My discussion with the mothers and daughters brought up some interesting topics. One that stuck with me was prompted by mother Michelle’s admission that since her body went haywire after the birth of her only child (daughter Danielle) she no longer felt like herself. Postpartum her thyroid was off kilter and the baby weight having never ebbed, 16 years later is just, weight. When she looks in the mirror she does not recognize the swollen woman that has replaced her once svelte image. “I feel cheated.” She says. Where she loves her daughter she is angered at what the pregnancy had wrought on her body. I suspect it would be different if she was somehow felt culpable in her transformation by overeating or not taking care of herself but this is not the case. “I don’t eat badly, I teach like six [dance] classes a night, water is my drink of choice” she is not even genetically prone to the body that she now lives in. Like invasion of the body snatchers over night (nine months) she was transformed, she now lives inside a foreign form she does not identify with, and is subjected to the stigma that goes along with being heavier. The extra weight has not only taken her physical form but has altered her personality. “I tell my daughter that she hasn’t really met me yet, this is not me” Once the subject of the photograph her shame has pushed her behind the lens, as photographer not wanting to seen, or create evidence that this is indeed now who she is. But is it? Are we our Bodies?
Sitting there as her truth surged out we all got it; her pain and frustration were palpable.
It was real, her insides did not match her outsides and it was Mother Nature who cursed her (damn that Eve!). She spoke of not wanting her daughter to be plagued by such issues of the body and the honesty with which she shared with her. “I’m not going to lie, I don’t like this.” She said referring to her body. As a group sitting around her, we were at once taken aback by her honest outpouring and frightened at how on levels we could empathize with her. We were all at one time chided or teased for being too much or not enough, we as women (or girls) had all at some point been the recipient of attention or affection unwanted, unsolicited or inappropriate, we had all at some point been ashamed, confused or at odds with our bodies. We had all for good or bad had been made to feel that it was our bodies made us who were.
Whether is it having your body transformed through pregnancy, puberty, or just never having your insides and outsides ever match (extreme cases would be the trans-gendered) it is ubiquitously common. Are we our bodies? Perhaps the simplicity of the question belies the depth of what is truly being queried. Within the subtext lies the reality that people are indeed sized up, categorized and judged by their appearance, beauty is a commodity as are class markers such as speech, etiquette and dress. One’s appearance can open or close doors and create or shut down opportunities. We continuously judge books by their covers, often never bothering to crack the spine, we are a socially illiterate society as hence why we have become obsessed with the appearance of our physical selves often putting more value on the external then other aspects of our beings. We often neglect our internal health (mental, psychological, spiritual), the very things our flesh is charged with housing. There are those who feverishly workout at gyms and yoga studios, diet incessantly, spend thousands on fashionable wrappings and cosmetics all in an concerted effort to look a certain way, which will make them “feel” a certain way and have others “feel’ a certain way about them, to accept them. Where they may be the most fantastic looking, delicious smelling creatures, once you open the book of the person you might find that they do not like themselves. Due to internal neglect, they may have become beautiful yet abominable human beings, insipid, disconnected, selfish, or just plain clueless individuals lacking compassion, and empathy. It sounds harsh, but whom reading this has not had the experience of this sort of discovery? In the media we see despicable but beautiful people lauded and made rich and famous. Horrible is the new black; to be villainous is sexy and cool so long as you are pretty. Reality television has taken this to another level as it thrives on vapid, callow, morally bankrupt people who are easy on the eyes. Why worry about the inside when the outside is what people care about, pay for and even fall in love with?
Who we are is a complicated equation consisting of numerous elements: our bodies, minds, thoughts, feelings, words, deeds, beliefs and more. That having been said the perception the world has of us often does not include what is invisible to the eye. We want to believe that we would never be so superficial as to reduce a person to the numbers on a scale, the clothes they wear, the car they drive, or the place they live. Like I said we would like to believe that, but we all know better don’t we? We as a society (Americans) or race (humans) all want to believe ourselves to be better than we are.
The reality is no, in truth we are not solely our bodies, deep, deep in our hearts we know that, however we are in desperate need of a shovel. It is complex equation and based on various levels of perception all of which (depending on where you’re standing) are true. There is the way we see ourselves (inside and out), the way we are perceived by others who don’t know really us (their observations, and slight interactions with us) then there are the perspectives of people who really know us. The third I like to think is something closer to the configuration of “Who we are”. Their intimate knowledge often shades and colors their opinions of us. Once known, our qualities often begin to act as a concealer for what could be viewed as physical “flaws”. Things that might have stood out gradually recede to the background, acne, potbellies, a limp, bad posture, and bad teeth; once we get to know someone we hardly notice such things. People become to us how they treat us, how they make us feel, they become their deeds and actions.
With the commercialization of the body and the marketing of lifestyles it’s increasingly hard to find a quiet place to center oneself and in an effort to remember whom you are, as oppose to who they say you should be. Like the continuous propaganda broadcast of Orwell’s 1984, it gets in your head. We all have begun to feel the effects of the consumer Kool-Aid, believing at we indeed are our bodies that it’s shape and form defines who we are. We have begun to believe that we are inherently broken or damaged and that a product we buy can make us better, whole, beautiful, lovable from the outside in, and it does feel that way, that is until something happens to it.
The adage “You never miss a god thing until it’s gone” has enjoyed staying power mainly because it is a truism and where the body is concerned can be illustrated in numerous ways: aging, injury, illness. Personally I have always struggled with coming to terms with my shape and form for many reasons. The most pervasive would have to be my affinity and talent for classical dance. I as a tall, muscular, black woman I fit nowhere into the paradigm of the form. The one thing I did have was facility. I was turned out and flexible. As the years pass and my body has accrued frequent flyer miles in the studio and on stage my facility has waned. If in my youth I never knew what tight was, I know it now. Move it or lose it is my reality, as I get older if I don’t continue move, I won’t be able to. I took my body for granted so much that I never thought there was anything to take for granted. Likewise I have watched friends who had always been pencil thin hit menopause and plump up all over. Some never thought they were thin enough, and some ate everything and never thought about a thing they put in their mouths or the nutrition content. Things change. I have seen young dancers full of desire and passion for their futures get diagnosed with conditions that make professional careers impossible- they rue the classes they cut to hang out with friends. Our bodies are temporary; they are biodegradable and will break down. As a friend said to me as my father lie sick and dying- “Well, if you keep something for 60 years something bound to go wrong” she had a point.
Over the past 3 years I have had the displeasure of watching the bodies of people I love deeply betray them with illness. I have watched the fear, the incredulity and the heartbreak of such betrayal. Some have been people who have played Russian roulette with their health, smoking, drinking, drugging fully aware of the consequences but hedging their bets until… There were those who have always been physically conscious and conscientious, eating well, exercising, and doing all the “Right things”, and others still who just lived their lives until one day something wasn’t quite right. I have stood close but not too near, as decisions have been made between the lesser of two evils in regards to treatments. I have witnessed the truth in the 7 stages of grief when impending death is all too near. Though my relationships with these people were varied in their levels of intimacy, I can say that the thing that stands out relative to the topic at hand is that none of them were all too much worried about how they “looked” anymore. In some cases after the reality that with certain treatments their hair would be lost (along with their taste buds and appetite) some embraced the possibilities of wigs, headscarves or hats making it a new fashion statement others simply bided their time hoping the would see they day that it would grow back, probably grey and of a different texture. Whatever their issues with their bodies were they are completely sublimated from dissatisfaction to compassion and appreciation for their bodies pre-illness. It’s as though the diagnosis eradicated or minimized their previous malcontent reducing it to petty and vapid and unimportant. This is not to say that their body issues, or vanities dissipated they were merely placed in perspective. What difference does it make if you are thin or beautiful if you are ill and in pain? Battling Cancer is quite different from catching the stomach flu and losing that five pounds that brings you to your goal weight. When treatment begins and weight falls off, and they are human shrink dinks fighting to keep a pound or too on, it seems silly to think that just months before they were on an elliptical machine like a addict on a pipe. The irony of life never ceases to bemuse.
As I write, I have that feeling you get when consoling a small child who is forlorn because of some injustice in their new lives and you wipe their tears and try to assure them that is gets better, that children won’t always be mean, that the smarting sting of sharp words will fade, that they are beautiful inside and out and once people see that they will appreciate it and that everything will be alright. Where your soliloquy begins as an effort to comfort the child you find that as you speak, a weight forms in the your chest because you know you can not make those promises. More to the point you know that where it should be true, it is not. Though you might not be telling a lie you are not telling the whole truth either. You being wrap the child tighter and tight with the hope that by the time they are your age all these things will be true, and that these are the last tears of this kind that they will have to shed, but you know that they are not. I write the words, “We are not our bodies” while accepting the hard truth that yes we are still judged and judge others in this regard. Perhaps it is part of the journey of the human spirit, the path we must take in order to understand what is truly important and of value. Perhaps we must work through- work out the issues with our bodies in order to get to the truth of ourselves. What makes a person who they are has yet to be defined and is certainly not limited to bone, muscle, organs or fat. We are much more than just our bodies. The essence of a person’s being has yet to be defined it is powerful, inexplicable. The truth lies in the enigma of the human spirit, which is intangible; it is a wonder that can neither be held with hands, nor shrouded in designer clothes. It cannot be contained it can only be experienced; the only thing that we can do, is to look for it, seek it out in others and ourselves by working on accepting, appreciating and honoring the beauty that stands before us in every and any form.