Saturday, October 15, 2011

You look great!


Every other Passover we used to drive eleven hours from New Jersey to Toronto to visit my grandparents.

My dad, an ordained rabbi, was a closet trucker and he absolutely loved the road. There he would be, at three a.m., heading into the truck stop to get a huge piping hot coffee. 

"Do you want to go in?" he would say to me. 

Despite the time, I was up like it was daytime. It was exciting driving around all night. And I would chirp, "Sure!" and follow him in.

One time we stopped at a gas station called Hess, if you remember them from way back when. Amidst all the chatchkes (trinkets) there was one beautiful thing that caught my dad's eye. The famous Hess truck. This one actually had lights running all along the sides.

My dad fell completely in love. "Here," he said. "I want you to have it."

"Are you sure?" I said. "This looks expensive."

"I'm sure," he said. "It's yours."

I didn't like trucks at all. But I loved my dad, who he really was. Not who he pretended to be on the outside, the polished image he tried to portray. Just him - the closet trucker. And to this day, when I think about the things I love about my dad, I remember that Hess truck and how he gave it to me with a glimmer in his eye. 

Fast forward a few hours to the moment we walked into his parents' house. My Zayde (grandfather), quiet and dignified, would nod hello. He had this sparkle to his eyes. May he rest in peace - I really miss him.

My Bubbie (grandmother), may she also rest in peace, was tormented in Auschwitz and could never recover afterward. She would come to the door and she would look at me, but sort of hollowly. Her head shook all the time. It was frightening. 

And then she would say something to us in the vein of, "You look..." and then describe our physical appearance.

We were not allowed to talk about what happened to Bubbie in Auschwitz. But we were allowed to talk about how people looked - seemingly a safe topic of discussion. 

To this day, it seems to me, one of the most acceptable social rituals out there - since you can't safely discuss a host of sensitive topics most of the time - is to talk about how you look. How other people look. How they, and you, might look better. If you're a female you will likely talk about that more than men. When nobody else is around, you'll spend time reflecting on that with yourself - evaluating, assessing, criticizing.

I am not sure why we do this, considering the harm that such an external focus causes. Aside from leading people to marry for all the wrong reasons ("Kim's Fairytale Wedding,") run up huge credit card debt, buy houses they can't afford, choose careers they don't want, etc., it literally causes them to obsess about their looks all the time - to the exclusion of living a normal life.

And wouldn't you know it - in today's big feminist age, the vast majority of people with eating disorders are female. It is believed that about 8 million Americans have an eating disorder, 95% of them between 12 and 25 years old, and the ratio of female to male victims is 7:1. Fully 50% of girls aged 11-13 think they're overweight, and 80% of 13-year-olds have tried to diet. There is a significant link between disordered eating and anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

Given that eating disorders primarily affect young girls', one wonders at the possible connection with childhood sexual abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in retrospective studies, it was found that 25% of women and 16.6% of men were abused by the time they turned 18. Most victims do not tell what happened when it's happening, either. According to studies published in 2000 and 2007, 73% of child victims don't talk for "at least a year" and 45% don't tell "for at least 5 years."

Mary Ann Cohen, CSW, the Director of the New York Center for Eating Disorders, says that 40-60% of her patients - female and male - were sexually abused.

What if we decided that, given all this information, focusing on your looks is an impolite topic of conversation? Recognized that so much of a focus on the outside, to the exclusion of what is on the inside, is a form of inflicting lasting and dangerous psychic damage?

What if we stopped weighing ourselves, counting every calorie, measuring every bite? What if we stopped cutting up our bodies to try and stay sixteen forever?

What if we went back to the way we were when we were kids? When our parents held our hands, one on the right and one on the left, and swung us back and forth as we said "Whee?"

If we could operate all the time with that sense of unconditional love, love that has nothing whatsoever to do with looks, imagine how much happier we would be with ourselves and with the world. What better decisions we would make. How much smoother our world would function. How we could truly make the most of the time and the relationships that we have.

What's the most polite way to greet people? 

I am not sure, but maybe it should be something like "How are you?" 

Instead of automatically saying, "You look great."


Image source here