Friday, January 13, 2012

We Are Whole

PLUS Model Magazine has an article, with accompanying photos, concerning models, their bodies, and the effect of images of models on women's perception of their bodies. While generally acknowledged that the manufacturing of an unrealistic potential body image is not a good thing, fashion and pop culture continues to promote the notion that thin is not only the same thing as beauty; with assistance from health care and nutrition, we are told that thin also equates with health. Thus, an image such as the one below is not only considered "not beautiful", but also, should one read the comments to the accompanying article, not healthy.

I want to suggest a couple things. First, the idea that mass-produced images of thin women and beefed-up, defined men (all those six-pack abs, you know) promote unhealthy assumptions and understandings about what is and is not beautiful and healthy rest, I believe, on an underlying consumerist approach to the human body. Our bodies become just another product, to be purchased in a gym, a health food store shelf, through diet plans and exercise regimens. We view our bodies as things, products, whose value can be reduced to the amount of money and work we are willing to invest in making them properly presentable. With the endorsement of doctors and other health care professionals, we have the additional impetus for changing our bodies that comes from a desire to be healthy. Yet again, however, our bodies become a thing, detached from who we see ourselves as being, a means toward an end - health - unrelated to our whole selves.

I would further suggest this ability to understand our bodies as things separate from ourselves rests with the Cartesian division of reality into "thinking substances" and "extended substances". While many folks point to "Greek philosophy" and the ways the Christian Church adapted it for its purposes through its long sojourn as reigning intellectual framework in the west, it was really Decartes, with his radical separation of the physical world from what he understood to be an equally real, supremely better world that, for lack of a better word, we can call mind or soul.

At its heart, Biblical anthropology - the understanding of what it means to be human culled from reading the Christian Scriptures - is almost comically holistic. Not just we human beings, but all existing things, are whole things. Modern science, with its emphasis on the biochemistry of brain function, mapping the ways our brains operate under a variety of stimuli, certainly backs this up. Our bodies are not things, separate from some other thing we call our "selves". There is no ghost in the machine. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible views human beings as beloved creatures in our entirety.

We haven't always been clear in articulating this reality. With the advent of Cartesian dualism and its reign of error for the past four and three-quarter centuries, we speak of "hearts" and "souls" and "minds" as if they were things that could or did or should operate apart from the "gross" functions of the human body. With the rise of consumer capitalism, and the assistance of deeply-rooted transcultural misogyny, as well as bad readings of Genesis 3 that place the blame for the Fall of humanity on the shoulders of the first woman, we have created an entire industry that demands women consider their bodies a thing to be bought and sold, to be repaired or willed to fall in to disrepair, always with the aid both of "beauty" and "health care" and "nutrition" experts who are more than willing to make a buck from people's desire to correct any deficiency in their lives.

As I noted above, it isn't just women. Men, too, are targets for such really bad beliefs. While not nearly as visible, whether it's the size of one's biceps, the conditions of one's abdominal muscles, or penis size, there are literally billions of dollars to be made from men who are convinced their bodies are a thing to be improved, tinkered with like the car in the garage on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

There is no easy way out of this trap. Not only centuries of thinking in the wrong way about what it means to be human, but industries with millions of dollars in potential profits as well as the weight of scientific understandings regarding obesity, body mass indices, and the like are all mixed together to create this superstructure within which we are socialized to think both of beauty and health. With both understood as products, and our bodies reified as separate entities from our "real selves", to be manipulated for goals that exist outside what they actually are, we face a daunting task in clearing this rubble and coming to understand who we are as persons, as beloved sons and daughters of a good God who made us whole beings, creatures with bodies, unique mammals whose brains have evolved to give us self-awareness, the ability to reason, to imagine, to love.

Our bodies are not things. We are not in any way distinct from our bodies. Beauty is not a product to be purchased, either in an image or through the variety of industries that offer their assistance in getting it for us. Health is not a product to be purchased on the open market. Before we do anything else, we need to rid ourselves of these cancerous ideas, these inhuman views of what it means to be human beings.

Virtual Tin Cup

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