It didn’t take me more than the first two paragraphs of I Am Not This Body for me to feel both repelled by and compelled. Its title in the New York Times’ Opinionator blog had intrigued me, and I clicked it open anticipating musing on the philosophical, the existential, the spiritual. Instead, I read on compelled by that sense of horrified fascination one feels at a traffic accident. By the time I reached the midpoint of Brian J. Stanley’s popular essay, I felt a feminist rant coming on strong. To me, this was blatantly the writing of a man in a man’s world. Had I been reading a print newspaper I’d have hurled it down in disgust while preaching loudly to the dog. Tablets are a little too pricey for that. But the dog is female, too–so she can relate.
The essay opens with the author identifying his body as an awkward space, alien to him, a “strange planet” with which he does not identify. Welcome to the world of women as evidenced by the viral internet exposure of the “Dove: Real Beauty Sketches” campaign, which posits that women do not perceive themselves to be as beautiful as they truly are. If the author feels somehow detached from his physical body, it seems he hasn’t noticed we live in a world populated with plasticine images of beauty that are pervasive for women, but are becoming more so for men too. Images of improbably endowed supermodels with stick figure arms and legs abound. Musclebound pretty-boys with washtub abs present an equally unlikely benchmark. Actresses are either vaunted for their physical beauty or ridiculed for an ounce of flab revealed on holiday at the beach. Heaven forbid that one of of them reacts to critiques of her post-baby body with a state of skeletal anorexia; she’ll be criticized roundly for that too. What does it say about both sexes when a pop star can critique his heavily pregnant wife for failing to “represent” at a fashion gala? Is it empowering or respectful to note that the designer dress she wore was ruined because it required five re-fittings to yield to the rapid changes wrought by pregnancy? It seems we ought to revere the remarkable ability of all creatures to create rather than esteem the fashion guru over the person draped in an insubstantial fabric creation of the moment.
As for that post-baby body, Mr. Stanley–who it appears has a young daughter–poses the question, “Does any desirable substance emerge from our depths?” Maybe not from his. He seems to forget that from the bodies of countless women have come some of the most desirable of all: new life and the capacity to support it in its most vulnerable infancy. In the deepest, secret places of my body I twice grew two utterly amazing new humans. (To give credit where due, this was not without help. Perhaps Mr. Stanley might consider the value of the sperm he produces, historically and biblically considered so valuable that “spilling one’s seed” garners the label “sinful”.) My body, completely without my conscious assistance, created a cradle to support and cultivate new life. Placenta, amniotic fluid, blood, the intricate bond of the umbilical cord conspired to a new creation. Once born, these tiny lives depended entirely upon me for their sustenance as I nursed them around the clock, daily, for months on end until they had developed the neural skills and bacterial flora to allow them to begin to eat solid foods. Being on call 24/7 as the all-night diner for another fragile life gives one more than a few moments in the still, small hours to contemplate the wonder–dare I say, the miracle–of the human body.
At the other end of the spectrum, lies the fear of death. Here too lies the traditional role of women who as mothers, wives and sisters, also fill the role of caregiver or nurse. It seems fitting to write this at the end of National Nurse’s Week when we celebrate the gifts of thousands of women who overcame their squeamishness for blood, vomit, waste, and death to bring peace, compassion, and even moments of joy from suffering. Jewish tradition teaches that it is a “mitzvah” or a “blessing” to care for the deceased. I too have often had the honor of the bedside vigil with family before closing the eyes of a suffering loved on in the final peace of passing. It is an honor and a sacred trust. I hold that one has not truly lived until he or she has witnessed both birth and death.
Also, I must consider the bit about the fleshpot of the beach scene. At least the men are acknowledged as we note how “sleeping old men roast their round bellies and flip like rotisserie chickens.” Yeah, there’s nothing like a pot-bellied oldster strutting his stuff in a Speedo to get my engines going. Still, most of the paragraph is devoted to those hanging over the sides or out the bottoms of swimsuits with sagging breasts. Listen, mister, you nurse two kids for a total of six years and tell me how perky your boobs look by the time you are done! Those girls are a badge of honor to me and I’m damned proud to cruise down the beach being a MILF in my bikini.
More than coming across as sexist, disconnected, and shallow, the article saddens me. It highlights how all of us have become victims of mass media marketing. He falls for it completely relating hyper-skinny runway models’ shape as elegant geometry. Even more troubling are the notions of human supremacy and dominance over the natural world paired with the “imbecilic machinery of it all”. Perhaps it’s my slightly odd Celtic-Catholic background getting mixed up with a uniquely female perspective and work in healthcare, but I can’t help feel awed by the world around us with all its colors and flaws. It humbles me to think that the same stuff that is the elemental makeup of the stars is also my own elemental profile. The intertwined nature of it all from the largest star to the smallest molecule certainly seems anything but imbecilic to me. It seems to me that all of us humans are both bound to our physical selves, but free to allow our spirits to soar regardless of the outward appearance assigned to us in this life. The quirks of the body human offer us both limits and endless puzzles as yet unsolved.