“It’s just a body”.
It’s a phrase I hear from time to time, either as explanation for someone’s comfort level with their own body or as an attempt to reduce or dismiss an anxiety over a body related issue. As a person who has worked in the dance and theater worlds for several decades, wherein the body and its physicality play such a large role, I might end up hearing it a bit more often than most. Both because such a physically involved world tends to attract those already possessed of such a comfort and because constantly needing to address and deal with issues of physicality likely develops a more commonly felt sense of such comfort. Chicken, egg, chicken, egg…
One might assume such a comfort would be the sole prerogative of those with admirable physiques, the sort presumably free from any insecurities. While this kind of comfort might be a little more common among the admirably shaped not only is there plenty of evidence beauty is no guarantee against insecurity but truly achieving this kind of comfort is much more about accepting our bodies for the varied and human things they are and less about striving to be proud of a presented image. Plenty of non-underwear-model types are able to find complete, fulfilling, and genuine comfort with the bodies this life has given them.
We all want to feel comfortable and at home in our own skins. All societies have their particular preferences and standards of beauty but our North American culture certainly buries the needle on taboos, hang-ups, and overly idealized pressures and expectations. Where we should be slim, where we should be muscled, the ideal body fat percentage, the absence of any visible signs of aging, where there should be hair, where there shouldn’t… The list is almost infinite and it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of allowing it to become a check list which must be completed before we can like or even feel comfortable with our bodies dooming us to an unfinishable quest chasing measurements for victory which are arbitrary, fickle, and external.
Healthy sculpted physiques are certainly appealing to look at. We are wired at a base primal level to be drawn towards prospective mates with greater apparent potential for survival and reproductive capabilities. Cultural beauty standards, however, vary greatly from place to place and from time to time. The artwork of the Renaissance idealized more plump and almost mildly obese figures for both men and women as it symbolized a life of affluence and status rather than one of brute labor.
“I say the most liberating thing about beauty is realizing you are the beholder.”
The simple truth is it’s a body, we all have one. They come in all different shapes and sizes and capacities and while ideally we don’t want get ourselves all tied up in knots about them there is also nothing ‘just’ about them. Individual parts looked at too closely can be a bit off-putting or even ridiculous looking but taken as a whole the body can be a wondrous and beautiful thing, examined at the microscopic level a rather miraculous wonder of bio-mechanical evolution.
And it is the only one we get. Respecting, even admiring, the human body does not require elevating it to some sort of sacred symbol but neither does relaxing about it require stripping it of all meaning. The key, as with so many things in life, is in finding the balance.
Finding a casual comfort with the human body, our own or other people’s, is not a matter of dismissing or devaluing it. It’s a matter of acknowledging, accepting, and embracing all the differences and imperfections rather than trying to deny or eradicate them. We need to resist the constant pressures of idealized imagery setting an unreachable bar of what a body is supposed to look like.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to take good care of our bodies or to put forward an appealing image but rock hard abs and a shapely butt are not the only metrics of value. There is a near infinite variety of heights, shapes, metabolisms, feature configurations, pigmentations, and other characteristics but when you get right down to it they all eat, sleep, poop, and put their comfy sweat pants on one leg at a time. Even the underwear models.
We all have bodies, bumps and blemishes and stretch marks and all. So having one doesn’t make us special but that doesn’t mean our bodies aren’t precious and unique and deserving of admiration and respect. Holding our bodies to impossible standards, or rendering them forbiddingly sacred or shamefully untouchable, is excessive but treating them as meaningless isn’t the antidote. Being casual about our bodies does not mean being dismissive or seeing them as valueless, being comfortable does not mean disregarding them. We can be casually comfortable with something and still see it as having importance and value. Think of those comfy sweat pants. Not exactly the Sunday best but they certainly have their value.
We only get the one
Just as life is not a dress rehearsal we are not leasing our bodies with an option to buy. Whatever its characteristics, capabilities, and parameters we only get the one body. Not only does this mean we need to embrace and accept it but we also need to look after it. We are still a good ways off from digitizing and uploading our sentient awareness so, for the time being, our bodies are the one and only vehicle which will carry us through our lives. As such maintenance is essential, if we take care of our bodies they will take care of us. Any ‘customizations’ should be at least somewhat considered and vetted as should the choice of granting others access to our bodies, ‘who’ and ‘how’ and most importantly ‘why’.
“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”
Skin marking, piercing, feature modifying, body reshaping, cultures throughout history have had varying rituals around decorating and accentuating the body. The danger in making permanent alterations to our bodies based on personal preferences of fashion is that those tastes can change drastically over the course of our lives, as can the tastes of those around us, leaving us stuck with an alteration we may no longer want or like even a short time from now. This is not simply a recitation of the trope warnings against getting a tattoo, I happen to have one myself, but rather advocacy for consideration and meaning. We only get the one body so permanent alterations should at least be rooted in some genuine and sustainable meaning.
As for sharing our bodies with others, who and how an how often, not every exchange has to mean everything but it should mean something. Whether socially casual or deeply intimate granting another person access to your body should always be a choice, your choice. That choice can be relaxed and casual but it should still belong to you. To view that choice as unimportant or meaningless is to view your body the same way, and if you don’t value or respect your body neither will anyone else.
It doesn’t have to mean everything but it should always mean something.
Your body is you, so there is no ‘just’ about it
Our bodies are us. Symbolically, literally, they connect us to the world around us and represent us to that world. How we treat our bodies, how we present them, speaks to how we view ourselves and how we wish to be viewed. And how we wish to be treated. Value or indifference, what we send out we will get back and what we feel inwardly we will send out. Strangling ourselves with taboos and restrictions is toxic and suffocating but devaluing the body isn’t the answer, it’s killing the patient to cure the illness. And severing our bodies from our concept of self is no better as it leaves us isolated from the world around us deprived of our primary and most powerful means of connecting with others.
The human creature is a pack animal. We need connection, interaction, and touch for mental and emotional and physical well being. Being dismissive of this out of some desire to rebel against societal taboos or to grant ourselves permission to pursue unfettered instant pleasure gratification may seem to pay off in the short term but the long term costs can be devastating. Once we have diminished or lost the ability to see value in ourselves that is a currency which can be extremely difficult to reacquire. And if we don’t value ourselves why would anyone else around us?
“The value you give yourself is the value the world gives you.”
So be conscientious and selective with what you do with your body, what you do to your body, how and with whom you share it. Be relaxed, be generous, be casual and free but never lose the ability to see and feel value and meaning in your body. Our bodies not only contain us and carry us through our lives they manifest us, they represent us, and most importantly they connect us to the surrounding world. If you ever find yourself tempted to utter the phrase “It’s just a body” ask yourself why. Are you dismissing a taboo or anxiety or are you dismissing a body, a person, yourself?
Our bodies are us, we only get the one and there is only one of us in all the universe. So there is no ‘just’ about it.