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Yes We Should Talk About Bodies

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Body positivity, skinny shaming, fatphobia, fitspiration. The internet has brought the age of infinite scrutiny of bodies. There are a lot of problems with this. There are fights, there’s an us vs. them that appears between fat and skinny women, there’s name calling and huge amounts of pressure to be fit and healthy.

One solution to this that many people suggest is that we should stop paying so much attention to bodies. We should focus on what people do and who they are and what they say. None of these things are unimportant, but the tendency to push the focus away from bodies in order to make people feel better about their bodies has quite a few downsides, and it’s one that I don’t hold with even though I have seen firsthand the dangers of focusing too much on my body.

I was reading earlier today a post with some criticisms of the body positivity movement. I am all for some of their thoughts (no, it’s really not that helpful to replace fatphobia with skinny shaming), but I was surprised when I hit #3: “It Keeps Us Body Focused”. The thrust of it was that we shouldn’t pay attention to what we look like because we aren’t our bodies; we’re the things we do and the personality inside. A lovely thought, but not really backed up by science.

Let’s talk for a minute about embodied cognition. I love embodied cognition, and I think you should too because it’s utterly different from the typical ways that we think and speak about minds and bodies, but also appears to have a fair amount of evidence supporting it. Embodied cognition is the idea that our brains and thoughts aren’t simply housed in our bodies, in many ways they are completely dependent on bodies. Our bodies not only influence the way we think, but sometimes changes in the body can completely change how we think. Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka define it as follows: “Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations.” One great example is this study that found people who needed to pee, who were hungry, or were tired were less likely to believe in free will.

George Lakoff, a linguist, has done a lot of work on embodied cognition and found that many if not most of the ways we speak and think are based off of our bodies. We use spacial metaphors for nearly everything, and those metaphors have a physical effect in the brain which can influence our bodies. For example a study found that when asked to think about the future, participants leaned slightly forwards but when they were asked to think about the past, they leaned slightly backwards.

None of this is hard evidence that our thoughts are entirely dependent on our bodies, but they do give some evidence that what we’re doing with our bodies has a big effect on our thoughts and vice versa. For more on embodied cognition, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ok, so what does embodied cognition have to do with body positivity and improving self esteem for women and girls?

There’s a common trope that people (women in particular) spend too much time thinking about their bodies. Whether this is from the standpoint that women are vain and shallow, or the standpoint that too much attention on our bodies is leading to low self esteem, eating disorders, competitiveness, and dieting, most people agree that we spend a lot of time focusing on bodies. The problem with this trope is that it mistakes looking at bodies for actually paying attention to bodies. Very few of us are good at understanding our hunger cues, at listening to exhaustion, at understanding how our emotions come with physical indicators. Even worse, we ignore the ways that our bodies will affect the things we think and feel, assuming that we’re completely rational even if we’re tired or sleep deprived.

Feminism has made movements towards paying attention to our bodies in a way that’s a little deeper than just what they look like. Feminists have brought up reproductive healthcare, the right to bodily autonomy, the trauma that comes from rape or sexual violence. What we don’t tend to talk about as much are the ways that those experiences affect our bodies in the long term and how those changes will affect our minds and emotions. There are lasting impacts to all of these things.

Most of the feminism that I’ve run into does tend to bifurcate mind and body in a way that seems unhelpful. You’re supposed to appreciate your body for the things it does for you, rather than realizing that in a very real way your body is you and that all the things your body does are things that you do.

The obsession with certain body types is not actually a way of showing that we value our bodies and that we place importance on them. While it is a kind of focus on bodies, it’s actually a focus on the outside perception of bodies. It’s an obsession with standards and rules. But it misses out on whether our bodies are healthy and functioning, it misses out on all the ways that our bodies communicate to us (many of our emotions come to us through physical signals), and it misses the ways that oppression harms our bodies by turning them into objects.

Perhaps it’s possible to be happy and fulfilled while seeing your body as distinct from yourself, but it seems highly unlikely that someone could be happy and healthy if they can’t pay attention to the signals their body is sending. Patriarchy has spent a great deal of time training women to ignore these signals (like hunger, needing to pee, exhaustion, or even difficulties with pregnancies). It’s also long been a masculine ideal to focus exclusively on rationality and the mind rather than on bodies or emotions. It seems fairly revolutionary for every human being to start taking some time to get in touch with whatever emotions might be happening and how they’re affecting the body, something that has typically been coded as feminine and bad (men are supposed to ignore feelings, and noticing things like exhaustion is weak).

It’s possible that feminism can be successful by ignoring bodies and focusing on accomplishments. But I find it hard to believe that a movement that seeks to make people more empowered, happier, and create a just society will do so by ignoring an integral part of the human experience.

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve recently been going through back episodes of the Rationally Speaking podcast on my way to and from work. The other day I listened to an episode interviewing Dr. Victoria Pitts-Taylor, a sociologist who has spent much of her career studying the notion of bodies, and particularly female bodies, from the perspective of sociology and the humanities. She makes an argument that the humanities have too long ignored the biological aspect of the human body (and likewise that biologists have ignored the cultural aspect of the human body), which is grounded in a pretty solid understanding of biology and neuroscience. I thought it was a really great interview and I’m hoping to have a chance to learn more about her work when I’ve got some time.

  2. Someone will have to explain the bathroom thing to me some time. I mean, I understand the convenience issue (though I did ask a janitor once in college, and the ladies’ rooms where he’s worked have had twice as many toilets as the men’s, but urinals take up less space than toilets), but everything else sounds like Freud.

    More on-topic, all you need to know about how society treats women is to look at Kagan’s confirmation. All the commentary was about her appearance? The only thing I look for in a Supreme Court Justice is her legal opinions. Everything else is irrelevant.

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