When I was still living in Memphis, there was a woman, Barbara I met through the International Education department that I bonded with immediately. Neither of us were stick figures, and often complained to each other about the unsolicited “helpful advice” we got from strangers. Both of us ate healthily and went to the gym at least 5 times a week, yet people made assumptions and felt compelled to shove metaphorical pamphlets in our hand about eating and exercise like those fundamentalists that stand on the corner on Bourbon Street and tell people the error of their drunken ways.
One of my friends, T, never got such advice, though she was one of the most unhealthy people I knew. I parked in the farthest parking lot so I could get at least a mile in just walking to and from my car, while she got several parking tickets a month for trying to park as close as possible to her classes. She would have driven her car into an elevator if they’d let her. She smoked 2 packs a day, had double cheeseburgers for dinner regularly and never exercised. But she was a size 5 or something, so no one ever gave her a lecture about how they were “concerned for her health”… she met the beauty ideal, and that was all that mattered.
One night at a party, someone started their health-preaching at Barbara and she replied, “My body is not a topic of conversation.” When they kept on, she walked away. I was stunned. And in awe. How did she do that??? As compelled as people were to give me health advice, I was compelled to tell them all that I already did– far more than they suggested. I did not sit on my butt all day eating twinkies, as they seemed to think. It is not a simple formula- bodies are complex and far more goes into metabolism than most people care to think about.
It bothered me deeply that people walked around thinking I was lazy. That they insisted on holding on to simplistic ideas that don’t really work in the real world. That they were judging me unfairly– based on a beauty standard that is only attainable with photoshop, rather than the health concern bullshit they claimed was their primary motivation. It really, really REALLY bothered me. So I was stunned that Barbara could shut them down that quickly and not set them straight. That she could take her body off the table completely and not even engage in the topic.
As much as I resented that my body rather than my writing, my painting, my cooking, or my intellect were the focus of so many people’s view of me, I couldn’t drop it any more than they could. I didn’t know how to take it off the table. Three years in hijab would teach me how many years later, but that’s another story for another post.
What Barbara understood all those years ago that I’ve just picked up recently is articulated beautifully by Michele Lisenbury Christensen in her work on the elements of Masculine and Feminine Power. To listen to her speak on the topic, check out the Shero’s School for Revolutionaries. Regardless of our sex (or gender for that matter) we need a balance of the masculine and feminine to be healthy and truly functional, yet our society is heavily swayed towards the masculine.
One of the paradigms she discusses is Providing (masculine) & Nurturing (feminine). This pertains to the way we relate to others. I would add that it also applies to how we relate to ourselves. In explaining, Michele asked: “Do I hold you as a problem to be fixed, or a person?
“Are resources needed here? Or listening? Holding?
She went on to discuss how distorted Providing is that mean voice in our head that provides perpetual commentary, criticism, and “suggestions for improvement”. I realize that it was my full identification with that mean voice in my head in my 20s that compelled me to engage with people in a topic I didn’t think should be brought up to begin with– my body. Interesting that for the decade I was in The Netherlands–where its considered incredibly rude to talk about someone’s body or presume about their personal habits– no one talked about my body and weight came off. I no longer felt fat, I no longer focused on the fat, so the fat went away. I often wondered- in this land where I was on the short side of average instead of a looming Amazon woman 3 heads taller than most other women– if I’d grown up there if I ever would have developed the body image issues that led to the weight gain. I thought I was fat, so I eventually became fat. A little weight gain in my pre-eclampsic pregnancy, and others began to agree with me. I took that on, and the weight came on even more. The harder I worked to get rid of it, the more my metabolism slowed and the more stubborn the weight was. Like the child told they will go nowhere losing all ambition, my body resolved to the fat label put upon it.
We are so trained to do something. All the time. With everything. We have great difficulty just being with something. It bleeds into every area of our lives, and damages our relationships and erodes our peace of mind. Our Puritan heritage preaches that its not okay to let things just Be. Its lazy. Its permissive. Its the door to chaos. Anarchy. Society will totally crumble if we’re not ever-vigilant. If we don’t judge often and quickly, and condemn accordingly. The papers are full of it, the news is full of it, and our heads are full of it.
Thing is, its a lie. A big fat hairy puss-filled seething boil of a lie. It doesn’t make us better. It deepens our shame and makes us worse. It is the thing that takes us away from what we want directly into what we say we won’t tolerate. Pounding on a treadmill because we think we’re fat will keep us fat. Loving our body and moving it in ways that bring us joy will bring us to Health.
Its work learning to be with your body. Learning to be with your emotions. Not analyze, not fix, not work on or improve, just Be. Whether or not you were raised in a religion, bad churching has informed every part of our society. We have this idea that if you’re doing it right, life will be easy. If your life has difficulty, then you must have done something wrong. I don’t know how that idea came from a religion with a guy being persecuted by both the fundamentalists of his own religion and the colonialist government in place to the point of dying the death saved only for traitors and terrorists, but it did. So we pathologize all sorts of things that are perfectly normal, and in fact necessary for our development. We think if we’re uncomfortable, there must be something wrong. We numb by analyzing, diverting attention, eating, drinking, -holicism– anything really to avoid just being in our bodies and just feeling our emotions.
Its caused a deficit of empathy in our society. We don’t want to feel bad, so we default to distorted Providing instead of Nurturing. We view everything and everyone– including ourselves and our emotions–as problems to be fixed rather than creatures to be held. Its backwards. Maybe there is a problem, maybe resources are needed, but if the connection isn’t made with the Being first, then the solutions applied will be oppressive rather empowering, and they will eventually backfire.
My body reminded me of this in its latest letter to me. Its voice is the exact opposite from the voice in my head: its loving and supportive. There is a gentle strength that is so soothing and enlivening. Though I was raised in an environment where we went to church 5 times a week, my relationship with my body is my first real experience with agape. At the time of the letter, I’d been focusing too intently on the symbolic meaning of things and it was getting stressful as I strove to figure it all out. “I appreciate your commitment to listening to me and learning my language” she said, ” but I am not a puzzle to be solved. I am not a problem to be fixed. Just love me. Listen to me, and we’ll figure it out as we go along. You’re smart and you’re listening. Don’t worry that you’ll miss it. I’ll let you know.”
Remember the same in your own walk and development. As you’re learning to listen and working on the relationship you have with your body and your emotions, release the drive to do something with what comes up– create space where it can just be first. So often, just allowing it to Be is the solution…