Body Image Warrior Week: Decoding Dress

Yesterday I wrote about the need to not conflate body image and eating disorders, something that's too easy to do and that doesn't help us get to the root causes of eating disorders. But that doesn't mean that body image isn't also a crucial part of the puzzle. When Sally McGraw of Already Pretty reached out to a group of body image bloggers about the possibility of banding together to do a project under the umbrella of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I saw that she wasn't positing body image as being the end sum of eating disorders, but rather as something worthy of discussion in its own right. And thus, Body Image Warrior Week was born. Throughout the week I'll publish a handful of pieces written by different members of the inaugural collective—which you can be a part of. Click here to find out more about how to participate.

Today I'm thrilled to host Decoding Dress, who faithful readers will recognize from her many appearances on my weekly roundups. With her consistently keen insight, balance of analytical thought and sly humor, and a gift for sharing her views without ever seeming dogmatic (and some pretty fabulous outfits too), Decoding Dress has become one of my favorite reads. And with this essay, she just might become one of your favorites too.

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Next week: Grooming tips from our man in Athens. (Those curls!)

The Ideal Form of Me, or, How Plato Turned Me into a Body Image Blogger

I didn't set out to become a body image blogger. I just wanted to write about clothes.

Well, that's not really sufficiently precise. Lots of people write about clothes. I wanted to write about my own clothes. Of course, lots of people do that too. What I really wanted to do was to write about my relationship with my clothes. Back when I started my blog, Decoding Dress, I couldn't find anyone else who was doing that, which made it seem like the perfect niche for me. And by "niche" I mean "Does anybody other than me actually care about this stuff?"*

It turns out it was the "my relationship with" part that got me into trouble. By inserting myself so intentionally into the mix I pretty much guaranteed body image would become a major theme of my writing, whether I intended it to or not.

To wit: most outfit blogs are, of course, about the outfits (shock-n-awe!). Note, however, that for those of us with the good fortune to have been born into situations of privilege in one of the world's highly developed nations, the clothes we wear are rarely about protection from the elements or adherence to social norms against public nakedness; they are, rather, the real-world projection of our inner sense of self.** (That’s why we compliment a friend’s outfit by telling her, “That’s so you,” or return a piece we’ve tried on to the rack saying, “It’s just not me.”) In other words, our outfits occupy the narrow frontier separating our real, physical selves from our mental images of ourselves. So you can talk about the clothes all you want, but as soon as you bring up why you chose them, what you loved or hated about them or how they made you feel, you're talking about body image.

It took me a while to figure that out though. It wasn’t until I dragged the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c.428-c.348 BCE) into a post about miniskirts and red lipstick that the extreme to which my entire blogging project was going to revolve around body image started to become clear to me:

The lovers of sights and sounds like beautiful sounds, colors, shapes, and everything fashioned out of them, but their thought is unable to see and embrace the nature of the beautiful itself […] In fact, there are very few people who would be able to reach the beautiful itself and see it by itself. Isn’t that so?
— Plato, The Republic
See what Plato’s doing there? He’s drawing a distinction between the things we perceive as beautiful and beauty as a thing in and of itself. This is his way of introducing what has become known as his Theory of Forms.

This all may sound abstruse or even arcane, but you employ this theory all the time, probably without even being aware of it. How do you know that an apple—this particular apple—is an apple? You know it because you have in your mind the image of an apple—not of a particular apple, in this case, but of a general apple with a set of characteristics common to all apples. Students of platonism have traditionally referred to this general apple as the Ideal Form of an apple (after Plato himself) or as “Appleness.” (Seriously.) Platonism holds that this ideal form of an apple isn't merely an image, but actually exists (though not in any way that can be conventionally perceived by our senses). Every particular instance of an apple, then, is understood as just an approximate expression of its Ideal Form, inherently flawed. The same goes for everything you experience or imagine...including yourself.

And that’s where the problems start.

This framework, which has come to govern so much of how we understand and experience the world, tells me that there must exist an Ideal Form of DeeDee—DeeDeeness, as it were. And what are the characteristics of DeeDeeness? For some weird reason,*** in my mind the Ideal Form of DeeDee isn't characterized by the wrinkles that seem to be multiplying exponentially around the corners of my real mouth. It doesn't include the flab around my midsection or my size 11 feet either. DeeDeeness is hourglass shaped, smooth skinned and wears a size six shoe comfortably.

In other words, with alarming frequency, the characteristics I use to recognize myself aren't necessarily characteristic of the real me. They represent someone that I not, have never been and likely never will be. It’s like trying to recognize myself—judging the validity of my own claim to be DeeDee—based on some other person’s attributes. In doing so I treat an image of some other body as if it were the platonic Ideal Form of my own—only acknowledging myself to the extent that I embody the characteristics of this alien image. Where I do not embody them I consider myself flawed, approximate.

What. The. HELL? Where does this even come from? It's the syllogistic equivalent of judging something to be an apple by the extent to which it is small, round, blue and goes well in pancakes. I’m way too smart to be doing this, way too smart to be doing it to myself.

But I am doing it. After nearly a year of considering these issues critically under the glare of a flaming introspection fetish and far more education than is generally good for me, I’m still doing it.

The dirty little secret of Decoding Dress is that about 90% of the time, the answer to the question upon which I’ve based the whole project, “Why do I wear what I wear?” is simply “So that what I see in the mirror might more closely approximate this Ideal Form of me.” But unless and until I can acknowledge the irrationality of the Ideal Form I’ve chosen and embrace in its stead one that actually has some significant essential connection to who I am, I will never see myself as more than an approximation. I’ll never actually become myself.

And so I think (and write) about my body image, my mental projection of myself, in the hope that someday the image will fall into line with the reality. Perhaps, if I am diligent and do not cease from my self-exploration (as T.S. Elliot might say), then “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I wish the same for you.

*Apparently a few people do. The really cool ones.

**If that sounded like I was riffing off a Matrix quote, that's because I was.

***I’d love simply to blame this on patriarchal culture, but I’m pretty sure it’s more complex than that.

DeeDee is a yearling fashion and beauty blogger endlessly fascinated by why we wear what we wear. She’s still not sure where all this is headed.
Complete (for now! anyone can participate!) list of Body Image Warrior Week participants:

Already Pretty // Beautiful You // The Beheld // Decoding Dress // Dress with Courage // Eat the Damn Cake // Fit and Feminist // Medicinal Marzipan // Not Dead Yet Style // Rosie Molinary // Virginia Sole-Smith // Weightless