Let me start off by saying that I’m a big fan of pro-runner Lauren Fleshman. I have the utmost respect and admiration for her. I hang onto pretty much every word she writes for Runner’s World. And I applaud her for her “Keeping It Real” post in which she shares some unflattering pictures of herself that were taken the same week that she walked the runway at New York’s Fashion Week for her sponsor, Oiselle. It takes a supreme amount of guts to acknowledge that you have a belly pooch and thigh cheese in front of people who assume that you are all lean muscle under that hot running kit. I am one of those women who appreciate the reminder that our bodies have a range of shapes and that we can’t always be — nor are we expected to be — at our best. That’s because I am one of those women who reflexively deletes, from mind or camera roll, all images of myself that I have any gripes with.
We know now that Lauren’s runway shot is an ideal, the perfect her, when she is at her strongest and fittest (or at least appears to be because of the flexing she was required to do — she was just 3 months postpartum at the time). The shots of her at practice that same week are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They are her when she is, likely, tired, when she is intentionally showing her “darker” (more thigh-chessey) side. Bodies do that. They look different at different times of the day, in different clothes, in different positions, in different lights. Our bodies have a range, and that is fine. We can’t expect them be be perfectly tanned and toned all day long, any more than we can expect ourselves to always be happy and cheerful and full of sunshine and positivity all the time. I get it, and I appreciate the reminder.
Then, a few days ago, Lauren wrote a follow-up to her original “Keeping It Real” post in which she recounts how difficult it was for her to write and publish that post, and how freeing it was to own her body like that (belly-pooch and all). And she invites and encourages all of us to join her in the quest to keep it real about our bodies by posting unflattering pictures of ourselves to Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #keepingitreal.
Sounds like a nice show of solidarity. Sounds like a strong grassroots effort to acknowledge the range our bodies have. Sounds like a finger in the face of Photoshop and Glamour and whoever else says that you have to be perfect to be accepted, all of which are part of her stated goals. But it does not sound like the way to go about “redefining beauty” — another of her goals. Beauty, I believe, is the best we have to offer. Beauty is a cut above normal or average. Beauty takes extra effort, either to create it or to find it. Beauty cannot be everywhere all the time. And while everyone’s body is beautiful some of the time — whether it is after they’ve just given birth, or finished a marathon, or spent the day helping people in need — nobody’s body can be beautiful all of the time. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Disney’s The Incredibles: “When everyone’s beautiful, no one will be.”
This is not to say that “unflattering” photos cannot show beautiful bodies because they certainly can. Beauty is in the story of the body as much as it is in the body itself:
“This is what I look like when I’ve just run 5 miles at a 6:00/mile pace and I no longer have the strength or wherewithal to suck in my gut.”
“This is what happens to breasts when they’ve nourished three children into toddlerhood.”
“This is a body that has taken on chemo and surgery and radiation and conquered cancer.”
There is certainly a range of beautiful that can be acknowledged and embraced. But I don’t think that encompasses any unflattering picture taken in an unflattering light or at an unflattering angle.
So that’s the first problem I have with Lauren’s call to action. The second is that I still believe in putting my best foot forward. I no more want to show unflattering pictures of myself to the public than I want to show them my petty self, or my angry self, or my selfish self. Yes, those are all a part of me, but they are the part of me that I’m trying to overcome. Parading them in public feels a little bit like giving up. I know that I have a belly pooch, that my calves (though muscular) are too big to fit comfortably in skinny jeans, that I’m almost completely flat-chested, and while I (obviously) have no problem acknowledging those unflattering things about my body, I don’t need or want to show everyone.
I also think it slightly unfair that Lauren gets to have an “ideal” photo to come back to at the end of the day. Yes, she has belly roll days and thigh cheese days, days where her clothes fit all wrong and her hair just won’t go right. But she also has the runway shot. She can say, after scrolling through the random candid shots in poor lighting and bad angles, “Yeah, but that’s me too. My ideal body.” Most of us don’t have that to balance out the scales on the other side of all those unflattering shots we normally delete. The closest we’ll get to seeing our “ideal” may just be a Photoshopped approximation. Not quite the same as shots of us on the runway at fashion week.
And finally — and most importantly — I don’t believe that all the unflattering outtakes of me are any more the “real” me than a runway shot would be. They are both outliers that, technically, my body is capable of. But the “real” me lies between those two extremes. It’s the everyday me that walks and sits with decent posture, that showers and dresses, that at least attempts to do something with my hair, however vague or half-hearted it may be. Photos of the “real” me may not be perfect, but I probably wouldn’t go so far as to call them unflattering, either. They are a better representation of who I am and what my body looks like on any given day — not the bad days, not the awesome days — just the average, I’m-living-my-life kind of days. That’s the real me, the me that I don’t mind showing the world — the me that I want to keep real.
So, thanks for the invite, Lauren, but no thanks. I’ll keep it real about my body in my own way: by walking down the middle of the road, balanced on either side by the knowledge, privately held, that my body is capable of looking about as fat as it is thin, as squishy as it is strong. But as far as everyone else knows, what you see is the real me.
Photo Credit: Lizzie Heiselt