Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Things in my Cabinet: Joy in the Body

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!
Okay, quick note thingamajig here. You may have noticed that I use this term "things in my cabinet" sometimes, and you might be wondering - what cabinet? why does it matter that this thing is in the cabinet? and also aren't some of these things a little, um, abstract to be residing within a wooden box stuck to the wall? Well, ladies and germs, this is what we call a metaphor. Or an analogy. or something. (Shut up.) The word "cabinet," when used by me, almost always means "cabinet of curiosity" and not "kitchen cabinet" or "medicine cabinet" or "Platonic ideal of cabinet." Did I just kind of assume that was obvious because COME ON everyone should know I am UTTERLY OBSESSED with cabinets of curiosity? Why yes, I did. (There's this pseudo-cleverdick things that people say about assumptions: "when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me!" but that is stupid, because why should you be dragged into this just because I made an idiotic sweeping statement? Also, the "ass" part is not made of the "u and me" part, it is simply attached to the "u and me" part. All of which is an very pedantic way of saying that my utter lack of clarity is not your fault.) So "things in my cabinet" is a way of saying "things I am curious about/interested in/find meaningful and beautiful." Shorthand, see?

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.


  1. So I have too much response, I think, for my memory, so I'll just do the best I can.

    1st: People didn't get what you meant by the cabinet? I never questioned what you meant...

    It's worse than you think about men and their bodies, because, actually, men are taught to hate their bodies. Well, maybe not hate them, but this is what we are taught:
    Woman are beautiful. They have elegant, soft, sensuous bodies. We should worship women and their bodies. Even women love their bodies (in the way that women, even heterosexual women, find other women attractive).
    Men, though, are ugly. Men have hard, unattractive bodies, and, really, if not for the penis thing, women would rather do without us. If women could figure out a way to have their own penises, they would toss men away, because who needs a man, anyway. (Except for money and power.)

    Also, the whole anti-body thing (haha antibodies) goes back before Christianity. You can blame that one on the Greeks. Christians just adopted it mostly because of things Paul said, but look at his relationship with the Greeks, and that kind of becomes clear.

    For men, though, it's even worse than that, because, for a couple of decades, now, what we've been told as a culture is that to be attractive as a man, you have to not be like a man, hence the rise in metrosexualism. A couple of years ago, I read an article about women's standards for men. It was pretty long, but the two that stuck out to me (because they are applicable to me) were these:
    6 out of 10 women will not date a man with a beard. (sure, you can shave, but...)
    9 out of 10 women will not date a man with hair loss.
    Also, body hair of any sort is unattractive (but I forget the stat for that).
    It boiled down to that to be attractive a man needs to be as much like a woman as he can.
    How does that speak to a man's image of himself?

    And I won't even go into the whole touchy-feely stuff that's also included in all of that.

    1. Thanks for sharing all that, Andrew. One of the reasons I follow Good Men Project is because they're one of the few places I've found consistently honest, thoughtful, intelligent discussion about this stuff. If you're not already reading them, I'd definitely recommend it.

      There are absolutely systemic privileges inherent in being male - especially a white male - in our society, but feeling good about your body doesn't seem to be one of them. I got into a long argument with one of the women I model for - a kind-hearted soul and a wonderful artist - because she said flatly and emphatically that women are empirically more beautiful and visually pleasing than men, and that was that. Nothing I could say would convince her that her viewpoint was a product of culture, not some kind of "truth." She even dragged in biology (men don't "need" to be attractive in evolutionary terms, standards of beauty evolved out of natural selection for good mates, etc) and it just broke my heart - especially because she refuses to believe that she fits into her own ideal of beauty, either. The whole gender spectrum loses when we make women's bodies the only beautiful ones.

  2. The biology aspect is an interesting choice, mostly because, if you look at biology, it's the male of almost every species which is the "attractive" one. The one that needs to look pretty to bring in a mate. This has also been true of human culture up until the past few hundred years. The Greeks and Romans exalted the male body. Most of Middle Eastern culture also (publicly) exalts the male body. European culture also focused on the male in that way until, really, the Renaissance, I guess. It's why women came with a dowry. You had to pay men to take them.

    1. Well, yes and no with the biology. I find the whole argument kind of beside the point, because the evidence can be used any way you want, really, and "well biology says so" has been used to back up everything from racism to homophobia. Isn't it interesting when people conveniently decide they can't raise themselves above their genetic programming? It's no different than "well God says so," except SCIENCE IS ALWAYS RIGHT, DURR.

      I'm going to assume the dowry thing was a joke...? Sometimes the internet makes it hard to tell.

  3. Well, that was kind of my point. You can take the statistics and make them say whatever you want them to say. Saying that women are empirically more beautiful is the same as saying male lions are empirically more beautiful. By what standards? Culturally (mostly Western), right now, women are considered more beautiful. Does that make it empiric? The ideas of beauty are completely subjective, as opposed to the ideas of attractiveness, which are more objective and have objective standards that have been measured and have very little with what we'd call "beauty" other than that "beauty" is layered on top of it. Those things, the things that people are attracted to at the base of everything, are very similar for men and women: symmetrical face, unblemished skin, eyes at the correct distance from each other.

    The dowry thing was kind of a joke, because, in reality, men had to buy the women. Usually, what they paid with was status, though, if they were powerful enough. The whole issue there was that women were viewed as property. My point was, though, that, often, beauty had nothing to do with those transactions.

    1. Right, exactly. I'm interested in this notion of beauty (in, as we all know, the eye of the beholder) vs attractiveness (an objective measurement, defined by research, such as the symmetry thing) - not a division I've heard before, but one that makes sense to me. So basically, there's been this tidy conflation, where what we call beauty in, say, the media has actually mainly come to mean attractiveness, i.e. adherence to a certain standardized norm that nobody actually looks like, while beauty, in the sense of what makes something meaningful, moving, more than just "attractive," has actually been sidelined almost completely. If I'm understanding you right, attractiveness is actually a pretty bland thing - we like it on a gut, responsive level (big hips=good for babies, etc) but actually it doesn't evoke much emotional response in us. Beauty, on the other hand, is the thing that makes our hearts sing and our bodies rejoice, but we don't actually talk about what does that, because the conversation's been essentially hijacked.

      I mean, right? What ads are selling isn't beauty, it's attractiveness. Makeup, sixpack abs, boob jobs, perfume, all that crap - we've learned to think beauty and attractiveness are one and the same, and instead of celebrating the beauty we've been given we go ahead and spend our lives striving for an unattainable and unrealistic level of attractiveness instead.

  4. Oh, and I hate the whole "science" thing and the whole "God" thing, because people always just use those things to "prove" their points whether they're applicable or not.

  5. Yeah, we've been taught to equate the two. Or, more specifically, "if you want to be attractive, you have to be beautiful." In reality, that would probably be better as "if you want to be beautiful, you have to be attractive." The problem there is that they can't sell you anything to make you more attractive. I don't think even cosmetic surgeons can do much about the symmetry of your face and certainly not about how close together your eyes are. So we mask the whole thing, because we don't like to think of anything as immutable. I actually think the real emotional response comes from attractiveness, though. It's something that flows out from the "wow" gut reaction to be attracted to someone.
    I think you can see best illustrated in this:
    If you ask a guy what he's attracted to, he may say something like, "I like blondes, blue eyes, and big boobs." From that perspective, you should be able to march -any- woman that fits that description in front of him and have him say, "Wow!" and have an emotional response. That is not, however, the case. Most of those blondes would pass by without comment from him. At some point, though, there would be one that would fit his interior monologue of what is attractive, and she would be the one that would illicit the "wow!" response. Not because she was blonde/blue-eyed/big boobed (beautiful) but because she was attractive on a subliminal level.
    Take that same woman and dye her hair brown and give her colored contacts, and there's a good chance he'd respond to her the same way once he looked past the brown-ness of her hair.

    1. See, what I meant was that the things we really find beautiful aren't always the ones that are most attractive. (In fact, I'd say that we get a little weirded out when people come too close to the ideal: people with perfect symmetry, perfect skin, vivid coloring, etc - the things scientists have determined as factors in ratings of attractiveness in studies done - tend to look kinda like aliens, because almost nobody actually looks like the composited standard of perfection.) There is a blending, obviously, and it's compounded by the layers of what humanity as a species has come to find attractive (that scientific stuff again) with what you personally find attractive (a study done showed that women are attracted to the scent of men with genetic differences from them, thereby ensuring nicely non-inbred babies, unless they're on hormonal birth control - then it switches!) with what you've been taught about attractiveness and beauty. For example, much as I hate to quote Malcolm Gladwell, he points out in Blink that people's own ideas of what they find attractive - that interior monologue - change to fit their experiences of encountering people they find attractive, who are often not in line with the monologue.
      Here's a fascinating NYT article about this, which you'll note uses "attractiveness" and "beauty" interchangeably. I also found it striking that the very first image they use, which is a side-by-side image of a woman's face put through a "beautification" computer program, had totally the opposite effect on me than the one intended: I found the "after" picture cutesy, although, yes, more conventionally "attractive," while the original picture looks to me like a truly beautiful woman - striking and unique.

  6. Hmm... 1st pic is definitely better. Great eyes and lips.

    Yes, people's inner monologue changes. Specifically, it changes to support things they've done (their actions) even (or especially) when those actions were contrary to their previous inner monologue.

    What I'm really talking about are the things that prompt us to take actions that go against our inner monologue. For instance, I am "attracted" to dark haired, pale skinned women (no vampire thing going on here, though). BUT what I'm really attracted to is intelligence. Back when I was in high school and college and dating, I declined more than a few women, because they just weren't smart enough (not smart enough in that I would have to repeat myself more simplistically so that they could understand what I'd said -- big turn off). So my inner monologue would be saying things like "she's cute!" but the girl would start talking, and my voice would change to "run away!"

    At any rate, the problem with those ideals of attractiveness is that they are only ideals. They don't match anyone in particular, they're just an average of everyone. But each individual has his/her own thing that s/he's looking for, so the generic-ness of those tests don't work themselves out. However, you can see it when you look at a woman like, say, Cindy Crawford, who very closely matched those ideals and was insanely popular. She was also real, not some simulacrum. And I, being me, never thought that much of her. Evidently, my personal standards are different. I think yours probably are, too, which, I'm sure, is part of why I like you. You're individualistic. So you are not a good measure of the culture just like I am not a good measure of the culture.

  7. I really like that John Berger quote. It's so freakin' true. Women are brought up to think they have things wrong with them. Hell, the whole feminine hygiene industry is based on fear--your vajiggles smells weird. (And yes, that's what I call it on the internet)My daughter is about to be 12 and she is going through all the same shit I did at that age, despite having me as a mom telling her that her hair looks fabulous curly and natural. In her mind it must be flat ironed so she can look like the girls at school who probably subscribe to Teen Vogue and watch way too much tv.

    And as far as men wanting to feel desired. Most transvestites are heterosexual males who equate the clothes and the makeup and the shoes with a feeling of desirability or sensuality. I was in a class at SF State when they brought in this whole panel of straight men who liked to dress like women. They liked the attention, even though a lot of it was negative, and I found it interesting that they really liked the feel of the clothes. You know, they're not putting on jeans and a t. They're putting on silks and satin and hosiery, etc..
    I could go on and on, but unlike you Jericha, I'm not that smart:)
    You go girl!

    1. That IS really interesting about the feel of the clothes, specifically. Also, I'm gonna go ahead and call you out on not giving yourself enough credit, there. You write a brilliant, eloquent blog about an incredibly important topic, and I've never read anything you've written that I didn't find funny, thoughtful, inspiring, and insightful. So whoa there on the "not that smart" comments. (I'm only calling you out because this is totally not the first time you've said that on this blog. If I'm making you feel less intelligent, I'm doing it wrong.)

      Furthermore, I am SO GLAD your daughter has you. She might flatiron her hair now - hell, you should see what I did to my eyebrows when I was 13, plus also my father was afraid for my scalp because I pulled back my hair so tightly - but I didn't know shit about empowerment and media messages then, and I think I did okay, and with you around I have no doubt she'll grow up awesome and thoughtful and healthy.

      And vajiggles? STEALING IT.

    2. I'm just old and my brain power isn't what it used to be. You're young and enthusiastic and smart. I'm not saying you make me feel less smart.

      You are totally welcome to the word vajiggles. I laugh every time I say it, as opposed to vagina which just sounds kind of like a disease.

    3. I don't think I could ever bring myself to say that. It makes it sound like jello.

  8. I just wanted to say that I am ALSO obsessed with the cabinet of curiosities. I love the whole idea of it; I delight in it when I see it anywhere. I was so pleased to see your reference to it today.

    1. I'm gonna write a post about 'em and dedicate it to you. Just watch.


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