Today, my class had a lively discussion concerning Marge Piercy's poem "Barbie Doll" (I just love it when they get excited about something!). Here's the poem:
This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs.
She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
She went to and fro apologizing.
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.
She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
Her good nature wore outlike a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.
In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.
I could be very teacherly and explicate the poem for you, but I think most can decipher the poem's theme about how women's physical appearances dominate people's perceptions of them (but I hope you noted the last stanza's irony: the poem's speaker is finally pretty, but she's dead). My class really got into discussing how the idea of Barbie is detrimental to our concept of how we should look, particularly how women should look, but the men had some astute insight as well about the pressure of physical ideals. (I'm sure some male readers could help us further understand the standards of masculinity that are applied to them -- you guys know you're not doing those bicep curls for the improved time on a mile.)
While I was walking out of class, still fresh from the dialogue, I thought about my own physical appearance, its value, and how running has changed how I see myself. I worry over my physical appearance just like anyone else, and I am certainly critical of myself as well, but running has helped me see my body as a strength, not a liability. Many of us first approach running as a way to lose weight or maintain weight (far more important), but once we discover the other pleasures of running, weight loss is no longer at the forefront of our concerns. Personally, running has helped me realize not what I want to change about my body, but works works well for my body.
For runners, we learn to appreciate what our bodies are capable of, and through running, we often discover new layers of emotional and mental depth (you can't help it -- I swear that the connection between running and thought is like a high-speed internet connection). In the end, I think athletes are still susceptible to societal pressure regarding physical appearance, but most of us value our health more than the mirage of health. And this helps us see the "ideal" of phsyical apperance as nothing more than a sham, a shadow puppet.
As many of my students were quick to note, Barbie is fake, she's plastic, she's hollow inside. So who wants that?