Meredith brought up a point in the comments on my entry whinging about not knowing what I've gotten myself into with all the moving about and being athletic. She pointed out that bodies are basically big squishy food-powered machines, and there is no reason this topic should be so fraught.

She didn't try to tell me I was a dumbass for not expecting this, which is fine, because I totally was. A dumbass. Not expecting this. You know what I mean.

There are a lot of interlocking reasons why this is a touchy topic, for me personally and for people in general. Probably the broadest one is a widespread ambivalence about personal achievement. We have this bizarre tug-of-war going on in the self-esteem movement right now. You, personally, are supposed to know your value. You, personally, are supposed to be keeping an internal running tally of Cool Stuff I Can Do, and you, personally, are supposed to feel empowered to point out items on the Cool Stuff list, on the theory that no one else is going to do it for you. You, personally, are supposed to assert yourself and declare your own internal validation, and not really give a shit if anyone else thinks you're unimportant. These are the explicit norms of the movement, the ones they put on the pamphlets and tell you in talks.

Implicitly, however, there is also the message that you're supposed to respect other people's self-esteem. I don't know how this is intended to work, or even if anyone thought about it at all, but in practice how it does work is that if something you say makes someone else feel bad, you are informed that you are a bad person, on the basis that you are clearly trying to build yourself up by tearing someone else down. This would be a much better assumption if not for the fact that people in general seem to take a demonstration of competence as social aggression. Why would you be showing off if you didn't want other people to notice you're cooler than they are? So often there is a conflict between the spoken directive 'assert your worth' and the unspoken directive 'manage other people's feelings of inadequacy'.

There are also a lot of situations where the self-esteem movement's practice of ensuring everyone gets a chance to participate is applied to an activity in which progression is supposed to be merit-based. This is bullshit. Do your best, because you're supposed to try to win, but be fair and give everyone a turn. To be blunt about it, what's the point of a competition when you refuse to let anyone be a loser? Decades of this during your formative years make it really goddamn difficult to get a bead on how you actually compare to anyone else, and combined with the whole 'people get mad when you're better at something than they are' thing above, it basically means that the only shot you have at not being guilted into shutting up, one way or another, is to clamp down on the urge to ever say anything that might be construed as admitting aloud that maybe you are -- in this one particular area, in this one particular context, by this one particular set of criteria -- better than someone else.

Applied to bodies in specific, our society has for some reason concluded that it is 100% within your power to meet arbitrary definitions of beauty, and that if you don't there's something wrong with you. Right now we've decided that visibly athletic -- but not too athletic -- bodies are in for women. So, even though I didn't go do a lot of exercise for the purpose of changing the way I look, and my observations of myself are versus previous versions of me rather than any version of someone else, making any of these observations aloud tends to be taken as an implicit comparison. It matters surprisingly little what the listener looks like; they automatically compare what I look like to them to their own self-image. If they feel they come up short, then it's back to the above bit about it implicitly being my responsibility not to say anything that makes them feel bad, and I get a bad reaction.

It's not universal, but it is common enough, and from people I'd consider otherwise reasonable, that I am always going to be wary of voicing these things.

Being female, I'm also subject to the assumption that I play the 'tell me I'm pretty' game, where women rattle off all the parts of themselves they hate so that other women will assure them that they're wonderful. My thighs are so fat! Your thighs aren't fat, mine are all blubber! No, your thighs are awesome, I wish I had them. Et cetera. Anything I say about my body is construed as part of this game. If I say I'm awesome rather than hideous, the first conclusion is not that I'm having a totally different conversation, but that I'm violating the rules. People can get incredibly pissy when you go off-script and they don't know what their response is supposed to be.

One of the reasons I really hate ladymags and am not really all that keen on the light and fluffy Grrl Power! stuff is that it fundamentally runs on this cycle of telling people to say things that it then asserts everybody knows are lies. Love every inch of your body! Here's how to conceal all the parts you hate. Be self-sufficient in all things! Thirty ways to please your man. It's all written in this wink-wink, nudge-nudge fashion that assures the reader that no matter what you say to other people, it's okay, we totally know the real you, and we totally know you're bluffing.

There is the additional complication that we have decided that what we think is beautiful is the same thing as what we think is healthy, and that being healthy is somehow a moral accomplishment. These are spurious correlations, to put it mildly. I have (medically confirmed) anxiety issues, and I have a hell of a time getting people to listen to me about that sometimes, because apparently I am attractive, and being attractive means having no issues. It can be incredibly difficult to get help unless you look like a complete basket case, and generally, I don't. I have a nice face and I dress myself well, so clearly I am healthy, which means clearly I am morally superior to you, you Cheeto-snarfing sack of repugnant lard.

Or something. I can't really know what the exact thought process is, but that's my best guess from the stuff that people say. I kinda don't get it, to be honest. There are lots of times that I've wished I could do something as well as someone I was watching, and sometimes I feel I'm embarrassing myself because I should have done as well as they did rather than the crap job I actually turned in, but I can't say it makes me feel like they're showing me up on purpose. I don't really figure their end of it has anything to do with me, you know?

What it really boils down to is, over the course of my life, I have tripped and fallen into a lot of things other people want, very few of which I have ever intentionally tried for. A lot of them are genetic, and I had absolutely nothing to do with acquiring those, and another good chunk of them are things I came by incidentally while trying to do something else. I don't think any of this makes me inherently more valuable as a human being, and whether it makes me 'better' depends on the context and your point of view. Many people resent having any of this pointed out, and since I have a terrible track record of predicting which people these are, I am wary of ever saying anything to anybody.

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