It’s My Body and I’ll… Oh, Who am I Kidding?

If I was walking around with a piece of cake now, no one would even notice. But before…

I was getting ready for bed last night with the TV on as my ambient light and volume down. I didn’t know what was on and didn’t care much, since I wasn’t planning to watch. As I walked past the dresser to get to the bed, I saw this sentence come up on closed captioning and stopped. The story was about a young couple who had undergone bariatric surgery and lost tremendous amounts of weight.

It’s ok. I understand about when the tummy can’t handle it.

Last week, at a conference, I ordered a water in a brew pub where I was having dinner with a friend. The waiter replied with the quote above, giving me a sympathetic look that swept across my bald head and general appearance.

I like makeup. It’s like coloring, but on your face.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post reviewing some makeup brushes. My opening sentences positioned my interest in makeup, and I wonder (but know) why I felt the need to do that.

You don’t eat that stuff. That’s why you are so thin.

A colleague of mine, both interested in and baffled by my dietary choices, makes this comment to me with significant frequency.

What do all of these have in common and what do they have to do with yoga and veganism, you might be asking? Well, for that second part, I’m not sure that I’ll get to the answer in this post (though I’m going to dance around it some), but I can answer the first. All of these situations have in common the assumptions we make about people, based solely on what they do – or don’t do – with their physical form.

I’m working on a scholarly research piece about this right now (well, right now I’m actually blogging instead of working on that research piece, but I’m using this to help me get my thoughts sorted… yeah, right, that’s it!). We have such an odd relationship with the physical form in the U.S. (honestly, I would say most Westernized cultures, but I don’t have quite enough first-person experience to say that so boldly). We celebrate it like mad in our mass media (who knew that you had to see so much flesh to get the idea of a beer) and even give out prizes to those with the best bodies. Even when we say we are being more body inclusive , like in Dove’s Real Women campaign, the bodies we celebrate are the ones that are still darn close to the physical ideal.

At the same time, we say that the body isn’t important, the “soul” is, and we press the point of the unimportance of the physical appearance in our explicit body messages, treating attention to physical beauty as suspect or shallow. Losing weight is important, we say, due to health (not appearance). Tattoos should be “meaningful” (in some way that reflects social values – like love for a family member), not just pretty.

It’s quite the conundrum, isn’t it? The message seems to be that it’s important to look beautiful and have a beautiful body, but you should get it naturally, not be too attached to it, and we should all pretend like it doesn’t matter even while we celebrate the beautiful.

And so, we judge people – often – based on body and body choices. And by judge, I don’t even mean always harsh or negative judgments. Sometimes the judgments are positive. But, they are still attributions about personal “non-body” characteristics made on the basis of appearance. A person who is thin with a big plate of food has a good appetite. A person who is heavier with a big plate of food is a lazy glutton. A bald woman is certainly ill, unless she is in a cult. A woman who isn’t “naturally beautiful” and doesn’t “improve” her appearance with cosmetics and hairstyling is either lazy or socially inept. A woman who really likes makeup is shallow. A raw foodist is nuts and a vegan is weird/misguided/judgmental.

It’s a lot of information we glean from just looking at those around us. And it points to something about our sense of social ownership of the body. Out loud, we will say that people’s bodies are their own. But a quick look at media messages, social messages, and political messages makes it relatively obvious that a lot of us don’t really believe that. Oh, we may believe that our “own” bodies should be ours to control, but we are pretty sure we know better how others should care for their bodies.

The pull of this way of thinking is almost inescapable. I can describe this all to you and tell you what is problematic about it, but I still do it. I am vehemently pro-choice (in SO many ways), but I’ll still admit that I entertain thoughts about what other people should do for/to/about their bodies, or judgements about who they “are” due to those bodies. Oy.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not something we can really get around. Maybe it’s part of our human mammal nature. I suppose that other mammals make some judgments about each other on the basis of appearance, and perhaps the same great big brains that allow us to think our great big thoughts also lead us to make attributions about things like body almost constantly.

I know that most of us find it frustrating, even while we do it. I was asked yesterday to join and possibly help administrate, two facebook groups related to female baldness. A strong underlying theme in both is a desire not to be judged based on that body element.

Is it that we don’t want this kind of judgment to apply to us, but it’s ok for others? Is it that (as attribution theory points out) we tend to attribute our own, or those of the people in our “in-group,” negative behaviors to forces beyond our control and our positive behaviors to the self, while with those in the out-group we do the opposite? Is all of this inevitable or changeable?

Do I have an answer? Nope! But I’ll be working through it more in the coming months as I work on this article, so you may hear more of my ponderings on the subject. What are yours?

Not Now, Fear.

Photo: Francesco Rachello

Fear is a subject that comes up more than once in a while in yoga practice, particularly in the practice of asana. Just this week, I’ve heard yoga students say that they were afraid of handstand (multiple times), headstand, pinca myurasana, and arm balances. And, I have only been at three classes so far! I’ve written in the past about fear and backbends, fear of falling, and fear about having a different teacher, so I’m certainly not unfamiliar with having fear in the practice.

In all of these situations, it’s not the “thing itself” that we are afraid of, it’s some potential future outcome. Jiddu Krishnamurti said it clearly in On Fear:

Fear is never an actuality; it is either before or after the active present. When there is fear in the active present, is it fear? It is there and there is no escape from it, no evasion possible. There, at that actual moment, there is total attention at the moment of danger, physical or psychological. When there is complete attention there is no fear. But the actual fact of inattention breeds fear; fear arises when there is an avoidance of the fact, a flight; then the very escape itself is fear.

That is, fear is about what will happen, or maybe what has happened, but not so much about what is happening. This isn’t so surprising when you think about it. When real danger presents itself, something big like a child struggling in deep water, you aren’t fearing, you are acting. You are moving and taking steps to deal with the situation right then. But, when the danger isn’t present, sometimes we think about the danger and then we think about the potential outcomes (the child will be injured or worse) and that is where the fear arises.

In our asana practice, we may feel fear when we think about a particular pose or type of pose, but it isn’t about the pose. It is about some potential outcome we imagine might occur, and based on associations with the past, we have labeled that outcome bad.

Thus, fear of handstand or headstand is not about the pose, it is about possible outcomes of falling out of the pose. One might fear injury (though, realistically, your most important parts are closer to the ground than when standing), embarrassment, or to appear incapable. My fear of backbends isn’t about backbends, really. Because they make me feel slightly breathless, some part of my brain connects it to moments of claustrophobia and then I become anxious about not being able to breathe, or something (I’m still figuring that out).

So, what does this all mean for us and our practices? Well, I don’t think it means we can get rid of fear. It is part of the animal condition (some might say human animals only, but I’m not so sure about that). And even if we could get rid of fear, I don’t think we should. Fear can be useful. It prevents us from making bad choices sometimes.

What we can learn to do is sit with the fear and try to work through what it is really about. When the fear arises, we can ask the self, “What is actually going on here?”  We can consider whether the outcomes we are worrying about are likely, are truly dangerous, or are more related to ego or superstition. This won’t necessarily remove the fear for good, but it can help us to work through that situation, or to decide not to.

Maybe this means that in one class, I say, “Ok, I won’t get stuck in this backbend and I won’t be without air, so I am going to go ahead and do it.” And then in the next class I might decide that I’m just not in a good place that day to forge ahead. But, at least the reflection gives me the opportunity to make the choice and to try to really respond to what is happening.



Accept Yourself and Be Beautiful

To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself. When you are born a lotus flower, be a beautiful lotus flower, don’t try to be a magnolia flower. If you crave acceptance and recognition and try to change yourself to fit what other people want you to be, you will suffer all your life. True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power

When I was a child, my mother used to go through these “fits of interest” in a particular activity.  She would get interested in something, say leather work or model ship building or jigsaw puzzles or studying Japan, and it would take over her life.  Soon, we would have a room (or the dining room table) completely devoted to the activity, and have spent much money buying supplies and equipment needed for it.  Sometimes, she would insist that we all got involved – the jigsaw puzzles stand out here – and everyone would have to become a part of the process.  All of her time would be spent in pursuit of this activity, and it could go on for months, even a year or more.  Then, as suddenly as it began, it was over.  The equipment would get dusty from disuse, the books cast aside, items partially finished would linger on the counter, and eventually the next big thing would take over and the prior project would be cleared away to make way for the new one.

I never really understood what was going on with my mother.  She was good at these things she did, and she would get even better in the course of a certain obsession.  But, I was baffled at how deeply she became involved and how much of her (time, money, self) it consumed.  Now, as an adult, I think I get it.  She just wanted to be the best at something, or everything.  She was looking for that accomplishment that would make her “good.”

It’s so hard, for many of us, to be ok with who we are.  I’m no exception to this.  I can talk a good (excellent – HA!) game about equanimity and detachment and acceptance and asmita (egoism), but I have a very hard time really letting go of my urge to be better than I am.  This has revealed itself in so many ways in my life.  Dieting led to eating disorders for me, in a never ending quest to be thinner and better by giving in to the urges of the body less.  In my career, each accomplishment only causes me to think about what the next goal should be.  When I had my children, each childbirth experience was somehow flawed by my failings, and I would be determined that the next would be better.  If I start drawing or painting again, my first thought is that I’m not very good and I need to figure out how to improve.  My yoga mentor, Beth, would probably even tell you that my head leads all through my asana practice.  Oy.

I wish I knew what this was all about.  Why is it so hard to accept ourselves and be beautiful?  Is it all cultural, what we learned from growing up in societies that stress the value of success?  Is it part of our nature as a human animal?  Are we naturally programmed to be in competition with one another like lions compete for control of the pride?  Is it a little of each?  I don’t know.  But, I do know it’s a challenge for most of us, and likely one that is life long.

Maybe, the key is to try to accept the self in the now.  In this moment, be ok with who we are and be beautiful as we are.  Maybe tomorrow we’ll be back on the roller coaster of accomplishment and self-criticism.  But, if in this one instant we can be all right with exactly what we are now – all right with the wrinkles by the eyes, the belly that isn’t a sixpack (but could hold a sixpack), the singing voice that only has a range of 3 notes – all of it – we can really allow ourselves to be beautiful in the now.  And, maybe those moments of now will build up over time and make it all a little bit more possible.