In a paper titled The Acceptance Model of Intuitive Eating: A Comparison of Women in Emerging Adulthood, Early Adulthood, and Middle Adulthood, (read about the research here), I came across the phrase “observer’s perspective.”
Observer’s perspective: The way most of us understand our bodies, as a thing to look at rather than as a miracle that does amazing things. It is thunder thighs, love handles, muffin tops and other hateful phrases we direct at the magnificent organisms that carry us through life. It’s also bodacious, bootylicious, brickhouse, and other expressions of appreciation. It is the body from the outside looking at, not in.
Limiting yourself to the observer’s perspective doesn’t do much for your body image. This study finds that of the three cohorts, (white) women in early adulthood, ages 26 to 39 years old, have the kindest relationship with their bodies. The researchers speculate that during childbearing years, we can’t help but appreciate the miracle of our bodies, capable of creating a whole human being, and of providing that vulnerable little being comfort and sustenance. This is a time when many women can set aside the observer’s perspective and appreciate their own amazing flesh, blood, sinew, and bone. To an infant, mother’s breast is never too small or too big. It is always perfect, doing exactly what it is meant to do.
But younger women, who are at the age when women are most objectified, and midlife women whose bodies are changing in ways that society finds distasteful, have less loving relationships with their bodies. It is then we are more likely to see our bodies as what is reflected in the mirror and in other people’s eyes—or at least what we think they are seeing. The observer’s perspective.
Women talk about their bodies a lot. Nothing makes me feel less secure than being with other women who are appraising their own bodies. If she thinks she’s fat, I think, she must think I’m an absolute cow.
Not only that, but if a friend orders a salad for lunch, I’m certain she disapproves of my sandwich. (Carbs! Bad!) If she tells me she’s just come from the gym, I imagine she’s hinting that I should move my own mess around. If she wears a size smaller than me, I assume she feels smug about it.
The gist of this particular research is that if our loved ones are supportive and loving towards our bodies, we are more likely to appreciate them ourselves. And appreciating our bodies makes us more likely to heed its messages about hunger and satiety instead of punishing ourselves with diets, or because we’re not on a diet, or because we ate a cookie, or did five sit-ups instead of 50.
But it’s awfully hard to listen to one’s own body when we’re so busy looking at it. We are subjected to so much discussion of women’s bodies all the time—who’s hot, who’s not, who’s put on weight, who’s had a boob job, who’s lost weight, who should lose weight, how much weight we should lose or have lost. Telling someone they look like they’ve lost weight is supposed to be a kindness, but often when I get that compliment (especially if I haven’t actually lost weight), I think Wow, she must have thought I was an absolute cow. And from then on, when I see myself through this person’s eyes, it’s not pretty.
Oh, the observer’s perspective is not always negative. I’m sure there are women out there whose view of themselves, and perception of what others see, is all va-va-voom. And that’s nice. But it’s still focus on the vessel rather than the whole. When age does its thing and some of the va goes out of the voom, the observer’s perspective is no longer any fun.
My body is strong. It’s healthy. It is aging and I’m not thrilled about that (understatement), but I can only make the best of it. I want so much to appreciate what my body is rather than what I think it should look like.
When women start with body talk, I try to zone out or change the subject. I don’t want my friends drawing my attention to their perceived flaws. I don’t want them thinking about mine. In this context, I don’t want to be the observer or the observed.