Sunday, 26 April 2015

Love the skin you're in

Have you ever wished you had another body?

Wikimedia Commons
Before we look at that question, I apologise in advance. Writing this post feels a bit like trying to gather dandelion seeds. Each idea seems insubstantial on its own. Trying to fit them all together seems impossible, but necessary - I trust you will find some value in it!

So, I've often wondered what it would be like to live in someone else's body. I'm curious. How does it feel to be a baby learning to control that huge head? Or to be a teenage boy - what does one do with all those knees and elbows and feet and hormones?

I am quite a slim person, and I sometimes wonder what it must be like to have a large bust - to have to 'lift and wash' so to speak. Alternatively, what would it be like to have to shave my face every day? What does sexual intimacy feel like for someone else?

All these questions got me thinking - do I even really know what it's like to live in this body? How often do I acknowledge all the information my body is giving me at any moment?

Tea must be made with boiling water!
Source: Wikimedia Commons
I think of those times I knew someone had entered the room because of the slightest change in the light, of how I have come to just intuitively know where North is because somehow my body just keeps track of the sun, of how I know when my tea water isn't hot enough by the sound of it flowing into the cup. 

Take a moment and acknowledge each of your sensations. Sight, sound, smell, taste and sensation. Consider them each in turn and thank your body for telling you what is happening around you!

So often we see our bodies as merely vehicles interact with this physical world - just this thing that we use to get around. We speak of them disparagingly, we feed them carelessly and we push them relentlessly. 

Look after it! It's the only body you have!
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Imagine if we did that with our cars: Give a cup of fuel at time and then complain when it runs out; give them dirty fuel at that and berate them for sputtering along and not performing as they should. It would make no sense. If someone gave you a car and told you this is the only car you would own for the rest of your life - no replacements available - you would look after that car with utmost care - your would treat it as indispensable. There are no replacements for your body - treat it with care!

On the other hand, some of us identify too strongly with our physical appearance. If looking good means you feel good (How many times have you heard that before?) then looking bad means you feel bad. I'm not sure I want my feeling good to depend on something that fickle. And by whose standard would I determine if I look 'good' anyway? When women define their value by how closely they resemble a warped and culturally specific ideal, they will always experience some sense of failure. 

So women tend to judge their physical bodies by comparison and in doing so, view their bodies as less attractive than they are, and hence treat them in less than healthy ways either to gain attractiveness or neglect them as unattractive bodies are not seen as worth looking after. On the other hand, many people, generally men, see their bodies as more attractive or healthier than they really are, and tend to neglect them in other ways. 

So where am I going with this?
In short:

Women's bodies are valued as ornaments. Men's bodies as valued as instruments. 
- Gloria Steinem

Your Body is a Battleground - Barbara Kruger
Perhaps the gender distinction isn't as strong as it was when Steinem first made this remark - but I think it is still important to ask - Do I see my body an instrument or an ornament? Does my body exist for me to do what I'm called to do on this earth or for the visual pleasure of people around me?

You've probably guessed from that second question that I've chosen to see my body as an instrument rather than an ornament. 

This distinction became much clearer to me one day when I was exercising. I have/had really skinny upper arms that make my elbows look huge. I was always self conscious about them as a kid. But, one day when I was working out my arms, I realized that I was doing it because it felt good - the thought of bulking up hadn't actually crossed my mind. I came to a point where I the thought of being able to lift my own body weight with my arms just *felt* good. And guess what, my arms did get a bit bulkier.

Even for men, what's the point of bulking up for the sake of looking big or defined or whatever, if you actually aren't much stronger or more capable than you were before? Why pump iron when you can build houses? If the aim is to build muscle, I'd rather do something useful with all that energy. 

So that got me wondering how things would change if we started making decisions based on how something feels rather than how it looks. For example - if your thighs are chafing and that is uncomfortable for you, do what you can to make the change FOR YOU. Don't do it because a small section of society has determined that your value is defined by your thigh gap. 

If you're going to make changes, make them from a place of love rather than loathing, from acceptance rather than tolerance. If you don't love your body because it's yours, can any amount of dieting or surgery or make up change that? I don't know.

Pink Prison
Source: Wikimedia Commons
For me this shift has changed the way I shop. I choose clothing almost primarily on how it feels. I can't stand the sensation of synthetics on my skin, so I very seldom buy items made with synthetic fabric. I am a dancer and I love to be able to experience my full range of movement at any moment. When I try on clothes I spend more time waving my arms about, doing some high kicks, dropping some squats and touching my toes than I do looking in the mirror. 

I will not be complicit in supplying my own prison! 

And high heels - they slow me down and I've discovered they can actually be detrimental to my health. So I just stopped wearing them and found alternatives. If the main reason to wear high heels is because they make your calves look good, count me out. My body is an instrument, not an ornament. 

When a woman sees herself as an ornament, she is continually viewing herself through someone else's eyes - she is objectifying herself. She is, in a sense, out of her body. This affects a number of things. Women who self-objectify often engage in continual body monitoring - Cross your legs so you don't have thigh-spread, hunch your shoulders so you don't appear so tall, suck in that tummy, stick out those boobs, check hair, check lipstick, is this a good angle? 

According to work by Dr Caroline Heldman, among others, this practise can decrease a woman's cognitive function in that there just isn't enough brain space to monitor how you look and do the task in front of you, and, among other things, it decreases one's enjoyment of sexual intimacy. 

A woman who self-objectifies tends to view herself having sex as if through someone else's eyes, or through the lens of a camera, monitoring her wobbly thighs and undignified noises from outside rather than being present in her body and enjoying the actual sensation and intimacy of intercourse. 

So contrary to the popular idiom, looking good stops me from feeling good. To me, that's just not worth it!

A quote from one of my favourite spoken word pieces - Pretty by Katy Makkai:

...but this is not about me. This is about the self-mutilating circus we have painted ourselves clowns in. About women who will prowl 30 stores in 6 malls to find the right cocktail dress, but haven't a clue where to find fulfillment or how wear joy, wandering through life shackled to a shopping bag, beneath those 2 pretty syllables.

So, rather than wondering what it would be like to live in another body, I choose to rather be present in my skin, to love my body for what it can do, rather than for how it appears. I choose to be here, really here, in my skin.

I choose to wear joy. Will you join me?