Navigating the Boundaries of Identities

“If every path you take comes back to you, then you will never move ahead” (Kung Fu Panda)

Noeleen Heyzer and I walked the tropical beaches of Rio de Janeiro in a very Asian fashion, huddled under an umbrella to shield ourselves from the hot sun. We were the oddballs here. The Brazilians seem to cast aside all cover-ups on these shores. Right before us was a happy young woman, her bare roundness in what is known locally as a dental floss bikini. Her sweaty, lean back was a perfect piece of physical form. No doubt that she had a place of honor in the species of beautiful beings. Not far away, young men stood in small herds, playing games of body gazing. Tourists like us were recognizable because our jaws dropped in amazement.

At first, Brazil’s blatant body cult seemed quite innocent and even fun to me. I soon learned its dark side: the less you wear, the higher the probability that your best parts are the result of a surgical makeover. Brazilian servant girls are known to spend their life savings on cosmetic surgery. It seems to be the craze: plastic surgery is sometimes used to lift the nose just a little to give it that tantalizing movie star quality, and other times is serious and costly. Breast implants are as common as the removal of unwanted bulges and a realignment of the silhouette. Plastic surgeons have become as central to beauty treatments as pedicurists and hair stylists. In the end, the operations leave you barely recognizable, which seems to be the point of it all.

Most psychologists would agree that an obsessive preoccupation with redoing the body’s imperfections is a reflection of deep insecurities. Trying to live up to someone else’s unattainable ideal is a sure way to undermine your self-esteem. The problem is that women internalize superficial societal ideals, then blame themselves if they come up short.

Ironic, isn’t it? Even the sunbathers who are proud of their “au naturel” look may be unable to express their natural personalities. Insecurities may be so deeply internalized that any cover-up personality is welcome. All kinds of wrong “looks” are put on. Yes, it sometimes gets hot in the feminine psyche’s closet. Maybe that’s what brings us out to walk the beaches.

Women’s views about body image and identity are poorly understood, partly because of the traditional male bias in psychological studies. We could protest against mental health treatments that traditionally judged women against male personality standards. On the other hand, we could also develop a higher standard of our own. Becoming a self that is dependent on looks is probably self-defeating. Our surgically improved bodies will eventually abide by Mother Nature’s laws, sagging in all of the “wrong” places and revealing our true selves. Wouldn’t it be better to put less emphasis on body image and upgrade the whole self—mental and physical?

I am reminded of a Buddhist philosopher’s insight that much of the chaos in the world reflects a similar state in the human mind. If human beings expect to promote harmony with nature, they must surely come to better terms with their first ecology: their bodies. For women, that means becoming more self-confident and setting their own standards. For men, the solution is surely the same.