The Fact of Our Bodies
I originally wrote this essay months ago. I’ve put off editing and publishing it since. Honestly, I still don’t feel ready, but I’m afraid that if I don’t write it now I might lose it. And I’ve recently been reminded how our Thanksgiving holiday brings issues of guilt and shame to the surface.
So I’m going to give this my best attempt. It’s also much longer than most of my entries. I think it all matters. I think it’s all part of a big, complex system that’s worth examining in its many parts. And I’m sorry I can’t do a better job of finding the most perfect and precise ways to communicate the vital messages. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. But if you give it the fifteen minutes it will take you to read, my hope is you’ll find these ideas to be as significant as I have. So … on to the question.
How do we come to terms with the fact of our bodies? Not facts about our bodies, but the fact of the body itself—that we not only have but are a body, that we exist as creatures of flesh and blood and bone and sense and skin. The body is simultaneously our prison and our vehicle to explore the universe, and each belief we have about that body shapes every moment of our lives.
The body is not an easy fact to accept.
The Disgust I’ve Learned
This essay started on the bus. One of the reasons I enjoy taking the bus is that it provides so many opportunities for people watching. Normally it’s a pleasant, non-judging process of observation. Then a few months ago I saw a guy: Overweight, red-headed. At first I didn’t notice him much at all. Then something in my brain shifted and I realized he looked a lot like what I must look like from the outside. And suddenly I felt disgusted with this person.
It wasn’t his weight, his build, his hair, his movement. It was that he was too similar to myself. Too similar to the things I was ashamed of in my own body.
It took a few seconds for my brain to process this shift in perception—from neutral to disgusted based only on association with my own appearance. And then thoughts tumbled down in an avalanche.
I realized that I was unconsciously communicating my disgust to this stranger. I was telling him he was not good enough purely because he was too similar to what I disliked in myself. And where did that sense of feeling so ashamed of my own body come from? The cultural stigmas against looking a certain way—being too plump, not tall enough, too much or too little of anything. Others before me were taught to feel ashamed, to loathe their bodies, and their shame was passed on to me because my body acted as a symbol for the ways they were disgusted with themselves.
You gave me your disgust, I realized. On the bus that day, I felt angry. My culture had taught me to be ashamed of my body because my culture, too, was ashamed. But this wasn’t about what my body was—wasn’t about how my body could behave, how it could attract, how it could be beautiful. It was about the ways everyone else needed to run away from their own sense of unworthiness. And in running, they gave that disgust to me.
And then … I started giving it to everyone else.
The Telling of Beauty: “Hollywood Average”
There are many ways we create concepts of beauty in the world. I recall a time in my life—not so long ago—when I was physically fit enough that a six-pack was starting to show. It only showed up when I flexed and the lighting was good, but I was getting there. I’d lost 125 pounds—went from a XXL shirt to a medium, from a 52″ waist to a 36″.
People asked me how I got so skinny. I quickly rejected that description, saying I still had a lot of weight to lose. I still felt I was fat—fatter than the average person, less fit. But, having studied my actual fitness, my actual body, and knowing what the average was, I knew that my feelings were not about the facts. I had a healthier body-fat percentage than the average American, spent hours each day being active. So why was the feeling that I was below average so persistent? I figured it out when watching Dexter.
Every person on that show—even the “fat” ones—were fit. And that made sense: Each actor is paid to be on screen as millions of voyeuristic viewers get familiar with that actor’s body. For them, being fit is part of the job description. And the ones we see are only the ones that make it through all the ruthless Hollywood screening processes.
But these TV bodies were also some of the only ones that I was strongly familiar with. It’s not that I didn’t see people in the real world, but TV bodies were stripped more bare, made more present, and acknowledged more fully than the bodies of those around me. While “average” bodies are taught to hide, Hollywood bodies are literally broadcast to the world.
I wasn’t comparing myself to “American average.” I was comparing myself to “Hollywood average,” and there was no way I could measure up.
“Hollywood average” sells us the bodies of actors, pitching it as the real version of beauty and desirability. Each rendition also reinforces our beauty standard. Meanwhile, average people are trapped between a microwave and a beauty magazine: A modern Scylla and Charybdis. Still, it’s by no means the only way we create these values. The messages are persistent, and some are more insidious than others.
The Telling of Beauty: Inheritance
Our value system isn’t created solely by mass media or capitalist interests, prevalent though these factors may be. Despite an increasing disconnect in family relationships—where even when children are with family they are being raised by television—the importance of intimacy in creating values shouldn’t be ignored.
Our children may be influenced by everything in the world around them, and they may relate to peers who have bought into those cultural standards of beauty, but they are related to us. Their intimate connection with us and their identification as part of this particular family means the values we give them are far heavier, word for word, than messages they hear elsewhere.
But that doesn’t simply apply to the things we intend to say. Most of our values are communicated more subtly and unconsciously. And it’s not primarily about what we tell our children about themselves. They do not model themselves after how we imagine and describe them: They model themselves after us.
A mother goes on another diet, ashamed of her own weight. A father talks about muscle mass in ways that make it clear he is not as tough as a “real man.” “I’m getting so fat,” “God, I’m such a slob,” and so many non-verbal messages: The way we look at ourselves in the mirror, how willing or unwilling we are to love and use our own bodies, how we treat ourselves day in and day out. To your children, it’s not just about you: It’s about what it means to be a human, what “good enough” is, how beauty itself is defined.
Our shame is passed down, an heirloom wound. If you want your children to love their bodies, you must love your own—fully and loudly enough to drown out the roaring messages that stand to profit from telling your children that they are not good enough.
Definitions of Lack
I had lost 125 pounds, but I looked in the mirror and still saw a fat man. My progress didn’t mean much, because the shame that motivated my attempts to master my body was still there. It was not about what my body was or what it could do: It was about what my body wasn’t. It was about ways in which my body was not measuring up to “Hollywood average.”
I could finally do two pull-ups, but I couldn’t do ten. I had a 36″ waist, but not the 32″ waist I imagined as ideal. Thirty push-ups wasn’t nearly as many as others could do. It was easy to forget that these accomplishments, these capabilities, were once defined as “good enough.” I once believed that, once I got there, it would be enough. I would be enough. But the horizon kept moving as I walked toward it. And eventually … I exhausted. I didn’t feel happy and worthy in ways I thought I would. All the effort put into self-mastery—all the restriction and time and money invested—had not made me feel worthy.
So I stopped trying. There was too much else to do: Maybe if I got out of debt I would feel good enough. I got out and, no, I didn’t feel good enough. Maybe if I left the country I would be able to outrun my shame. But no, I couldn’t. Since that time, I’ve slowly re-gained weight, and am currently 60 pounds heavier than I was then. In fact, here’s how my weight has looked over the last decade:
I talked to my cousin and his wife (two of the most generous and kind people I know) about how my weight tends to go in cycles, losing weight until I break down—feeling that my efforts aren’t making me any happier—and then gaining weight until my self-loathing becomes so extreme that I make radical, unsustainable lifestyle changes.
My cousin and his wife are two of the most healthy, fit, and beautiful people I know. A comment I made at their wedding was that this marriage was clearly the right choice—if only to have a photogenically perfect match somewhere in the world. These are not people who, to my knowledge, have dealt with weight problems. They asked me if it was true that I really felt no happier when I was thinner.
The honest answer is I’m not sure. I can only ever see my life from the present tense. I know that there are moments now and were moments then when I’ve felt happy and unashamed. But there’s also a peculiar advantage to being overweight: I have something to blame my shame on. I am clearly, by technical definitions and national averages, obese. I can blame that fact for my unhappiness and self-disgust.
But that self-disgust was there at my thinnest and healthiest because it’s not about averages. It’s not about what I am. It’s about what I’m not.
To skew a line from Seneca: “Never worry about the things you know. The things you do not know will always be far greater.” Which is true, and in Seneca’s comment it’s a humorous way to tell people to drop their ego. But the same applies to every definition of lack. You can only be a finite number of things, but the things we are not have no limits. It doesn’t matter if you’re Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johanson—if you are defining yourself by lack, the ways in which you fall short will always be far greater than the things you are. Even celebrities could be taller, more fit, more muscular, displacing their concept of the “good enough” and seeing only the ways they aren’t the precise ideal.
That precise ideal doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of our collective imagination. And as long as we’re comparing ourselves to that or any imagined “perfect,” we will never be good enough.
The Locked Room
Here’s the worst contradiction of them all: As long as we’re defining ourselves by lack, we will be ashamed. As long as we’re ashamed, we won’t use our bodies.
It’s tricky to say how mind, body, and spirit are separated or the same—where in this complex machine the ghost resides—but we can agree that there are some behaviors that make us more conscious of certain parts of our being.
Some activities allow us to remain largely unconscious. If I read a story or watch a television show, I am using my mind but am not actively participating: I am conscious of being a human and being part of what the stories show me, but I am not consciously present. Other activities make us more, but selectively, conscious: If I focus on analytical dissection or face mental puzzles, I become conscious of the fact of my mind. If I move, exercise, and touch, I become conscious of the fact of my body.
Let me be sure I’m entirely clear: I am ashamed of the fact of my body. I do not want to acknowledge it. I try to hide it away, bury, dismiss, ignore. Yet I cannot prevent my body from being real or being me, and all my attempts at “mastery” were deluded. I cannot tame that which I am: I can only approach it or not, only use it or not, and my body will continue to be itself—aging, growing, decaying, reacting, and living according to rules that I cannot change.
But because I feel ashamed, I put my body in the narrow confines of a shadowy room and lock the door. This is often a literal truth: From the space of my bedroom I pursue my academic work, I play video games, I watch television shows, I chat with friends, but I do not move. To do so would make me dangerously conscious of my physical reality. Even eating consciously, uniting myself with my appetite, becomes an act of shame—while binging on food that is more about taste than about nourishment serves as a way to evade my physical self. Any way I can love my physical being forces me to recognize the fact of my body.
And here’s the part that makes me really angry: It’s not that I don’t like moving. I love moving. I love dancing and swimming and cycling and playing. Only I don’t do these things. I don’t swim because I feel people will stare at my fat. I don’t hike because I can’t keep up with people and I feeling disgusted by how slow I am. I don’t dance because I feel people will judge me. I don’t do any of these things, because doing so makes my body impossible to ignore.
Yet movement is joyous for me. I watch parkour videos and feel … I want to do that, not because it’s impressive but because it looks wildly fun. Movement makes me feel alive. Part of this process, part of thinking about shame, has been about this question of parkour. Because I actually want to do it, and the reason I don’t is I feel it’s impossible. Factually speaking, it’s not. It’s distant, will require a lot of work, will require practice, but everyone who can do this impressive parkour now couldn’t do it at one point.
What’s standing in the way isn’t my body: What’s standing in the way is my shame.
The Real Enemy
Shame is a paralytic, prompting people to lock themselves in the portions of their life that allow them to avoid looking at the shame. But even the shame itself is hidden away, too painful to look at, too big to swallow. We have seen scientific studies that show fat-shaming makes people less likely to lose weight, we know that people who are focused on losing weight are less likely to accomplish that goal.
I am trying so hard right now to shine a spotlight on it, to say, “The enemy is not and never has been my body. My body is not ugly or wrong or bad. The enemy is my shame, and that shame is ugly.”
It’s not easy, but as I break down that shame, reject it, refuse it, I come to see myself for all the things I am. I allow myself to love movement again, to love the way my body aches, to live in that moment where the body becomes heat and movement as blood rushes and my heart’s strong beats shout to the universe that I—in this moment, in this movement, in this place—am alive.
All Bodies Are Beautiful
As we stop defining ourselves by all the things we are not, the picture changes dramatically. I don’t care who you are: Your body is amazing. You can’t do a single push-up? Why the hell is your body’s worth being defined by push-ups!? You can take energy from the air and feed it through your system, can pump blood through your body, experience sight and sound and taste and touch. Your body is a conduit for pleasure and pain, for sensation of every kind.
Even if all you can do is walk a few blocks before you get tired, your body allows you to experience a broader world. It allows you to get in touch with amazing beauty, an enriched life, awe-inspiring nature, and countless opportunities. The ability to explore is there—and the only reason your body can’t do more of it is because you haven’t been using that ability.
Your body is an efficient machine, and our capabilities are determined almost entirely by what we do. If we spend our time moving, our bodies get better at moving. But if we don’t use those capabilities, the body will stop maintaining them.
Your body is not sabotaging you: Your body is doing exactly what’s best for the life you lead.
Your thighs are too big? Your shoulders too slim? Breasts too small? According to what standard? Who are you letting define what “good bodies” look like? Who have you given that right? Who has given you their shame?
Your body is beautiful. I don’t care if you’re 3,000 pounds or have a face dripping down like candlewax due to a rare genetic mutation. There are no people exempt from this rule. There is only one standard I will hold up when it comes to this question: Your body is beautiful. There are no exceptions.
When we define ourselves by what we are instead of what we are not, every human body is miraculous. Beautiful. Spectacular.
No, life isn’t just about the body, just like it isn’t just about the mind. But whatever else we are, right here and now, we are also the body we dwell in. A joyous life must be the sum of its parts—a recognition of beauty and capability in all the parts of who we are.
Embracing the Fact of My Body
The fact of your body cannot be negotiated, cannot be edited out, cannot be revised. The fact of your body can only be embraced.
Don’t make a mistake here in thinking that I’m some guru who has it all figured out. I don’t. Not by a long shot. I’ve struggled for months just to have the courage to post this entry. I am ashamed of my body, and I am ashamed of my shame, and it’s not easy getting through that.
And there we find the great irony. Because the more we try to hide our shame, the more that shame controls us. Fear of what our bodies symbolize in this broken world diminishes how much we can connect with, appreciate, and be kind to our bodies.
And as we embrace the fact of our bodies, we will be far happier. We will be able to sustain the changes we make because they are not born from a war with ourselves but from a long-lasting love affair with our physical being. The use of our bodies—even life itself—is labor, but it doesn’t need to be painful work. It can be a labor of love. It can be an act of celebration. And by loving our bodies—not in spite of their weight or form or fitness but including those things—we become more capable of tending to the body’s needs, of nourishing it instead of fearing what we’re feeding it, and of using the body instead of merely “working out.”
Why do we think of it as “work”? Hasn’t it always been play? Why is it so easy to forget that?
Movement, yoga, hiking, sports, eating consciously, all of it: These are ways to acknowledge the fact of your body. If they are to be transformative and positive and truly healthy, they must be acts of love.
The War We’re Waging
It would be awesome if I could just say this to myself and embrace the ideas fully and no longer feel that shame. But the shame is there still. Months later, and the shame is still a major part of how I see myself in this world. The best I can do is shine a spotlight on that shame as often as I can, as fully as I can, and break it apart. It is a creature of shadow, far bigger and more powerful when we leave it in the dark.
It’s a challenging process to keep fighting that shame, because shame is painful. Looking at it is painful. But it’s the only way to handle it. Like Florence + The Machine says in one of my favorite songs, “The only solution was to stand and fight.”
I don’t know if I’ve managed to capture what these realizations mean to me. I’ve tried hard and I’m sure not everything I’ve said is important. What I know is that these realizations feel like a breakthrough for me. And they feel so important. If you feel the same—if you feel that this message needs to be heard—I want you to do me a favor. Go share this essay. I don’t care how. I don’t care if you pretend you wrote it. I don’t care if you give credit to me or this website. Print it out and share it with your family. Share it on your Facebook page. Post these pages at your gym. Figure out ways to tell your children that you are beautiful.
I want this message to be everywhere, because no one told me that the shame was given to me. No one told me it was okay to love my body just how it was. They told me I could lose weight or work out or count calories. They taught me that my shame was true and right, and that what I needed to do was change myself instead of trying to change the world.
Well, the world is broken. It needs to be changed. We are so much better than what we’ve let ourselves become. And it’s easy to forget that we’re the ones making this world—perpetuating every lie, re-telling every damaging story.
For me, the series of realizations that led to this essay formed a hope—not yet ingrained, not fully actualized, never completely invulnerable—that my body and all the parts of life it connects with do not have to be terrifying and painful things. They can be wonderful and beautiful and wanted. The belief these realizations leads to is a battering ram breaking down the doors of the locked room I’ve been confining myself in.
On the other side I can see a healthy life—one where I move joyously, explore the world without feel disgusted with myself, eat without feeling ashamed, dance without caring who is watching. I hold onto the hope that says this sort of life is more than worthwhile: It’s possible, and it’s waiting to be lived if only I’m willing to face down my shame and embrace the fact of my body.