As I stood in front of the changing-room mirror, all I could see was my upper arms.
Not the dress or the shoes or how my hair worn up or down might look with the dress. Just my upper arms and how there was too much of them, too flabby, too blotchy. Maybe I shouldn’t wear that dress after all, because in that dress everyone can see my arms?
A bit like the strange modern infatuation of the thigh gap, I’m shamefully obsessed with the arm gap. I stare at women on train platforms, in the street, in the office, who, when their arms are hanging straight down, have a slight space between their upper arm and body and there’s no excess bulge – a bit like Barbie’s angular stance or Kate Middleton or all the other unrealistic body ideals we tell girls and women to aspire to. Once, when I was 12, I used to have that, but I don’t any more and for that reason I don’t wear sleeveless tops. The dress is sleeveless. What was I thinking?
Well, clearly, I wasn’t thinking, because there’s nothing *actually* wrong with my arms, like there’s nothing wrong with any woman’s arms. They’re arms; they are bloody useful, they are great for dancing and holding tiny babies and stroking cats and hugging my mum, and even a bit weird-looking when you actually come to think of it. Besides, I went to school with a girl who only had one arm. This, right here, is clearly not my finest hour – what on earth have I got to moan about?
Isn’t it awful that women’s bodies have been so objectified and deconstructed that it feels like we’re dissected frogs in glass jars, the world peering through with a magnifying glass, inspecting every awful, repulsive part of us?
But it doesn’t work like that, does it? Rationally knowing that my arms are fine doesn’t stop me staring in the mirror, grabbing them and feeling if they’ve got bigger or smaller. It doesn’t stop the self-indulgent, self-obsessive arm-gazing, even when I’ve spent a day, like I did this week, at Melinda Gates’ Family Planning Summit, hearing the plights of girls who have been raped or become child brides, girls who live in abject poverty, sitting on stages in front me. And it certainly doesn’t stop me trying to cover them up, and feeling, for the sake of others, I should cover them up. Let's just say I'm not proud of myself.
Men’s arms, on the other hand, are a symbol of strength and protection. They are proudly shown off to the world, not hidden with shame when they don’t look like they belong to Gigi Hadid. Even if they’re not as toned as a sportsman’s or a 1980s sax player’s in a soft-rock group, they are associated with pride and masculinity and safety; and, yes, arguably this is just as much a gendered, harmful stereotype, with everyone, from Popeye to Hulk Hogan, pronouncing muscles mean manhood, but I’m pretty sure only women have to deal with the phrase “bingo wings”.
This is the first time I feel fully shamed by a part of my body. I’ve thought about buying small weights to lift in the mornings, or swimming every day in some effort to look like Madonna – make muscles to mask the fact that I don’t have arms like a model. I’ve thought about which jacket I can wear over the dress. Clearly, I’ve thought about this a lot.
I’ve tried to be objective. I’ve tried to examine my shame, pick it apart and ask where it’s coming from. And what I’ve discovered is there are two Marisas. There’s Rational Marisa – in the park, on the beach, in the pub, at the wedding party, on a hike, having a nice time and only noticing her arms when she’s swimming in the sea, or carrying a bottle of wine and six glasses, or a heavy rucksack, or attempting a cartwheel to make her boyfriend laugh. But then there’s Batshit Marisa, who looks at too many fashion bloggers, or notices which friends have lost how much weight, the Marisa who grew up reading Vogue and countless glossy magazines, and still listens to the thoughtless comments of an ex-boyfriend. And all the time, Batshit Marisa feels that if she was just a bit thinner, everything would be better; if she just lost a stone, if she just dropped a dress size, if she just had slimmer arms…
And in between Rational Marisa and Batshit Marisa, there’s a whole load of anger – anger that I allow myself to care about my arms when there are so many other things I should worry and stress and think and care about. Rage at a society that makes me – and no doubt countless others – feel that they should hide any part of their body if it doesn’t look like it could plausibly belong to a 16-year-old. And I’m most angry that I listen to it. I’m angry that even in the recent heatwave, my arms – on airless London Tubes – were covered.
And isn’t that sad? Isn’t it sad that this simple bit of my body, a few inches in length, can cause me such self-loathing that I can spend such energy on it? That I can dedicate 800 words (800!) to the bit above my elbow and below my shoulder? Isn’t it sad that a bit of flesh is so repulsed and rejected by society because it doesn’t conform to meaningless ideals conjured up to sell cigarettes and cars to rich men? Isn’t it awful that women’s bodies have been so objectified and deconstructed that it feels like we’re dissected frogs in glass jars, the world peering through with a magnifying glass, inspecting every awful, repulsive part of us?
There is no neat summing-up to this column. There’s no cosy pay-off, confessing that I’ve fallen back in love with my arms, or a rallying cry to own our bingo wings. I don’t like my arms, society doesn’t like my arms either and I’m pretty pissed off about the whole thing.
But just FYI – I’m keeping the dress.