In the novel They Who Do Not Grieve by Sia Figiel, the one element that stood out to me repetitively was the idea of image. The women in the novel suffer greatly because they possess a distorted image of themselves, which is greatly depressing. Collectively, these women represent a repressed culture, and allow one to consider the struggles that many people go through each and everyday when it comes to accepting one's own image.
Throughout the novel, there are many instances where characters look at themselves in a mirror and are displeased with what they see. For instance, in the chapter "This is not Samoa", Alofa looks at herself in the mirror after arriving in Giu Sila. She says, "I saw myself in the mirror for the first time. I have always seen my reflection in the mirror in passing. But it is only an image. Like some picture of a picture. A grey figure whose face is never seen" ( Figiel 155). When Alofa looks at her reflection, she is not sure of her own identity. If we think about how many times we peer into a mirror each day in order to check our appearances, I'm sure we would all agree that we do it too often. Society places so much emphasis on appearances, and mirrors may hinder a true understanding of ourselves. Do our outward appearances really even matter? Sometimes I think image is too much of a priority in not only society, but Loyola as well.
The character of Mrs. Henderson is another example of a character that considers her image in the novel. However, Mrs. Henderson is extremely unsatisfied with herself, to the point where she purges whenever she eats. The islanders see Mrs. Hendersen in a different light than she sees herself, thus exposing varying viewpoints when it comes to body image. Malu says, "Village women would call someone like Mrs. Henderson thin as a spoon, with a neck as long as a chicken's, one that possesses a thousand tongues, which is how I would describe Mrs. Winterson myself. However, Mrs. Henderson in conversation would never describe herself in this manner. And why should she?" (Figiel 76). While the islander women are typically a bit larger, Mrs. Winterson is seen as a twig. However, she cannot see herself in that light, which is a clear example of the distorted image of the body that occurs throughout the novel.
Malu also struggles with her image and wonders if anybody will accept her because of her large, thick thighs. She is beside herself when a man actually takes a liking to her. She has no self- confidence until she finally embraces her nakedness and accepts the fact that people do believe her to be beautiful ( 46). The other women go through this same process in the novel. They struggle with their own appearances, and in the end, they either come to terms with their body or they continue to let misconceptions destroy them.
I feel that the body is a very important part of every society, whether it be fictional or non- fictional. Body image is and always has been a subject of great importance to almost every culture. In Figiel's novel, tattoos are very symbolic of body image and cultural acceptance. Weight is also a significanct issue that is addressed within the novel. When I was abroad in Belgium, I experienced issues with body image and came to terms with many things I have always struggled with in my own life. When I first arrived, I was completely shocked at the fact that Belgians do not value working out or sports as much as Americans. I was quick to purchase a gym membership as soon as I received my KU Leuven ID card, but as soon as I rushed to the gym, I found that it was ill- equipped and lacking any use. I had grown so used to walking into a nice, crowded gym in America, so this was certainly a shock for me. The internationals in the house were amazed at how much emphasis is placed on working out and looking good in America. At Loyola, many girls spend hours putting on makeup and preparing for class, while the Belgians prepared to go out with minimal effort. One thing I always noticed when I walked down the streeets in Belgium was the lack of makeup. Everybody always wore simple clothes and little to no makeup, which is obviously quite different than the appearance of the typical American.
As I got to know internationals and Belgians while living in the house, I realized just how ridiculous our lifestyle is here in the states. I guess I had to step out of America in order to fully understand the degree of it. After a semester of drinking fine Belgian beer and eating delicious fried food, I noticed a change in my body. At first, I began to panic, and wondered what the reaction would be at home when I arrived for Christmas vacation. However, Belgians and other internationals reminded me that it was absurd to place any emphasis on weight and reminded me of my own distorted image of myself, which I blame on society. Before I knew it, I began to frequent the gym less and less, and almost all of my time was spent walking around town shopping, trying new things, or traveling. At the end of the year, I still found it hilarious whenever I went to the gym and saw people running on the tredmill in sandals, but it was a constant reminder to keep it simple and fun. It is true that we take ourselves a little too seriously in America sometimes, and that more often than not, our society is obsessed with staying thin, working out, and eating what is right. Of course it is important to stay healthy, but eventually we have to accept who are are and what we look like with gratitude for the talents we possess. Living abroad for a year helped me gain confidence in myself like never before, and also exposed me to a culture that is so much more relaxed about outward appearances, which has changed me forever. It just goes to show how important travel can be in discovering the different ideas of acceptable body image. I think Figiel's novel reminds us to accept ourselves no matter what society may think of us, and to embrace the pain with the joy- embrace those hard moments that make it difficult to stay true to ourselves and our identity as human beings.