On Peter Pan and Body Dysmorphia
Sometimes when my mind begins to wander I often start thinking about the Disney canon and the interactions that might go on between our favorite heroes and villains when they’re not on the silver screen. For instance, would Captain Hook not have been infinitely more successful at destroying Peter Pan had he just issued one simple insult, “Pan, you’re fat!”
Yes I know calling someone fat is probably the most common playground jeer you can imagine but why do you think that is? I’d argue that calling someone fat is the earliest insult one learns, along with stupid, dumb, and ugly. These words each have a specific meaning when directed at another human, to bring them down. I would say that they are so common because they are effective. All it takes is to be called fat once and suddenly you’re on a downward spiral always trying to reassure yourself that you’re fine.
You begin to take a little more time in front of the mirror noticing how maybe your arms are not as toned as you like or maybe your stomach is looking a little larger. From there it’s all over. Now I’m not saying that everyone will react the same to insults but the human ego is a fragile thing. The “ideal body” for both men and women are these unattainable visions of Adonis and Barbie respectively, and when someone compares their own body to them it messes with their mind. The mirror starts to add ten pounds, the camera, twenty. Every New Year’s Resolution becomes losing weight. You work out for 2 weeks and then give up because it seems so daunting and your body shows no signs of change. It is completely irrational but that doesn’t matter because you sink so low you know that whatever you do, your body will never be what you want it to be.
Out of all the insults thrown at me, being called fat was the worst one for me. How sad is that? There are so many worse things to be called and yet for me, something so vain hurt the most. I don’t know when the first time it happened was, but it was somewhere around the third grade. I’m not even sure if it was a particularly biting insult at the time, but I do remember the trip to the mall where I realized I didn’t get to shop in the boy’s section anymore. I had to buy my clothes from the weird transitioning section known as Husky. I didn’t want to be husky. I didn’t like the fact that somehow I was different or set apart from what was normal. I suppose I should’ve prefaced this by saying I’ve never been a particularly small individual. I was already over five feet going into 5th grade. Five feet, two inches, and 127 lbs. at 11 years old. I remember this because that year at the beginning of school we had to do a physical during school and everyone got their heights and weights measured along with their BMI. I have friends now in their twenties that fit those same dimensions. Considering that was over ten years ago it was understandably upsetting at the time. I’m still not sure if my parent’s reactions to that were helpful or deterring. They would always say I was fine. “It’s just baby fat, you will grow out of it. Don’t worry.” I heard the words baby fat so many times growing up it should’ve been my nickname. Nicholas Baby Fat Arcos. I think I expected it to just fall off at some point, the way they insisted that it wasn’t a problem. What I learned, later on, is that fat will never just fall off and the magical body of your dreams will be there. It requires careful dieting and hard work to see results. As a child, I just accepted what I had. I wasn’t okay with it, in fact, I’m still not okay with my body, but I also was too lazy to see that I needed to be outside running instead of curled up with a book all the time. (Not that reading is bad, but exercise is also not bad so a healthy mix of both would’ve been ideal.)
Peter Pan probably never was called fat. In pretty much every iteration of this Neverland saga, the actor is either a waifish woman or young boy, not to mention the animated film with a Peter skinnier than his shadow. They portray the Disney ideal of a strapping young lad who never grew up and is able to inspire his ragtag band of lost boys, strike awe in the hearts of mermaids and young Native American princesses, yet also strong enough to keep up with the strength of a pirate. This is a rare series of traits that of course can only happen in a fairy tale. (Like seriously flying doesn’t magically allow you to duel a mature pirate in a sword fight.) But could Peter have been suffering from body dysmorphia? Was his reason for staying on Neverland really all about not growing up? Could it be that he perceived the idea of an adult body so repulsive and flawed that he determined his best way of maintaining his fragile sense of body worth was to never grow up? Now sure this is stretching but according to the National Eating Disorders Association, the number of males with body image issues has risen from 15% to 43% in the last three decades. (Garner, 1997; Goldfield, Blouin, & Woodside, 2006; Schooler & Ward, 2006) This means males are just as dissatisfied with their bodies as women. This really shouldn’t be so surprising I guess. From childhood, we are made aware of the notion of the ideal body. There is no such thing as a fat Barbie doll or a scrawny Army Man. The cartoons we watch portray their heroes and heroines with these ideal bodies while anyone of a larger size is relegated to either comic relief or the role of the villain. (See: Pumba, Genie, Ursula, Smee) Not many children grow up with a desire for a body like Ursula’s when they have Ariel to look up to right next to her. This is made especially poignant when they watch Ursula take the form of Veronica, the woman just as beautiful as Ariel, making it seem like Eric (Ideal male) only goes after this one specific female form as attractive. Boys and girls these days have negative opinions of themselves, something documented more now than ever before.
I can’t and won’t argue for the Fat Acceptance Movement, but neither will I fat shame, someone. I think everyone should strive for a healthy body in whatever form that takes. It is not inherently wrong for someone to love their body. I wish everyone loved themselves. However, I do think that if your weight is hampering your ability to live then you should take steps to stabilize it. You can have a body devoid of visible abs or thigh gap and still be healthy. You can also be visibly thin while having unhealthy levels of fat. There is no “perfect body.” It has taken me a long time to get to this stage in my life where I am cognizant of who I am as a person and how my body fits into that image. Luckily my negative body image never developed into any sort of eating disorder, yet at the same time, I don’t remember the last time I looked into the mirror and didn’t think I needed to lose thirty pounds. I got close at one point but then like my job prospects, that also faded away.
I found both a greater struggle with my body and a way of acceptance in college in the guise of the campus gym. In my life, I had only worked out once prior to this and it was part of the 8th-grade gym class unit. We went to the weight room for two weeks and that was the last time I had seen the inside of a locker room. I was exempt from gym class in high school due to my highly cool pastime of marching band which counted as a Phys Ed. credit. So I was a fish out of water, when sophomore year of college I asked to tag along with one of my best friends to his workout. He had just started a routine the summer before and said he’d be happy to share what he did and help me with the forms. We went almost every day and I began to see the gradual toning occur. (Goodbye, Double Chin!) This began the weight control period of my life where I didn’t really lose the weight that I wanted to, but I also wasn’t gaining it either. I still struggled with how I looked, but how could I not when there were so many people at the gym with perfect abs lifting twice as much as I was.
So I kept going and going and began to pick up my routine of running and weight training and by Winter of my Senior year of college, I was down to a waist size that I hadn’t been since Middle School. (To be fair I was a very large pre-teen.) The feeling when I was able to wear a Medium shirt for the first time since before puberty was the best thing ever. I was elated. It was as if all of the struggling and pain had been worth it. The only thing that could take me off cloud 9 was me. Even with the newfound confidence, I couldn’t stop myself from saying I still wasn’t the me I wanted to see in the mirror. I wanted to see Captain America, instead, I saw Seth Rogen. ( No offense Seth, you’re a very handsome man :P) If I had stumbled across the Mirror of Erised at that time I honestly don’t know what I would’ve seen. You’d think I would see a reflection of a happier me, successful and doing something with my life. Sadly I believe what I wished for most at that time was me with the Hercules body of my dreams. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” To me having that body would automatically provide me with a job, money, a relationship. All the things I could ever wish for would stem from my attractiveness.
Obviously, that is an irrational chain of thought. But is it any crazier than a flying boy glorified for his refusal to grow up? For people with body image issues, there is no such thing as a rational thought when it comes to their appearance. You cover up your insecurities with a hefty bravado, always making exclamations of how attractive you are while quivering in fear that someone will see that underneath you’re not okay. I got to the point where I would be angry with family and friends when they would say something positive about my appearance because in my head it wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. You’d think what rose-tinted glasses were they looking through, and where could I find a pair? And maybe I’ll never see myself the way I always envisioned and maybe that is okay. Hopefully, by then I’ll have found someone who does see me as the impressive figure of my dreams and that will be enough. For now, I’ve found acceptance for who I am and what I look like. I’m learning to dress for the present day me so that I don’t look like a misshapen sausage in too tight casings. I’m still working out and I enjoy it. I know that I don’t have the strength of will to commit to two-a-days at the gym and a strict diet. I’m not going to pass up a tasty looking dessert or the occasional hamburger. If the best I am destined to achieve is dadbod then so be it. Until then, like Peter, I’m destined to chase the shadow of my skinnier self and hope that somewhere along the way I can stop. For now, I’m okay with not being okay. It’s the first step, help me take the second.