Nicole Law explores the internal battles which lead to acceptance of our appearance.
Walt Whitman’s nine-part poem I Sing the Body Electric celebrates the body in all its iterations. It’s not only powerful verse, it’s a tutorial in what it is to be fully human.
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred—is it the meanest one in the
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as
much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.
Whitman’s vision is in stark contrast to the distorted relationship we have with our own bodies. We are conditioned by persuasive advertising which projects a standard of beauty onto us. It’s in the skin whitening treatments, the slimming supplements, the cosmetic surgery and the booming make-up industry.
We are led to believe that our bodies are a source of shame when we cannot fit neatly into standards which society deems as ‘conventional’.
Beyond the modelling industry and the constantly changing canon of beauty, ordinary people are under constant pressure to regard their bodies as imperfect. Indeed, this is almost necessary for the beauty industry to generate its profits. In turn, a plethora of body-related issues have emerged, from eating disorders, to excessive exercise behaviours, to a fear of the natural changes our bodies experience as we age.
The body can be seen as a ‘home’ which we inhabit during our earthly existence, yet not all of us are happy with the dimensions of that home. We long to restructure it, paint it, extend it … to be thinner, have better skin or have a different hair texture.
I have reexamined my own relationship with my body and realised that in adolescence my externally defined ideals of beauty led me to a deep sense of dissatisfaction. At that time I would prefer not to look in the mirror, for fear of poor skin, tired eyes or even possible weight gain. But as I re-read Walt Whitman’s poem, I now marvel at his idea of the body as ‘sacred’.
Too often, the body is seen as anything but sacred, but rather a burden we must bear.
We are born with these legs, this cellulite, this frizzy hair. We employ various means to change what we see, in the process dishonouring our own bodies and what they represent.
We over-exert them, subjecting them to physical workouts which push them to their limit, in the name of achieving a toned physique and with it, affirmation. We starve our bodies, reducing our food intake and adopting ‘healthy’ eating, in the name of achieving a slender figure and with it, admiration.
This desire for admiration and affirmation runs through the human psyche like a river that courses through our daily decisions. Consumed by this desire, it directs our inclinations and renders us susceptible to external influence and the imposition of narrow definitions of beauty.
As I have grown older, I have noticed how the body changes and how, despite fatigue, it continues working, continues to be a ‘home’ where the mind and soul take up residence. Regardless of how we view the body, our bodies inherently are our own.
It is deep within ourselves where we decide whether we view the body as a burden or a source of joy.
I look towards Walt Whitman’s embracing of the body, of its joys and its pains, and this points me towards loving my body for what it is to me. First off, one can isolate the source of the shame which surrounds the body and practise compassion towards both self and others.
Some days, I might feel exhausted from the working week and struggle to wake up for a morning workout. The old me would force the body to exert itself, sometimes beyond its physical limits. Now, I listen to the rhythms of the body and rest on weekends – in an act of physical and mental healing.
The body repairs itself in many small ways, our skin repairs itself, tissue regenerates and our hair grows back inch by inch. How wondrous to consider that the body is not a lifeless exoskeleton but a deeply dynamic organism.
Some days, I might feel dissatisfied with the natural cycles my body goes through. Bloating during certain stages of the menstrual cycle or new lines on my forehead or bags under my eyes. Instead of treating my body as a separate entity which I can choose to abuse or misuse, I look at my body as Whitman reflects, as something sacred – a vessel to be cherished and to be nourished, with all its flaws and imperfections.
I have learned to see the body in its messiness and brokenness. The imperfections – the visible lines, scars and folds – are marks of created works of art. They are the sign of the humanity of the body – a body that responds and is influenced by both internal and external factors.
The body is not a burden to be carried. Rather, it carries us day after day. Everybody and every body ‘has his or her place in the procession’.
Enjoy our writers’ work? Click here to donate to our Crowdfunder to support the future of journalism. We need your help!
Like what you’ve read? Consider supporting the work of Adamah by making a donation and help us keep exploring life’s big (and not so big) issues!