Body Types and Arbitrary Hierarchies

Body type is something that we rather obsess over. Much like other distinctions we tend to make, it is often used not necessarily to be descriptive, but rather to be restrictive. I have an example.

A friend of mine is a very talented dancer. It’s what she does, it’s what she spends most of her time doing, and it’s where her heart is. She is also, I should note, not huge by any stretch of the imagination. I would even qualify her as somewhat fragile-looking, if you weren’t aware of her training and the underlying muscle.

Suffice it to say, Tiny Dancer just got her mid year evaluation from ballet and it said that she needed to improve her “body type”. Fortunately, she recognizes what a ridiculous idea this is (she would have to remove bones or have an eating disorder to be any thinner), but can be look at what they’re really asking here?

“Body type” is a descriptive. It tells us a little about how a person looks, how they carry their weight, and generally what one can expect from their physical makeup (“one” being the owner). How does one “improve” that? I may as well as you to improve the color of an apple.

This demonstrates a problem that we have in that we assign moral or normative qualities to wide arrays of descriptive agents. Ballerinas look a certain way, therefore those with bodies that don’t match a traditional and somewhat arbitrary ideal by which ballerinas are measured can be told to “improve” their appearance to put it more in line with that ideal.

Many of our social issues can be traced back to this normalization of a specific (generally majority) set of otherwise descriptive traits. What is gender essentialism other than the prescriptive application of gender norms across a wide-range of people, regardless of their individual talents, interests, and predilections? If we see feminism as, at least in part, the ability for women to choose to do something other than match a very limiting “ideal” devised by a strong majority, then this applies there as well.

LGBT rights? Listen to the rhetoric of those who oppose them and you will quickly see that they find heterosexuality to be objectively normal and any other sexual orientation to be a departure from that, making any move toward that “ideal” an “improvement”.

Let’s put it another way: there is no reason I should have to be an atheist activist. None whatsoever. My lack of a belief in the supernatural is purely descriptive, not a trait listed someplace on a spectrum that places all belief and non-belief closer or further from perfection, nor does it occupy some place on a hierarchy. However, the pointless desire to place beliefs in order of best to worst means that I need to struggle just to demonstrate my own normality.

This is not to say that I don’t think that some ideas and opinions are right or wrong. Obviously, I think everything I believe to be right is right, by definition. The issue, however, is that I think things are right or wrong based on evidence, not based on my perceptions of how things should be. It’s a matter of thinking of things the other way around, presuming that my observations lead to a descriptive rather than that my prescriptive label should translate into observations. If I see a little girl playing with an Avengers action figure, I can draw the conclusion that she is a fan of the franchize, I don’t presume that she is playing with a “boy’s toy” and this is somehow a problem. The same is true for an Easy Bake Oven.

To “improve” immediately makes a value judgment. Tiny Dancer was told, not in so many words, that there is something wrong with her body. Maybe I am not educated enough in ballet to understand how this is an objective problem rather than a case of her not meeting a traditional ideal, but I cannot imagine how anything short of being physically unable to perform makes body type a useful measure of skill.

If we want to see more justice in the world, if we want a world in which people are more widely accepted, then we must stop attaching moral judgment to descriptive qualities. How a person looks, their hobbies, their orientation, their skillsets, and a whole host of other qualities have no effect of the quality of a person, and setting up normative ideals does nothing but encourage us to assume a person’s abilities in absence of evidence.

UPDATE: Want to see what I’m talking about? Take a look at professional moron Charlotte Allen’s doubledown on her “Sandy Hook would have been fine if there were more men on premises” article.

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