Friday, March 20, 2009

Whose Body Is It Anyway?

by Madeleine Kando

I was browsing through the bookstore the other day, trying not to get overwhelmed by the veritable deluge of titles, when I suddenly came across a small, cheaply printed, unobtrusive book called ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach. It caught my eye because I was curious as to how such a small, drab looking, minuscule book was boasting such a big title. I bought it. It was cheap and it fit my ‘financial crisis’ budget. It’s a hard read, not your type of book that would be promoted on Oprah. I immediately took to it.I had not read ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’, the book that Orbach is so well known for, but I knew that she was writing about eating disorders and body image issues. I remember recently seeing her on TV, being put through the wringer by one of those TV celebretards who don’t give their guests any time to speak, and jump on them like a shark in a feeding frenzy.

I have some experience with ‘bodies’ as a source of conflict. My own body is visually passable and I do not have any major physical handicaps. I am ok with my own body. As an adolescent I was fortunate to have developed a stable, permanently neutral, if not positive, body image. In fact I still have a vivid image of myself as a 16 year old late bloomer, standing in front of the mirror and suddenly realizing that a beautiful body was looking back at me. I was also fortunate enough to have been attracted to dancing at a very early age, and that secured a sense of pleasure in my own body in movement. No one in their right mind would want to be a dancer who doesn’t enjoy their body in motion.

My experience with the body as a source of extreme displeasure and hatred comes from a close friend. She has gone through a kaleidoscope of body issues ranging from anorexia to bulimia to obsessive overeating. Thus, I am drawn to books that intelligently describe the struggle and complexity of ‘bodies’ and body hatred.

Orbach describes how our post-modern society has created a politics of the body that we all have succumbed to. Our bodies are no longer ours but the market. She is right: how did we go from the baseline, natural acceptance of the body we are born with to this notion that we can manipulate, change, improve and control our physical self?

Do we accept that the world is round? Most of us do. What if suddenly you decided that you would much rather have a flat world? Or a world in the shape of a pretzel? Thinking that you could change the shape of our planet, would you start digging up the soil to create new mountains and valleys? Would you take away precious time from loving, mothering, working, creating to start digging up dirt?

This is just as absurd as our obsession with our bodies and how they look. I was invited to a belly dancing performance recently. It was the most refreshing and liberating experience I have had in a long time. Voluptuous women who looked like they had just stepped out of a Rubens painting were gyrating their midriff to the sound of mesmerizing middle eastern music. I realized that what was so beautiful about this performance was the sense of total pleasure that these dancers conveyed as they moved their oversized bodies to the music. Their bodies were theirs, not someone else’s, not their audience’s, not the make-you thin industry’s, not even their children’s or husbands’ or friends who were watching them dance.

I realized then that I too suffer from body issues. It is not surprising, considering that my mother is a professional photographer. I probably also suffered from a ‘false body’, like the handsome fellow walking down the street who is really a woman inside. I had to live up to my mother’s image of me, of the ‘beautiful’ Madeleine who looked good on her photographs. I learned to keep quiet, lest the real ‘Madeleine’ were found out. The one that didn’t always want to be beautiful.

The sad part about our obsession and dissatisfaction with our own bodies is that it takes up so much of our time. It used to be that our body was a tool. Hands to till the earth, feet to walk to where water was. Now that we don’t need our bodies to make things, we make our bodies instead. But for what purpose? After all, it is still just a tool, a vessel through which the life force flows from the day you are born till the day you die. Then at last we accept our bodies, but by then what does it matter?
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