Sunday, July 26, 2015

"My Butt Is Bigger" or, The Taboo of Embodiment




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A group of us were standing around at the “Crossfit Prom” – an inter-gym social event that meant dressing up, or not, and meeting up for drinks at a bar – when a member of another gym walked in. Wearing a little black dress she approached the group and announced, “I didn’t even know if this dress was going to fit me now.” Turning around, she continued, “My butt is bigger and my back is broader.” Completing the revolution, she added, “And my boobs are smaller!”

There are few places in my everyday life when someone in my social group invites me to gaze upon her bottom, back, and chest. As this was going on, I cast a sideways glance at Jamie, a linguistics professor and fellow member of Crossfit Chapel Hill. I observed, “That’s just not something I hear in my conversations anywhere else besides Crossfit.” Jamie nodded in agreement and added, “People sometimes ask me why I talk so much about bodies.”

There’s a lot going on in this conversation. There’s clearly a gender dynamic at play here. Women who do Crossfit may face judgment and criticism for the impact it has on their physique. A segment of society finds fault with women having muscle definition through their arms and shoulders or thick, muscular thighs. Slogans such as “Strong is the new skinny” challenge these cultural ideals about physical beauty. There’s obviously a lot more to say on this subject, but I want to talk instead about something else from this exchange.

“People sometimes ask me why I talk so much about bodies,” said Jamie, the linguistics professor. Her words have stuck with me. She’s naming academia as a place where discourse about the body is unconventional or unusual. The implication is that talking about the body is something that isn’t proper for academics, scholars, intellectuals, and those who are within this social constellation. My experience in liberal religious circles and also among activists working for social justice is that the body is not a topic that is apt to come up in conversation.

I remember something that Chad, a man serving on the board of the last church where I was minister, said to me when we were having a “temperature check” conversation about things the church might do differently in the future. Have you ever noticed, Chad asked me, that almost everything we do together as a community involves being sedentary? We worship sitting down. We have classes sitting around a table. We have discussions sitting in a circle. We have lots of meals together. Why is there so much sitting? What are we omitting from our life as a religious community?

Jamie’s comment at the “Crossfit Prom” and Chad’s observation about experiencing religious community sitting down reflect what I am going to call “disembodied culture.” Disembodied culture seems to me to be present throughout liberal social institutions including educational, religious, and community service organizations.

I want to suggest that there are several hallmarks of what I’ve termed “disembodied culture.” These may include:

·         There is limited opportunity for or lesser value placed upon physical expression. 
·         Discourse about the body is marginalized or regarded as improper. 
·         Discourse about matters of the mind or spirit are privileged over matters of the body.

So, why aren’t liberal social institutions more embodied? I think there are several possible factors at play.

·         The adolescent and pre-adolescent dichotomization between “jocks” and “nerds” continues to influence social arrangements. 
·         The dualisms of the Western world continue to make hierarchical distinctions between heaven / earth, spirit / matter, mind / body, etc. 
·         Liberal social institutions tend to be at the forefront of challenging oppression. Becoming “disembodied” is a conscious or unconscious strategy for combatting ableism and gendered bodily discrimination (fat shaming, sexualization, etc.)

In subsequent posts I’ll consider the impact of “disembodied culture” and consider possibilities for re-embodying our social institutions.


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