Being seen

Off the Beat

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According to art critic John Berger, the convention of perspective during the Renaissance set a precedent for how we see today. Just as the universe was believed to be arranged for God, Renaissance artists’ work in depth and shadow arranged images so viewers felt as if they were at the “centre of the visible world.”

Berger’s notion of a God-like, “centre of the universe” viewer got me thinking about whether we regard bodies in the same way we regard art. As walking images and complete people, what is to be done about being in the eye of the beholder?

I myself am never more aware of how I am perceived than when I visit home. I recovered from a four-year saga with anorexia after I moved away for my freshman year at UC Berkeley, so when I return to the place where people remember me as I once was, I usually get a well-meaning comment or two about how much weight I’ve gained.

I am getting better at laughing at these comments — old folks are not as sensitive to mental illness as younger generations. They mean it as a compliment. Still, I can’t help but be a bit shaken by these remarks. (Exclaiming “Look at the weight on your face!” at a crowded dinner table is not usually considered polite in American society, as far as I’m concerned.) 

Mostly, the problem is that my brain registers “You look good now” as another way of someone saying “You looked bad before.” The comments remind me that I was once a walking image of my mental illness, because there’s no such thing as privacy when what you’re struggling with is physically apparent. The comments make it clear that even when I did not think I had anorexia, everyone else knew.

The singer-songwriter Billie Eilish is known for her use of the same shield I employ during my home visits: baggy clothes. Eilish became a celebrity when she was 14, and according to her, big clothes were meant to prevent outsiders from having opinions about her body. But of course, when a paparazzi photo of the now 18-year-old singer in a tank top and shorts made its way to the inferno that is social media, some shaming surfaced.

In one viral tweet, Twitter user @GamesNosh said “in 10 months Billie Eilish has developed a mid-30s wine mom body.” Grown men passing judgment on the bodies of 18-year-olds — can we blame Renaissance constructs of perception for this?

@GamesNosh (who does not reveal what he looks like online) received, in my opinion, warranted backlash for the wine mom comment. As one user replied, “body shaming a 18 year old girl must make you feel soooo confident and manly!!!!” Eilish herself responded to the incident by reposting a TikTok by the blogger Chizi Duru, who encouraged “normalizing real bodies” and added that “Guts are normal. … Boobs sag, especially after breastfeeding. Instagram isn’t real.” As a non-famous person, I still grapple with how my once-sick body continues to deny me protection from those who have seen the thin version of me. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be a major artist in the public eye getting categorized and ridiculed based on how they look.

Just as extended family members pinch and gape at the fat on my arms because of my former inability to take care of myself, some people feel a similar entitlement to the bodies of celebrities. These comments would be insulting in most contexts, unless I am mistaken and @GamesNosh is actually a fan of the “mid-30s wine mom body.” In my case, it would never be acceptable for the woman down the street to bring up my mother’s weight, for example, but because of my personal history and possibly a dose of ageism, there’s no problem saying such a thing to my face. It’s strange how sickness and celebrity can alter those social rules.

I can’t speak for Eilish, but when someone passes even a well-intentioned judgment on the way my body has changed, it gives me the haunting sense that my physical appearance is all that people notice about me. These remarks often happen prior to inquiries regarding what I’ve been up to — professionally, academically, personally — while I’ve been away. The last time a family friend remarked at how much weight I’ve put on, a part of me wished I did not have a body at all. How nice would it be to move through the world invisibly, to be heard without having to be seen? I suppose this is why I like writing. It must be why @GamesNosh does, too. 

Maybe it would be worse if body-mind roles were reversed: if the mind was visible and the body could hide, and our internal thoughts would be the basis for how others could try to figure out who we are. Still, I hope for the possibility that we can all work toward a more thoughtful way of seeing and judging bodies.

In the meantime, I’ll work on remembering that the way people see me does not need to define who I am. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we are here for more than aesthetic purposes alone.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.