Body Positive

Two things happened recently that jarred me. First, I started reading Dawn, the first book of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series (the lady reading list continues!). With minimal spoilers, the books are about humans interacting with a race of extraterrestrials who manipulate genes.

Secondly, I got to spend some time with a friend from high school wom I hadn’t seen in a few years. We were having lunch and talking happily enough, but in the middle of the meal, my friend dropped her fork and sighed. “Don’t you just hate your body?” she said.

I admit I was surprised–I had always considered my friend as a committed feminist who wasn’t so easily swayed by those kinds of social pressures. It didn’t seem to me that she looked very different from when we were in school–you know, aside from being a bit older–but according to her she had put on so much weight. And it clearly bothered her.

Those conversations are often a complicated situation for me. On the one hand, I’m always sad when people I like are unhappy with themselves. My typical response is: “Don’t be silly! You look great.” This is almost always denied, which is a weird place to put a conversation. Of course, I want to take their feelings seriously and I understand lecturing them about the demands placed on women’s bodies by society won’t help. I’m a tactful feminist, okay? But I confess: I despise the expectation to commiserate. In fact, it pisses me off.

Because as a woman, I’m supposed to hate my body. As a plus-size woman, I am supposed to loathe my body.

The problem is I don’t. And I’m sick of people assuming that I do or that I should.

I love my body. And I don’t need to appropriate the language of the mainstream aesthetic (“We’re all beautiful” or “curves are sexy”) to feel that way. Subjective or objective standards of beauty do not even factor into it.

My body is a fully functioning human body, which means it’s amazing. It processes the water, oxygen, and nutrients it needs pretty much perfectly. It fights off disease, generally without the assistance of medicine. It eliminates toxins and repairs damage. It keeps itself warm and cools itself off. My body is mobile and flexible: it can travel miles unassisted and it can do downward-facing dog. It gives me the means to build and use tools–including this laptop. Because I’m a homo sapien, I’m a generalist, which means my body can survive almost anywhere in the world. This is largely because my body houses and sustains the most adaptable organ in the history of terrestrial life: the human brain. As problem solvers, we’ve learned how to endure a wide range of environments; as social, language-learning animals, we share our knowledge. It’s tempting to intellectualize away the body, but the body and the mind are one thing, you guys–don’t let classical thought tell you otherwise. The brain uses an incredible 20% of what we put in our bodies.

Neither is my body static. It can–and does–get stronger. And I don’t know a fraction of what there is to know about it. Did you know your bones are four times stronger than concrete? Four times. Did you know nerve impulses can travel to and from your brain at upwards of 200 mph? Did you know the structure of your tears depends entirely on why you’re crying?

Dawn is a fascinating novel. Early on, an alien character makes the claim that what their civilization wants to incorporate from human beings is cancer. Our human protagonist is shocked and horrified by this suggestion, but their desire is explained this way: cancer is the key to infinite variability and they are a race very much in need of change. Butler was a genius, so this subversion is handled incredibly subtly. That which is destructive for one species is a vital for the other.

There are huge disparities even among members of the same community. What works for one body does not work for another. What is toxic for one person keeps the other healthy. Our bodies are incredible, but they’re idiosyncratic. They’re individual. They have quirks. And it’s not for me to assume I understand someone else’s quirks, physical or otherwise. There are a whole host of reasons one body may look or function the way it does. And those reasons are not my business–or anyone else’s.

Real talk: I’d like my body to be stronger. (I need to be able to do upward-facing dog, too.) There are places I want to go and many things I want to accomplish. But there’s no sane reason to hate my body, especially when many other people are beset by debilitating illnesses or life-altering injuries. Their bodies cannot function the way they need them to and whether the rest of the world approves of their appearance is the least of their problems.

Hell, I’m not even allergic to peanuts. That’s pretty fantastic.


2 thoughts on “Body Positive

    • I read a bunch of “20 amazing things you don’t know about the human body” articles while I was writing it. It made me think about Darwin class, too, and the paper I wrote on the confluence of traits necessary for our evolution.

      Robot bodies are an obviously game-changer, but anyone who wants one that is merely decorative deserves to be slapped.

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