May 2021
Leaves from My Notebook
by
Elaine Greensmith Jordan

I Sing the Body Electric

Finding the positive pole

According to Doris the Dieter, writes a humorist, “It is better to have loved and lost than it is to have loved and put on 15 pounds.” I go for the 15 pounds and love. We think too much about those pounds. I’d go so far as to say that it’s cost us our very souls when we think constantly about our weight.

G. Courbet, The Spring, 1868

I’ve been paying attention lately to our pervasive wish to be thin — those worries about not being as tiny as a twelve-year-old. Some of us women want to look like famine victims instead of people with different body shapes. The cause of this obsession has been studied, but I’m most interested in the results, what the dream to be thin is doing to us. 

After every meal we review whether we need to feel guilty about having eaten too much. The time we spend on such nonsense is incalculable. Kim Chernin’s book about people who are obsessed with being thin is called, of course, The Obsession, and it pretty much describes me. I’ve associated being trim with success in love, with success in my youthful hopes to be an actress, and with success as a worthy human being. How can that have happened to me? I’m a student of religion, for God’s sake, one who ponders the infinite — and her body weight.

We know about the growing incidence of anorexia among young girls. These girls become “celebrities of self-discipline,” Chernin says. They claim to hate their bodies, and I’m sorry that our culture has made them think something is very wrong with the person in the mirror. They waste away, and some of them die. They deny natural instincts until there are no more.

We need to come to terms with the fact that we are flesh and blood.

As I’ve watched myself and the students I’ve taught, I’m aware that if we feel overweight, the horror at what we see in the mirror seeps into consciousness until we despise the very self within. Our powerful self-critical spirit is affirmed, and that self-hatred is not healthy. It’s not normal. Not life-affirming. It’s a serious source of depression. We’ve taken this thin-obsession to the point of absurdity. We’re in trouble when we make remarks like this: “I’m sorry to hear she has cancer, but at least she’ll lose weight,” a comment I overheard recently from a middle-aged woman.

Religious teachings have created part of the problem, believe it or not. They’ve promoted a dislike of our bodies, as if our bodies are evil and their urges evil. That thinking has dominated pious folk for centuries. Our Puritan heritage of values like fortitude, commitment, hard work, and piety has left us some darker values as well. In fact, Puritan diaries, especially those of women, reveal a harsh, punishing attitude toward anything plentiful, comfortable, easy or silly. These ascetic Puritans preached attention to righteousness to such an extent that outward signs of easy pleasure were taken to be indications of inward sin. (I think they still are — ever had a lazy day without feeling guilty?) Puritans watched each other for signs of these indiscretions, fearing that their neighbors were headed to hell. One of these evils was gluttony. We still bear their legacy of guilt for that second helping.

Some religious teachers say we need to overcome desires of the body because they are bad even though our natural appetites urge us to eat, and rest, and want sex. Those pleasures are decadent, they say, so we should deny ourselves and be concerned with . . . what? Matters of belief? Yes, said the Puritans. Their young girls who didn’t pray, read their holy books and deny the self were punished harshly.

We have other dubious sources that encourage dieting. The gurus of healthy eating caution us to avoid all fatty foods. New research is showing that fat in the diet not only brings comfort, it aids digestion, protects the circulatory system, and makes skin and hair glow. It may be that enough fat provides the strength necessary to keep us from craving sugar and white flour. Try telling that to the hard-line dieters who are hell-bent on avoiding the pleasures of rich food. It’s easy to see that sacrificing pleasure on the altar of health makes for sour faces and yet more self-hatred.

I think we need to come to terms with the fact that we are flesh and blood. If we keep denying appetite, wishing we were a different size, yearning to be what we are not, we are unable to accept even the soul-parts of ourselves. That is, when we hate our bodies, we can come to despise our inner selves, our spirits, because body and soul are connected. We are unified beings. The spirit vibrates to the way the body moves and lives. We dancers need to dance. We singers need to sing. We gardeners need to plow. Our hungers need attention. We need to value the body as it is, and stop wishing it away.

I sing the body electric.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.