Shaping the Body

It’s Saturday, it’s sunny and even better I have a guest post from @jedihamster001. I’ve had my eye on the Shaping the Body exhibition up in York for quite a while now. I’ve been to the city twice in my life; she’s a regular visitor. So when she hopped on the train north recently I added this to her list of things to do. She’s wrong about her “less than perfect” body (*insert Paddington Bear hard stare) and about 99 Red Balloons, but other than that this is an awesome read!


As good and solid a friendship as Exposing 40 and I have, our opinions differ on a lot of things: She’s never seen Star Wars, I’ll never love anyone the way I love Chewbacca. There are entire whatsapp conversations dedicated to which language one should sing 99 Red Balloons in (German, obviously). I once had to pretend it was agave nectar sweetening our watermelon mimosas (sorry about that, E40, but who doesn’t like honey?!).

When it comes to getting our kecks off in front of others, again we’re different: E40 joyfully takes hers off at any given opportunity and invites lusty gazes, whilst I don’t really believe that anyone could, would, or indeed should want to look upon my less-than-perfect form.

So when I found myself on a random weekend in York a few weeks ago, I was really interested to go (at her suggestion) to the Shaping The Body exhibition at the Castle Museum: charting 400 years of fashion, food and life, and how the definition of the ‘perfect’ body has changed over the centuries.

That weekend was almost 20 years to the day since I’d first visited the city before going to college there, 18 years old and with no clue about who or what I wanted to be. As walked through the city on my way I started thinking about how I looked in 1997, what I wore, and how I felt about my body.

I’ve always been a big girl, and as a teen I was painfully aware of my flaws, comparing myself to my thinner friends and batting away any compliments, convinced that I was being at best humoured and at worst, mocked. I had no clue about dressing myself: scruffy student stayed with me far longer after graduating than it should have done and I honestly have no idea why denim shirts were such a big part of my wardrobe. No really. I had THREE.

These days, I use my clothes as my costume. When I need to feel powerful at work, it’s the rock chick look with lots of mascara and big high-heeled boots; to feel demure it’s a flowery dress, sandals and a shit-ton of lip goo that my hair invariably gets stuck in (I said I knew how to dress myself, I never said I was graceful!). My clothes are my armour, making me into the person I need to be at that given moment. Take away that armour and I’m just a wobbly thirtysomething overly concerned about her backrolls.

Shaping the Body works hard to show its visitors that worrying about how we look is by no means a modern phenomenon:

“In today’s selfie generation, it is said that we have become more image conscious than ever before, with the lengths that people will go to in order to achieve the ‘perfect’ look seeming ever more drastic, but the reality is that even before the age of the digital camera, people would go to extremes to conform to fashion, whether through changing diet or clothing which modified the body’s shape,” [taken from the York Castle Museum website]

There’s an interesting trawl through some torturous clothing – a corset that cinched in the waist to mere inches, spiky heels that could easily double as a weapon, and I’m pretty sure I spotted a dress lined with mercury. Century by century and, latterly, decade by decade trends and styles are analysed: I laughed for about a year when I realised that circa 1752, ‘you’re looking thin’ could have been seen as an insult.

All of this was interesting but by no means ground-breaking. What really made me catch my breath was further into the exhibition, exploring body image, how we view our bodies and how we define ourselves with what we wear.

img_2701A clothes dummy covered in labels where people were encouraged to write about how they feel about themselves yielded the header image, and the below brought tears to my eyes – the artist had made a plaque to commemorate the moment the first time he tried on a man’s shirt in public after coming out as trans.

A transwoman had donated the outfit she wore when she felt she first ‘passed’ as female; punks described how they were judged not on their personality but on their hairstyles; fashion students created pieces in response to the theme ‘Identity’ with mixed results – some felt more profound maybe than others, but emphasised that it’s unfair to scoff at another’s insecurities.

It gave me a lot to think about as I exited through the gift shop. I’m not sure I learned anything new but as a resource for teens/young people to combat the constant barrage of what constitutes ‘perfection’, it’s invaluable. My 18 year old self would have loved it, I think. 38 year old me is still laughing about the denim shirts.

2 thoughts on “Shaping the Body

  1. Pingback: Size Matters | Jedi Hamster

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