Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Intolerance of Intolerance - Judging others for Judging?

Recently I've gotten feedback that people seem to think that I think it's bad to dress up or shave ones legs or worry about appearance or exercise or whatever. Three people have commented that they're wondering if I'm judging people who do care about their appearance. I thought it might be helpful to explore that here today...

Here's what one friend who reads my blog regularly wrote:
To me, your entire process these past two years has been about evolving into an artist who appreciates and promotes women and their bodies, in all their less than perfect glory.  You've done it well with respect and care, you've reached so many people and you are brave to continue in your quest.  I honor all of that and think you are amazing. 

However, the one thing that bothers me is that sometimes I feel (I feel - not speaking for anyone else) that there is less appreciation or understanding for those who DON'T want to be more public with their bodies, as if that is a wrong decision.  A judgment. I've likened it a few times to a recent convert wanting everyone to love Jesus the same way they do.  (I use that analogy because I went through that with my brother 30 years ago and can relate to it.) 

 I find tattoos fascinating, but I don't want one and I'm not wrong to not want one.  I think it is just as OK to be private with one's body as it is to be more open. Just because someone doesn't wish to show or share their body, doesn't (necessarily) mean they are wrong, or have issues, or should change their minds.  I think what you do allows us all to think about it, though, and mull over where we are and how others perceive us or how we perceive ourselves, and that it is all a good and glorious thing. 
I'm glad this friend is honest enough to share what she's thinking.  I apologize if I'm coming across as a recent convert who wants to convert everyone!  I know how annoying that can be.  I do feel passionate about this topic (obviously).  Here's how I responded to her, in part:

Your points open up inner dialogues for me.  Thanks for that!  Yesterday and this morning on my  walk, I was thinking about judgment and if I'm getting too "fundamentalist" in my work.  I think your perception is accurate that I'm "very open to whatever - live and let live" AND I admit to having a bias against major beauty routines, especially those which are painful, or those which I perceive of being to the benefit of the giver, not the receiver (i.e. anti-wrinkle creams that don't work, or a new fashion cycle every 3 months).  It would probably be helpful for me to write about this on my blog.  It is, in fact, a type of judgment.  A friend of mine spoke about the Intolerance of Intolerance to which the liberals are prey.  Such a good phrase to remember.  I can see that I do have some prejudices which it would be helpful for me to clear up.

I don't think I believe that everyone should be OK with posing naked and letting me paint them.  It simply isn't right for everyone, and I don't believe it should be. I don't want a tattoo either, but I'm frankly relieved to understand better why some people do so I can enjoy their body art without feeling disdainful of it.  People have good reasons for their decisions - sometimes (!) - I guess it's the people who haven't thought about their reasons whom I want to prod - simply because I think conscious choice is a good and powerful thing.  You've given these things a lot of thought.  It isn't what you want to do.  You know why you don't.  I completely respect that.  My heartfelt desire is for people to have choice and to make conscious decisions about what they do to their bodies.  Nothing more, nothing less.
Another example of the feedback I've received recently: a couple of weeks ago a woman apologized to me, made excuses, that she exercises - she said, "I know you think people shouldn't worry about it, but it just makes me feel so good!  I love feeling strong and powerful and great about how I look!  I feel so sexy!  49 and better than ever!"

Uh, no, no judgments there!  I love it!  That's precisely what I'm espousing - do what you want to, do what makes you feel good whether it's putting studs into your arms and silicon implants in your forehead or exercising or having rollicking sex or putting on 10 different kinds of makeup.  Just try to become aware of what you're doing and why you're doing it.  If it's to please other people, try to make a conscious decision as to whether it's the right choice for you or not.  If it's because it's right for you, more power to you!  Don't let other people's possible disapproval stop you!

A dear friend of mine wrote me a related story today: 
I have been shaving my legs and underarms since I was 13 or so (I'm 62 now) - had to sneak it at my grandmother's, because my mother didn't allow it - she said I was too young.  So to me it was a sign of my growing up and independence at that time.  Since then, I always shaved until a number of years ago when I stopped shaving in the winter, because it seemed pointless - nobody but my husband sees it anyway, and he kind of thinks it's sexy to have underarm hair.

Each spring I would have the long hard ritual of shaving - it would take an hour in the shower, and I was exhausted afterwards.  Last summer was the first time that I didn't shave in the summer. It was mostly to support my daughter-in-law who is from England.  She stopped shaving a while ago, and she lives in a community where that is acceptable.  For her wedding 3 years ago, she agonized about what to do - her leg hair is very dark - she is Indian (from India) - and she eventually decided to shave just for the wedding.  She was afraid of people's reactions otherwise.
Last summer we were going to the beach and would be seeing all our family members. This is in the south, a very conservative area. We talked about what to do, and she said she wanted not to shave, but she was afraid.  I offered to not shave too and then there would be two of us. We stuck with that decision, and it was fine. No one said a word, and if they had, it would have been rude. But I think supporting one another was helpful to us both. I don't intend to shave this summer at all.

I love how consciously this woman and her daughter-in-law worked to make a decision that was right for them regardless of societal expectations or perceived judgments.

What I'm finding as I speak with more and more women is that we seem to think we will be judged much more than we are.  My grandmother told my father when he was young, "Billy, you wouldn't worry what people thought about you if you realized how little they do."  Such a great awareness.

In my survey, one of the questions I ask women is "When you meet a woman for the first time, what do you notice first?  Does her appearance affect whether you choose to becomes friends with her?"  In the vast majority of instances, the women have responded that they might notice how she looks, but it's her demeanor that attracts them or keeps them away.  No one has yet to say, "I notice how she looks, and if she's a slob or forgot to put on mascara, I turn the other way and don't want anything to do with her."  Wouldn't that be absurd??

The media gives us the impression that others are checking us out all the time and judging us if we fall short of the rail thin 12-year-old models, but I don't actually think it's true.  I think most people have more compassion and acceptance of our flaws than that.  What do you think?


  1. I read you.
    I don't always comment.

    Never in anything I have read, have I found one ounce of judgement. I find what you do empowering for women, I think you are creating a space for women to be as they are. Because you see all bodies as beautiful, you help change the perception of perfection. And that's a good thing.

    Thank you Susan for your contributions to this world, to women of all shapes, color and sizes.

  2. Susan, I laughed when I read your grandmother's comment to your father, because I wondered if she might also have been thinking, "You wouldn't worry what people thought about you if you realized how little they do...think." So many of the judgments that I can be afraid of just aren't grounded in rational thought at all.

    I have a neurological illness which wasn't diagnosed till I was 40. It has been progressing, with increasing effects, since I was a small child. Beginning in my late 20's, the effects of the brain disease on appetite and metabolism caused me to gain weight, till I'd finally doubled my original healthy weight by the time I was diagnosed. During all of those difficult years, I struggled with hatred of my body, and with my constant irrational somatic sense of starvation. Since diagnosis and treatment, I've lost the constant sense of starvation without any effort - and lost much of the extra pounds without much effort at all.

    And I've lost the self-hatred. I blamed myself all those years for weakness of character, when the reality was that I was developing remarkable strength in coping with particular difficulties that the people joining me in judging my "poor character" will never experience. As I now survey the stretch marks and sagging skin on my body, I am proud. I use the open shower at the swimming pool and smile at myself in the mirror. I enjoy drying off in the locker room while talking to my also-naked neighbor, who has had a double mastectomy, and who takes her time putting her shirt back on. We talk about our joy in what our bodies can feel and do. We each revel in the caress of water on skin. Our younger bodies - which were supposedly more perfect - had no idea of what we each now know.

    Susan, I'm delighted to stumble across your blog after attending your session at a Quaker women's retreat several years ago. Thank you for the work that you do!

    - Stephanie W., Maryland