The body.

I would submit, humbly of course, that we don’t know how to talk about our bodies.

We know how to talk about other people’s bodies, and we know how to talk about an image that we have been given about how a body such as our own should look and act — but we don’t really know how to talk about the actual body that we actually have, devoid of social expectation or moral implication, without a sense of shame or need to hedge our bets. At least, that has not been my experience — our bodies are sexual, or sources of humor. Something to be ogled, or something to be overcome. Not an integral part of a healthy sense of self.

And this is not just true for women — though I do believe that women and girls suffer more as a result than do men and boys. It seems to me that every woman I know has battled (or is battling) demons regarding her body image (and in this I absolutely include myself). Women refusing compliments as they refuse food, women of brilliant minds hating themselves because of a series of numbers (weight, size, BMI), women who feel themselves less worthy for not looking like — someone. Something. I don’t believe that we are ever entirely clear on what that Thing is, but we know that we have not achieved it, and it can drain our entire sense of worth as a human beings.

But the problem I’m considering is different, or bigger, or (possibly) partial cause for this particular affliction. We seem to have no real conversational structures, we hardly have language, for talking about our physicality in the same way as we talk about art, or thoughts, or the backyard, or going on vacation. (Or even our emotional state, which is no easy thing to discuss). Indeed, I’m having a hard time even verbalizing these ideas, because it’s very hard to say what it is that we don’t say.

We don’t discuss passing gas — that’s disgusting. We don’t say “I love my hair” — that’s vain. We don’t talk about how knitting needles feel in the hands, or a keyboard underneath them. Summer sun on the skin vs. winter sun; bathwater vs. rainwater; the strain of muscle that has learned something new, vs. the strain of muscle that has forgotten something once known. This is, to the extent that it comes up at all, the stuff of poetry, not conversation.

I want to love my body. I want to treat it well and think of it fondly and enjoy its many gifts, and I barely know how to even think about it.

In pondering this the other day, I asked each of my kids, separately, what they liked about their bodies. They both said, independently of each other: “My brain.”

That my not-quite-6-year-old girl and not-quite-10-year-old boy would have a love of the mind is kind of thrilling — and to anyone who knows our uber-geeky family, not all that surprising.

But I hope to help them learn to value their skin and bones, too — not as agents of sexual attraction (merely), but as them. As much them as their brains.

First I have to figure out how to talk about it.

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  1. hej hej

     /  July 8, 2009

    This is something I was just thinking about the other day.
    I think a large part of it has to do with uncomfortableness with bodily functions (thinking our bodies are “gross”), but part of it is also thinking about our body parts in terms of being either “good” or “bad”. We all tend to think of ourselves as having positive physical qualities (a nice smile, clear skin, long legs) and negative qualities (a thick waist, bad skin, a flabby tummy, etc.), when really none of those qualities are inherently good or bad–they just are.
    I read a magazine article the other day about fixing “flaws” that showed how to camouflage a lady’s pear-shaped bottom half by emphasizing her small waist. It bothered me because it suggested that there was something wrong with being pear shaped, and that having a tiny waist was more desirable.
    I don’t think we can begin to have a closer relationship with our bodies until we change the way we think about ourselves. We need to stop seeing ourselves as imperfect beings who constantly need to be fixed, camouflaged, and emphasized. Maybe when we begin to stop making judgments about our own bodies (and others’ as well) we can learn to talk about our physicality in completely subjective terms.

  2. Nicole (TFJB)

     /  July 9, 2009

    You know, I have quite publicly talked about not exactly enjoying pregnancy, even though it seemed to agree with me–great hair, great skin–but I’ve always thought it was fairly awesome that without even thinking about it, I can manufacture a whole, fully functioning human being. Shouldn’t that require some kind of effort on my part? Somewhere inside my brain is the knowledge necessary to complete that process, without conscious thought. It’s mind-boggling.

    The rest of it, I’m running a theory that it’s people’s way of avoiding discussion about intellect. You can call anyone ugly in this country, but if you call them stupid, look out. In that way, I think that to be perceived as intelligent is far more valuable than to be perceived as beautiful, just because the discussion is so far underground. By the time “everybody” is talking about something, it’s like a lanced boil. It’s the underground discussions that you have to watch out for.

  3. what a great and well thought out post. and a good discussion after!
    It’s always cool finding web sites that are well written and don’t have immature commenters!

    btw. I just got your message on Jez, I don’t check the messages page much. Yes, I’m actually an Emily too. And in an odd coincidence I have a friend named Emily Hauser as well. Weird.

  4. erniebufflo

     /  July 9, 2009

    Great post! This reminded me of something else– I have no idea if others experience this, but I have no realistic conception of my body in relation to space. I have could not pick out another person on the street and say that we were the same size. Perhaps it’s because my body is mostly experienced by me looking down at it, I just have no objective view of what it REALLY looks like. I realized this one summer when working with a girl who was similar enough to me that people kept getting us mixed up. One time we hugged and I thought to myself, this must be what it feels like to other people to hug me! I’m not sure if this really makes any sense, but it was the closet I’ve ever come to an awareness of the physical presence of my own body.

    One way I’ve come to love my body more and hate on it less is to appreciate the things it can do. As I walk up stairs, I think to myself how awesome it is that my body can walk up the stairs, propel me to the top. Not like, crazy athletic feats, but the every day awesomeness that my body performs for me. It’s really, to borrow a phrase from Fiona Apple, an “extraordinary machine.”

  5. trianaorpheus

     /  July 9, 2009

    I like this post. I love my body, but I don’t take care of it. I think the only way we’ll learn to get in touch with our body is to quiet the focus on the outside and listen to what’s going on on the inside. Meditation helps.

  6. MizJenkins

     /  July 12, 2009

    Great post! And so true…most people don’t really relate to their bodies. I am at the total opposite end of the spectrum and find it both bizarre and a travesty that people don’t have a personal relationship with the bodies they inhabit. After all, it’s YOU!

    For me, dance and sports helped me to develop a relationship with my body. I could express my feelings with it when I was dancing. I became very, very aware over the years of the ways in which minute, individual muscles and tendons could and could not move (and how it changed day-to-day and over time). I’ve spent countless hours apologizing to my toes for blisters, rubbing down and soothing tired muscles, begging my lungs to work with me and not give out, listening to my body tell me what kind of nourishment and replenishment it needs to keep going…

    I think learning to appreciate how your body FEELS and what it can DO is the key. When we only appreciate it for how it LOOKS we are detached from it (not to mention burdened by all the societal crap you mentioned). This is something I care SO much about and I’m glad you do too!

    Dance classes, sports and lots of cuddle time are the best things I can recommend for your kids (and I will add that loving one’s body makes one much less likely to let others misuse/malign it in any way, including sexually)!