The One-body Problem

Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour2Hello, December. What happened to November? All of October I was busy with the Yoga Project, happily scribing away my impressions, downward-dogging my way into a new yoga comfort zone. And then it seemed that November just floated right on by.  And then yesterday, December 1, I opened the New York Times (oh joy) and I realized that I had been subconsciously working on a blog post for the entire month. It’s long, but I hope you still read it.

I’ll call it the One Body Problem. Which is this: We only get one body. This is it. You get the body you were born with, like it or not. And then you die.

A huge amount of mental energy over the ages has been exerted coming up with potential solutions. Reincarnation? Check. Ascension? Transubstantiation? Check. Check.

Decartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” argument is another famous workaround. Our bodies are just vessels for our minds! We are so NOT this mortal coil! This duality was the subject of the first New York Times Article, entitled “The Ways of Lust,” which probes how we objectify one another’s bodies.

We are all common-sense dualists… we inhabit fleshly bodies, but we are not ourselves physical. To see someone as a body is in opposition to thinking of her as a mind, and hence a heightened focus on someone’s body tends to strip away her personhood.”

Paul Bloom (a Yale prof) goes on to describe some experiments he did using pictures of naked people and concludes that our experience of other people is complex. It’s not just a matter of objectifying or not objectifying them. We’re all influenced by bodily things such as how people smell, their race, gender, and age, size and how short their skirts are.

This is a perfect illustration of why I quit studying philosophy. I’m sure he had a good time observing how people reacted to pictures of porn stars, but good frickin’ grief, people! Anyone who’s spent any time on the interwebs or in a grocery store checkout line knows that we are most emphatically NOT common-sense dualists. It seems to me that we are more obsessed with our bodies as the epitomes (epitomi?) of our Selves than ever.  We hardly have time to worry about objectifying other people, we’re so busy objectifying ourselves! You are what you eat!

Right underneath professor Bloom’s article is another, entitled “On Dying After Your Time,” which deals with “tackling the challenge of aging.” We just can’t seem to let go of the Fountain of Youth thing.

Recent anti-aging research — on gene therapy, body-part replacement by regeneration and nanotechnology for repairing aging cells — has breathed new life into this dream.”

I was always very conflicted when I had to write press releases about these kinds of discoveries. I am, in general, a fan of science. But is it really a good thing to spend so much effort, and kill so many mice, trying to find a way to trick our bodies into living ten years longer? It’s like the statin wars. Millions of people are taking drugs with serious side effects because they have been led to believe that doing so will extend their lives. But the jury’s still out on cholesterol, in case you didn’t see the news last week.

I agree with 83-year-old author Daniel Callahan: “I have often been struck, at funerals of the elderly, by the common phrase that … he or she led a “full life.” Adding years to a life doesn’t necessarily make it fuller.”

Along those lines, I doubt anyone adds at the graveside, “Damn, he had his macronutrients dialed in, didn’t he? And remember those six-pack abs?”

Back in Descartes’ time, I doubt there were many people going around bragging about their six-packs. They were more preoccupied with everyday problems like vermin and pestilence. Oh, and not starving to death or getting killed in a pointless war. They didn’t try to outwit death or act all surprised when it came calling. On the other hand, they did focus heavily on making sure they had a spot in heaven lined up for when it inevitably happened.

We’ve made a lot of progress since then – aside from the pointless wars, that is. Haven’t we?

I’m not so sure. A large part of the world still suffers from malnutrition, hunger and easily preventable death. And it seems to me that many of the rest of us, awash in plenty, are seething bundles of dissatisfaction and discontent directed towards our bodies. We are constantly bombarded with images of the “ideal” form, exhorted by every expert out there to take control of our bodies, to shape them into something – anything! – other than what they are, all in the name of being “healthy.”  No excuses!

Fitspo, thinspo, Crossfit, Paleo, vegan, low carb, you name it. Control, restriction, and obsession are all the rage in the first world. Never has being healthy (i.e. lean, muscle-bound) been so sought-after and being unhealthy (i.e. obese) been viewed as such a moral failing. But is all this effort actually productive? Are we healthy now?  Can we move on to better things, please?

Well, let me ask you this: How many (adult) people do you know who are profoundly at home in their skin? Who are happy and healthy just as they are? Are you?

For my part, I first came into conflict with my body when I was 16. This has waxed and waned (What? My body? Oh, that old thing! No, that’s just a vehicle for my splendiferous brain) ever since. I have occasional cease-fire periods in which my self-worth is not determined by how tight my pants feel. But overall, I’d have to say my adult relationship with this body has never been particularly friendly.  I know this is ridiculous — I am a normal-weight, fit person without any physical deformities or serious health problems. But still.

I know I’m not alone. The interwebs are full of people who don’t like their bodies, who are disappointed in what they’ve been handed out at birth, and we’re accosted on all fronts by messages that reinforce this malaise.

We’re driven to reject our current embodiment as flawed — but with the potential for improvement! This can be fixed! And then we’re enthusiastically encouraged to project onto some ideal future version of ourselves, hopefully buying a diet book or enrolling in a gym in the process. Visualize success!

At best, we lose some weight and improve some health markers (and become obsessed). At worst, we end up less healthy than we started. Mostly, we yo-yo. Almost never are we actually fully embodied in the here and the now, our judgment suspended, our egos at rest.

IMHO, this war with ourselves is the most pointless of them all. The only way to end it is to refuse to fight. But that’s very counterculture. Think about it. Diet, weight loss and fitness make up a multibillion-dollar industry. Anti-aging treatments, from plastic surgery to cosmetics to supplements like resveratrol and vitamin D, rake in billions more. The coming diabetes edpidemic is a veritable gold mine for health gurus and pharmaceutical companies. Why would they want to change the message?

What if instead of waging war on ourselves in the name of “health” we each stepped back, took a deep breath, and prepared to enter into a totally different kind of relationship with our bodies? Contemplate this for a minute:

  • We each have just the one body. This body. It is not and never will be perfect. It will expire (maybe even tomorrow). No exceptions.
  • By the time we die, none of the cells we were born with will still be on board, but we will still be ourselves. Life is change.
  • We harbor more microbial DNA than human DNA in our bodies. Being alive, having a body, might not be about us at all.
  • What we define as “physical” and “mental” are not separate states at all. They are inextricably tied. And probably involve those microbes.

Maybe it’s all the yoga I’ve been doing, maybe it’s just that I’m getting old and crotchety and sick of the fight, but for me the time has come for peace. Not a cease-fire, not an abandonment of the field, but a true white flag. It’s time to sit quietly and listen to what my cells are telling me. Hey guys! How’s it going in there? Can we do some brainstorming?

Want to join me? Let’s pull a HDT (Henry David Thoreau) on the hate-fueled body wars. There is no solution to the One Body Problem, so let’s stop kidding ourselves that we have found it and wasting our energy trying to prove it.

Instead, let’s just be embodied. It turns out that yoga can help, if you approach it mindfully and not just “for the workout.” Maybe we can learn to lift our gaze up from our navels, look one another in the eye with love, and get on with living full lives. Om.

What do you think?

Image: Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90) from Wikipedia

7 thoughts on “The One-body Problem

  1. I sent the link to your yoga series to a a friend here who likes yoga. She read it and commented on it to me yesterday. She said “It made me feel sorry.” “Sorry for what?” I asked. She answered “For your friend and the fact that she doesn’t relax and get enjoyment out of yoga.” I said “What gave you that idea?” “Well, she doesn’t like her body and she doesn’t think she lives up to some standard of yoga, that isn’t there by the way.” I was surprised. When I read the series, all your references to lack of flexibility and cringing when the instructor corrected you and wanting to be in the back of the class struck me as wit and humor. I had so much fun reading your series, and I thought it was a brilliant idea to go to all those classes and make a yoga and writing project out of it. I knew that what I thought was “faux” self-depracation was part of your writing style, and I didn’t take it literally. But now I see it isn’t so “faux”, so I think I’ll give the advice (to everyone) my friend would give — to seek simple, natural enjoyment out of our one body, when doing yoga and everything else. I assured her that you actually do like yoga and that you don’t really mean it when you put yourself down. About just being embodied, I like your essay and your conclusion. It’s worth following!

    • Hey Carol – first, thanks for sharing my blog. Second – your friend is very wise. Third – she’s also lucky if she escaped feeling lousy about her body as a woman in our society. I’m really enjoying my yoga classes, and getting a lot out of them, now that I am over my insecurities. I also believe that a big part of being able to enjoy life is the ability to laugh at yourself. Your friend doesn’t need to feel sorry for me! I’m having a great time.

    • Worth taking a look at the slideshow at the bottom of this huffpost article:
      according to this, 97% of women report having at least one “I hate my body” moment every day. I am definitely not alone. And your friend is definitely in the minority, no matter how off these numbers may be. We can change our relationship to our bodies, but it’s not culturally condoned. BTW I was hoping you meant my blog was worth following! But that’s okay too.

  2. Hi Mary,

    I really enjoyed this post, and I had to laugh halfway through when I realized I was happily munching a giant Christmas sugar cookie while reading it! I finished it–both the cookie and the post 🙂

  3. Bodies get stranger and stranger as you get older – so it’s a good idea to accept yours before it starts doing exactly what it wants and not what you want. I ‘m all for enjoying things like chocolate and rainy sunday afternoons on the couch and instead of yoga I go up and down in the swimming pool twice a week. But nothing stops the body from doing what IT wants as the years go by. Forget all the stuff about being young forever and enjoy being you. xxx Jo Ann

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