The Body Binary

“We are made, the scriptures of all religions assure us, in the image of God. Nothing can change that original goodness.” ~ Eknath Easwaran (via Center for Action and Contemplation )

Three 8th graders sit at the only rectangular table in my classroom, a sort of nook against the wall across from my desk. There is a lamp with a shade that has half of the globe printed on it, and a glass cup that I use as a pencil holder, whuch my mom gave me (“You got this” it reads). The three boys are all on the football team at their school. They work out every week day & I imagine that they play backyard sports on the weekends. Each one is thin, one boy with a thicker build than the other two, but still, his would be  considered a slender body.

“I’m fat,” that boy says, candidly contributing to the conversation. The other boys say no, not really. He doesn’t react but I can tell, from my covert post behind my laptop, that he really believes it. He’s not slight like his friends so he must be the only alternative: fat. The implication is, to be fat is a bad thing.

As a girl, body image insecurity was an every day reality for me. There seemed to be two kinds of women at church: those chronically overweight who spoke with shame about their inability to lose weight, or those thin & nearly without-fail, riddled with anxiety, always carrying diet sodas in hand. My body, being stocky in comparison to most white women, didn’t fall in the second category. Yet from a young age I rejected accepting the other category. I wobbled between each extreme, moving at one time in an anorexic direction, then bouncing towards disordered binge eating. The journey with my body & what I eat is still in process, now at the age of 25.

Why would I be surprised that today’s children, inundated with media images of other people’s bodies, are struggling with the same issues? Human problems are inherited & shared, after all. We’re a web of hands reaching out to one another; finding flesh equals a bit of comfort.

I notice that boys are less hesitant to verbalize how they see themselves while girls keep image struggles under wraps, quick to console any of their friends who admits to feeling or looking “fat”.

An eight & a six year old that I regularly care for have small brown bodies. The younger boy is built: in the summer he sports a V shaped back & a chiseled six pack–complete with popping obliques! I imagine a coach seeing his body, seeing potential there, even dollar signs for college scholarships. When I asked the boys if they think they are fat, the beanpole shaped eight year old said, “no”, while the younger brother said, “yes”.

I’m not sure what would have been the most helpful thing for me to say in that moment. Had I let him know I too felt “fat” sometimes, I may have led him to think he was right about it, or, even worse, I may have confirmed the fatphobic lie that there is something inherently wrong with being “overweight”. Or if I immediately told him he wasn’t fat, I could lose that window into his mind, as he might recieve it as a rebuke or correction of the honest feeling he had shared with me. In an attempt to avoid complicating their already complex experience, I said nothing.

The inability to connect in a loving & accepting way with our bodies perhaps leads us to alienation from our inner voice as well. The body is our island on this sprawling planet. It’s the home of the mind: opinions, doubts, mirages, thoughts, the spirit: fear, hope, energies of the past & the future, & the heart: love, peace, rejection, grief. We operate out of these four-limbed (for most of us), 10-toed, hairy meat sacks. They are inseparable from our identity as humans.

Yet the body isn’t all that we are. “Fat” or “skinny” are reductive terms, used as static labels. What you are, what you aren’t. Unfortunately often they answer the question of who you are, who you aren’t.

I wonder if the boys at the table ever think about their dynamic characteristics, the ones that have more power to shape the nature of their lived experience. Compassionate, loving, forgiving, hopeful, strong, enduring, wise. Certainly they would feel more empowered if they were encouraged to cultivate those traits rather than find themselves in the elusive & reductive binary of “fat” & “skinny”. They could find the mark of their place in the human story written over every inch of their bodies.

 

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