|Here is a REALLY AWESOME painting of a cabinet of |
curiosity. It is especially curious because I haven't the
faintest idea who painted it, when it's from, or any other
identifying details whatsoever. Secrets of A Jewish Baker,
where I found it, neglected to provide citations. Damn!
So, now that you know, let me say right away that joy in the body is a very big thing in my cabinet indeed. I think about it a lot, because I am a bellydance teacher and part of my job there, as I see it, is teaching/helping/encouraging my students to find joy in their bodies, but I've also been thinking more and more about the men I know, and the way that no one gets off lightly in the fight to feel happy and at home in their own skin.
Last week I was reading this incredibly moving post on the Good Men Project, and it was kind of a final linkup in a chain of thoughts that's been developing over the last year or so. The post is about male anorexia, and the stories and the photos are haunting. Numbers in the essay suggest that between 1 in 10 and 1 in 4 people suffering from anorexia or bulimia are male, and that's just reported cases. It is very likely that these numbers are underreported and the incidence is higher. Why? Because there is a shame and a stigma attached to being a man with an eating disorder. There's a stigma attached to having an eating disorder, period. Thankfully, however, there does exist an extensive support network and open conversation for young women related to body image and disordered eating. At the time of this writing, however, very few eating disorder centers in the world treat boys.
Also, I'm sorry, but I'm not putting pictures in this post. Because I don't want to put anything triggering, or some horrifying image of someone struggling with an eating disorder just so I've got something, and I also don't want to put cutesy hopeful cheery crap, because that would be dumb, and also because sometimes talking about joy involves being very serious and not full of pretty things.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association website, over ten million women and one million men are battling eating disorders. Despite the fact that eating disorders have been on the rise for the last two decades, it says, research continues to be under-funded and insurance coverage is often inadequate. Of course, side by side with this, we have an obesity epidemic. We as a culture have a seriously fucked up relationship with our bodies. And this, unfortunately, makes a lot of sense if you look at the roots of said culture: the people who showed up and turned this country from a mostly empty land of native folks going about their business into AMERICA all had church roots. You know what the Church, as an institution, really hates a lot? The body. Here's the thing about the body. If you enjoy being in it, and you find joy and delight in the experience of it, heaven seems, well, less compelling, because life here on earth is actually pretty okay. Also, you notice when people take away the things that give you joy and pleasure. Like, you know, freedom, or clean fresh food. If, however, you've been trained to fear, distrust, and be ashamed of your body, you just can't wait to get the heck out of it and go to heaven! And to get to heaven, you've got to listen to the church.
Yes, I realize that this is a gross exaggeration and oversimplification of the factors that have led us to where we are. I've skipped completely over the New Church - capitalism! So here's a quick overview of that. See, as John Berger puts it so fucking brilliantly in Ways of Seeing, in order to sell us things, we can't be happy with what we have. So, advertising. Which - and really, this quote blows my mind into itty bitty shreds every time read it - "steals the woman's love of herself as she is, and sells it back to her for the price of the product."
Read that again.
Yup. That's what advertising does. Only. It's not just ladies. See, here's the thing: of course men and women are under very different societal pressures. But it's not as simple as evil patriarchy objectifies women, teaches them to see themselves as sex objects, reaps benefit, mwahahaha. Because while women are acculturated to be utterly obsessed with their appearance, and most especially with the 'flaws' therein, men are acculturated to do one of two things: ignore their body completely unless they're doin' it, or else look like David Beckham. That's not good either. Most of the good, kind, thoughtful men I know have pretty awful relationships with their bodies, in a very different way than women do: they feel like it's not supposed to matter how they look as long as they're powerful and successful, because then women will come flocking no matter what they look like, except they aren't powerful and successful and probably won't ever be, because they're artists and writers and bike builders, not investment bankers, and also? They would really like to feel like they're physically attractive to women, but all they know in that regard is that they're supposed to have a bunch of muscles. Men aren't told they're ugly if they don't match the physical ideal in the same way women are, I'm pretty sure; it's more, well, that if they're not super buff then their body just kind of fades into irrelevance, and they're supposed to be attractive for other things, like their sense of humor or whatever. Oh yeah, also? Most of the guys I know feel like there is absolutely no one they can talk to about this, and some of them don't have a vocabulary for how they feel at all. Because while we ladies suffer pretty harshly, we've figured out that we're under a lot of ugly pressure, and there are a lot of resources to help us fight back and change the conversation. We can talk about it. We have a language. For dudes? Radio silence.
Some people might read this and say something like, I don't know, well serves them right, or it's just not that big a deal compared to what we non-straight-white-dudes are going through, or whatever. To which I tend to respond, Yeah? well, every time you make a value judgment about the comparative worth of someone's suffering, Buddha kills a kitten.
Yes, I know I've been making what sound like sweeping generalizations. I am actually and honestly basing what I'm saying on years of long conversations with people I have known, because I've concerned myself with the way people perceive their own bodies for almost half of my (admittedly not especially long) life. Now, I'm pretty sure that there are a whole lot of men out there who just don't think about their bodies. I would say that's probably the norm, actually. (Now is a good time to note that I welcome & encourage discussion and evidence to the contrary, here and everywhere else in this post.) And in many ways, yes, that is absolutely better than feeling shame or self-hatred when it comes to how you look - but it is also a spectacularly sad thing. Because the body is this wonderful and glorious thing that we've been taught to see as a shell, a weight, a bag of blood, a burden, gross, dirty, shameful, sinful...or irrelevant. Anger and shame about the body and indifference to the body are both ways that we as humans miss out: listen, as the amazing Donna Mejia says, Your body is your life partner. It is the only partner who you know will be with you til you die. It is not an indentured servant, it is not a slave, it is not something to use. It is an intelligent life companion to treat with honor and attentiveness.
Your body is what brings you every sensation you have ever felt. Love, delight, joy, even grief - you feel them because your body brought you the experiences that led to the feelings. The smell of lemons, the color of light, a kiss, a life-changing conversation, the feel of a snowball leaving your hand, the heat of a desert, everything you've ever done that was fun, or beautiful, or meaningful: these are the gifts of the body to the mind and to the soul. It's a double-edged sword to be sure; the body also brings you the experience of physical suffering, right? It can be broken, violated, numbed, sick, tortured, left in darkness, you name it. But you don't refuse to be friends with someone in case they get hurt and you have to feel sad or frightened or in pain for their suffering. You have friends for the wonderful things they bring to you. Well, your body? Is the closest friend you will ever have.
But in all likelihood, nobody knew, or bothered, to teach you this.
See, it's not just the young men with eating disorders that make me want to jump up and say JOY IN THE BODY IS FOR EVERYONE GODDAMIT. It's just - we come from a long lineage of people who despised the body and prized the mind and/or soul, notwithstanding the fact that we'd have nothing whatsoever to think about or feel without a body to bring us imagery and experience. And yes, men have historically wielded power over non-male bodies, and done some seriously fucked up things with said power. It still happens. But listen, men aren't taught to love their bodies any more than women are. They're not taught to hate them, but see, you can fight the pressure to hate and shame and destroy. It's a lot harder to fight for the right to care about something you're not supposed to care about - and men are not supposed to care about their bodies, except, again, the muscle mags, and that leads with frightening tidiness to male anorexia (watch the video in the GMP article if you didn't already!)
I believe with some vehemence (surprise, surprise) that one of the reasons it's so difficult for so many men to even begin to wrap their heads around the struggles faced by women is because, as men, they hardly even know that they have bodies, let alone what it means to have the rights to use their bodies as they wish taken away from them. You can argue with me (please! I'd love to hear what you have to say!) but it seems to me that men are mostly taught to be heads and penises and not much else. And nobody wins that one. It's not like half the population is happy and satisfied with their bodies and is busy keeping the other half from feeling that way. It's that almost nobody really has a good sense of what a healthy, joyful relationship with our physical manifestations looks like, and so we pretty much go around perpetuating the awful shit that we get taught by whoever talks the loudest - your church, your mother, your father, your boss, the media.
And part of that is the fact that men aren't taught that their bodies should be a source of erotic desire; they're the desirers, women the desirees. That's not because men are inherently objectifying assholes. It's because nobody ever said to them that any part of their body other than their penis mattered. I don't think any sort of horrid vengeful thing like men should be objectified so then they can see how it feels, ha! No no. I just think that a conscious and loving relationship with the body should be a thing that every gender gets to have. I know a number of men who have said to me, wistfully, that they would like to feel beautiful and don't know how, or will never get to, and almost all of them have said it to me as a confession of a great secret. More and more men, I think, want to feel that their bodies are worth desiring. It's a part of them that is very often left out of equations of love - and while I, as a woman, certainly know what it's like to have that part of me valued too much in the equation, I also can't imagine what it would be like to feel like my partner just didn't really pay much attention to my body at all - because there are beautiful, positive, and healthy ways to have your body loved and valued and desired, and it is a source of great joy.
There's that famous Thomas Merton quote that I have always hated: "Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed... I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other."
See, it's usually just the last bit that's quoted. It's the first bit that expresses perfectly the problem: "secret beauty" of a person with no "sin nor desire nor self-knowledge." So, a person with no body. This is how we think too often: let others just see who I am in my heart. No! No! Please! The body is also just fine in God's eyes, thanks, or else you might want to get a new God, because what kind of asshole would give everyone on the planet something to hang onto for life that they're supposed to hate? So this post has gotten a little out of hand (again, surprise, surprise) and I have to leave out all the stuff about ways to to learn to love your body for another time (I PROMISE I will get to it, though.) Instead, I will leave you with how I want this quote to run - call it a fucking manifesto, if you want. It basically is.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the honest beauty of their whole being, the depths of them full of wonder and desire and self-knowledge, the core of their reality, the person that each one is at their most joyful. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed... I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.