Monday, February 15, 2010

The Dissatisfaction Dance

Why is it that so many of us are dissatisfied with our bodies, our hair, our skin, our jobs, our homes? Is this some sort of perverse training society secretly instills in each of us to keep us from being happy? Is it a species-wide case of the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence - or over the septic tank, as Erma Bombeck so helpfully pointed out?

What triggered this line of thought? An NPR article that showed up in my Facebook feed: Fashion Week's Latest Trend? Plus-Size Models. At first I weighed (pun very much intended) the various aspects of the thin-vs.-fat, healthy-vs.-unhealthy debate. Then I realized that for virtually any point of view you might find, there is someone who can reasonably argue against it. In other words, if you listen carefully to the discussion, you’ll be dissatisfied with your body no matter what size you are. And don’t even get me started on the long list of friends and relatives, male and female, who spend tons of money to perm straight hair or straighten curly hair. Or the ones who are always looking for a new job - or romantic interest - because the current one isn’t good enough.

At first I thought this was a recent phenomenon, perhaps an outgrowth of aggressive multimedia marketing or information overload. Then I picked up a copy of the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue. I bought it, along with the Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue & Buyer's Guide 1895, as resources for our family’s living history activities and also to supplement my daughter’s home schooling. And guess what? It’s full of stuff you can buy to fix the things you dislike about yourself, your clothes, your house, you name it. You were expected to have lots of these bits of dissatisfaction, apparently, more than a century ago.

My daughter, a tender 10-year-old, was at first distressed at the ad for The Princess Bust Developer and Bust Cream. Then she laughed a lot. There’s also the Princess Tonic Hair Restorer, a wide variety of corsets (for men, women and children!), arsenic wafers to lighten the skin, and all variety of stuffed pads for men and women to tuck under their clothing and fill out various problem areas for a more fashionable figure.

Then I picked up another book and discovered the fad diets of the 18th and 19th centuries; these were mostly to gain weight, not lose it, since plumpness was fashionable and considered healthy at the time. Soon after, I discovered that ancient Roman men and women plucked body hair (ouch!) and dyed the hair on their heads to cover gray. The Romans also had a thriving market in anti-wrinkle creams and potions to fade age spots and freckles. I wonder, did prehistoric peoples dye their skin and hair with powdered pigments because they were dissatisfied with their looks?
This twisted history lesson really gives me pause. Maybe it’s inborn. Maybe there’s some sort of genetic glitch in humanity that makes us want what we don’t have. I have to admit that it took me 40 years to learn to like my hair and quit perming and dyeing it. I’m learning to be happy with my body, to accept what I have in life at the moment and appreciate it. But there are still those little, creeping, nagging thoughts of “wouldn’t it be better if…”

What does all this dissatisfaction do to us over time? It’s got to have a negative effect, a sort of quiet gnawing at our insides. I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year on January 1 but I’m taking the opportunity now, at Chinese New Year, to make a single, simple resolution: to allow myself to be satisfied. I’ll probably be fighting against eons of human tradition and millions of bits of genetic code, but I’m going to put my heart in it. We’ll see how it turns out.