the wo­man’s re­sponse, she writes:

“We women, we gain weight be­cause we ac­cu­mu­late so much wis­dom and knowl­edge that there isn’t enough space in our heads, and it spreads all over our bod­ies. We are not fat, we are greatly cul­ti­vated.” (Anon., “Mer­maid or Whale?”)

The re­sponse also in­di­cates that mer­maids are not real, but if they were theirs would be a tor­tured ex­is­tence, torn be­tween two worlds. I was re­minded of Dis­ney’s Ariel, the lit­tle mer­maid who has to re­lin­quish her voice in or­der to gain hu­man— legs all for the love of a prince.

Mer­maids aren’t real. But the pres­sures on our young women are and the me­dia mes­sages that tell them that no mat­ter what they will not mea­sure up if they are not “pretty enough” are as well. We’ve let mass me­dia con­sume their voices and their iden­ti­ties, like the witch swal­lowed Ariel’s.

But this re­sponse is not ap­pro­pri­ate ei­ther. I do not care how much you weigh or how wide your hips are, we do not carry wis­dom with our weight. What “spreads all over our bod­ies” is a re­sult of caloric in­take be­ing higher than caloric out­put and has noth­ing to do with the wis­dom of the ages be­ing granted to us.

Both the im­per­a­tive to be a mer­maid and the de­fense of whales sub­ju­gates women into the stric­tures of their body as their iden­tity.

And as long as we per­pet­u­ate that myth — that we are whom we look like — no girl or wo­man will ever truly be free.

This is an is­sue that af­fects all girls — and women.

To some ex­tent body im­age af­fects our boys and men, too, with im­ages of strength be­ing placed against im­ages of fem­i­nine-like sen­si­tiv­ity and both used to iden­tify the es­sen­tial iden­tity of the man rep­re­sented. But even moreso, our boys are bom­barded with im­ages of girls in overtly sex­ual poses. They see the same things our girls see and they form opin­ions and be­liefs upon those im­ages.

What those im­ages have shown us is that im­age it­self is the most im­por­tant thing. We can be stylish and sought-af­ter and thin or we can be fun and fat and wise. We have pit­ted body types against each other and some­how we’ve pit­ted our­selves against other women in re­sponse.

Rather than at­tack the idea that a wo­man would want to be a mer­maid or a whale and why sum­mer had any­thing to do with the shape of her body, the re­spon­dent in this case just ate up the same drivel we’ve been fed for ages. She at­tacked the mer­maids rather than the mes­sage.

And that is ex­actly what they want us to do.

Who are “they,” you may ask? Truth­fully, I’m not quite cer­tain. They are those who are in­vested in the beauty cul­ture; they have com- mod­i­fied our bod­ies to the point where we be­lieve we must ei­ther buy their prod­ucts to sell our­selves or re­sist “sell­ing out” and deny part of our­selves by de­fend­ing our bod­ies.

The “whale” de­fended her­self as fun-lov­ing, ad­ven­tur­ous, a loved fam­ily mem­ber and wise. She never once called her­self beau­ti­ful, how­ever, but in­sisted that the im­age of beauty was some­thing she’d rather not em­broil her­self in.

In “The Beauty Myth,” Naomi Klein in­sists that this idea that our iden­tity is some­how tied to our bod­ies is the new lack of choice for women. The choice be­tween mer­maid or whale is a false choice and one that mud­dies the real wa­ters that run deep be­neath this idea: “which will I be,” she writes, “sex­ual or se­ri­ous? We must re­ject that false and forced dilemma.”

We can be wise; we can be fun; we can be sexy; we can be well-loved. And we can be all of those things, all at once, re­gard­less of whether we are fat or thin. The an­swer is not that we should all be whales, but that we should all be whomever we want to be and feel beau­ti­ful, weight­less, and free.

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