Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Does Experience Affect Aesthetics?

Please excuse the lofty title.  While it does accurately reflect what's been on my mind recently, I feel a title like that would be better served by the writing of Feminist Figure Girl than myself.  Indeed, she's probably already written it, but I was far too lazy to go look.  For the time-being you are stuck with my pedantic and undereducated musing.

I've been thinking about this, while watching a guy doing dumbbell flyes at the gym awhile back.  Yes, I watch people in the gym, although not in a pervy way, but just to get ideas about form.  This is stuff I learned from climbing.  One can get a lot better at climbing by watching better climbers.  Sometimes consciously, and more often unconsciously, the style and moves and subtleties of other climbers will inform one's own climbing, so I naturally have adopted the same ploy in lifting.

But back to the flye guy...  One of the things that I was thinking when looking at him was sort of a vague notion of, "What's wrong with his forearms?"  I followed this thought and realised that what I was noticing was that I thought his forearms were disproportionately skinny compared with his big biceps.  I looked around at some of the other men in the room (not really any women to look at, that day), and determined that everyone seemed to have forearms that were slender in comparison to their biceps.  I then looked at my own arms, which I think are not disproportionate in the same way, and I figured out what was going on.

I wasn't particularly active, until I started to climb.  The majority of fit people/athletic types I've been looking at since then have been other climbers.  Climbers use their fingers to keep their body on the wall or help them move up it, and as such the muscles that control our fingers (which are predominantly housed in the forearm) get bigger.  Climbers have well-developed forearms with a fairly distinctive silhouette; ask any of them to flex and see for yourself.  I've become accustomed to these sort of forearms as being the norm. Not everyone in an average gym, I'm guessing, thinks about training their grip and finger strength as they might for any other part of their bodies.  The result is that someone like myself, interprets this as disproportionately skinny forearms.

It gets me thinking about what else I have become accustomed to seeing in a climbing gym and thus internalised as "normal".  Big backs, for sure.  Climbers almost invariably develop their backs far more than their chests and thus develop somewhat rounded shoulders (sometimes referred to as turtlebacks).  I rarely notice this on anyone.  I think the only reason that big chests don't surprise me is that they tend to be featured in the media, but even then, I can sometimes be taken aback by well-worked chest in real life.  Climbers in general tend to be more slender overall, and it's actually unusual to see one with the triangular sort of torso that is favoured in body building and fitness magazines.  In a manner of speaking, you see more Dave Grahams than Chris Sharmas (no links, you can look them up if you're that fascinated).  It also reminds me of hearing a friend tell of a coworker who came to his house-warming and commented that there were "a lot of really, really fit people" present.  The comment had to be explained to me:  the coworker was observing the climbers, whereas I would have never applied the same description, because to me, climbers are within the range of normal.

Of course, all this leads to thoughts about how what one perceives as "average" can be affected or manipulated by one's surroundings.  While I don't want to get into an argument about methodology, it also hearkens back to a rather controversial article describing how obesity can be "contagious", and why that article simultaneously seemed to make sense to a lot of people upon initial reading, while outraging others.  A thinking person can't help but to wonder how trustworthy their own understanding of aesthetic "normality" could possibly be, and how this aesthetic might affect their behaviour.  We've become accustomed to blaming popular media for contributing to body dysmorphic disorder in women, but I don't think we question how the look of our colleagues, social groups, or cohorts might have an impact as well.

I can't claim to have come to any conclusions about all of this, although I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the matter.  Have you noticed your own perceptions changing depending on who you have been socialising with or living amongst?

1 comment:

  1. I admit to "judging" women's physiques based on their muscle development almost entirely now. I also do look at their bodyfat percentage (or what I estimate it to be at). I see women with no visual markers of strength in their upper bodies--and this is honestly about 90% of women--and find it unappealing. I feel a little bad about this, but based on my participation in strength sports, it's what my mind and judgment are now "tuned" to. I don't think I look at female bodies in the same way as, say "People Magazine" does--said magazine's version of "x actress looks fit and toned" cracks me up.