The Personalist Project

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Accessed on May 25, 2018 - 9:00:00

Seeing Bodies, Seeing Persons

Kate Whittaker Cousino, Apr 26, 2018

Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of what seems to be a sort of practical personalism, an example of what it looks like when someone implicitly places persons in a central position in their work or interactions. 

This morning, someone shared with me this video about the fashion designer Christian Siriano, who is being honored as one of TIME magazines Top 100 people of 2018. What caught my ear was this line: "When I love something...and I get a request to dress someone, I want to dress them, because I love what they're doing..." This is the line of thought that led Siriano to volunteer to dress Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones for her movie premiere when no other designer was willing to take the risk of designing for someone so far removed from the size 00 of the typical runway model or celebrity starlet. While other designers look at women and see bodies that might or might not serve the lines and aesthetic of their designs, Siriano talks about looking at women and seeing people he can serve with designs that suit their personalities and aesthetic.   

Siriano is widely known as the brash and camera-loving youngest winner of the Project Runway reality fashion design competition, but he is being honored now for a quieter, more thoughtful design philosophy that seems revolutionary in the skin-deep, appearances-first world of high fashion--a philosophy summed up in the self-designed t-shirt he wears in the TIME profile video, emblazoned with the phrase, "PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE." 

What does it mean to look at people and see people--or rather, to look at people and see persons?  “I grew up with a mom who is a size 16, and a sister who is a size 0, so I never thought that wasn’t normal – I just assumed you had to dress everybody,” Siriano said in an interview with The Guardian.  

It's possible Siriano's public inclusivity has more to do with hopping on the body positivity bandwagon than it does any sort of personalistic insight. From a distance, it is impossible to tell whether there's a genuine sincerity to this approach or merely savvy marketing seeing a way to stand out against the old guard of the fashion world. 

But still, I think the reason it appeals, the reason it stands out and the reason the video is being shared around between women on social media right now, is that we all hunger and thirst to be seen this way--as persons, unities of body and soul. As subjects and not objects. 

On a related note, my friend Rebecca Sachiko Burton recently described this vision:

At the end of my journey, I was shown myself. She sat in a courtroom where I remembered sitting long ago, in quiet terror and alone. She was wearing the the mark of every wound I’ve sustained in life, by another’s hand or my own. 

When I saw this self-portrait, I expected to draw back in disgust. So I drew back, but the disgust never came. Its opposite did instead. 

I know we’re all trained to feel horror at seeing anything but perfect skin on women, but that expectation was gone. The me I saw sat straight-backed and clear-eyed, and I felt for her and her marks what I’ve always felt when seeing the scars of war veterans—admiration, respect, gratitude. I was a mass of scars and I was beautiful, like cracks through a gold-heavy kintsugi vessel. 

This vision and reaction went against everything I’ve been trained to expect to feel about a woman’s appearance, expectations formed by pictures and mens’ comments and the rest of the cultural waters in which we all swim, that told me that nobody should show physical or emotional scars because nobody wants to see them. 

I have seen the ravages of trauma exacting a visible toll on people, and how often those who injure others come to reject the evidence of their behavior, and prefer to move on to another human, one fresh and unspoilt, sometimes as blithely as a child who searches for a patch of fresh snow in which to swim out another snow angel

The insight Rebecca gleaned from this was that we all walk around in this society obsessed with youth and beauty under the threat of rejection. 

This comes from the implicit (or sometimes explicit) message that should we fail to be beautiful and youthful, should our bodies reflect the injuries and markings of time and sin and human weakness, of age and illness and worry, of expressions of joy and horror and heartbreak and sleepless nights, that we will cease to be worthy of notice, or admiration, or love. Older women speak sometimes of the feeling of becoming invisible as they age out of desirability. It's a fear that weighs on all of us to varying degrees.

But, as Rebecca realized, the rejection is itself a kind of fear of what IS, a cowardly denial of the full impact and effects of the lives we live together.

And so as our scars become harder to hide, we become invisible. And it hurts, because I think on a deep level, we all want to be seen and cherished. Not loved despite all the things we think of as bodily flaws and failures, but loved in all our complexity, all that we are and all that we have learned in and through and as our embodied selves. 

Whether you are dressing others or merely dressing yourself, looking at another or looking in the mirror, the body you see before you is not a collection of attributes or measurements. The body is not a mannequin shaped to hold something else or an obstacle to being known for who we really are.

The body is the expression, the visible portion of the person we really are. Every body is a person, inextricably, as much as is that person's mind and soul. Each person is unique, and uniquely precious. A person is a person. 

And all people are people. 

Don't you forget it.