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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Tapa(s) That Mountain

 

Climbing Pinnacle Mountain today was difficult. Stomach problems made it painful internally but it was not even an *Arkansas* hot day. There was a breeze that accompanied me as I wheezed, heaved, & groaned my way up the East Summit.

Damn, I love that mountain.

Every bit of the experience was familiar to me (though I did not used to be this challenged on the way up…). The contours on boulders smoothed by hundreds of feet scaling them each week, the canopy of leaves overhead, the friendly faces who greet & cheer you on as you ascend & they descend the steep trail. I adore the crags on either side of the worn path. I love the coolness afforded by the vines and greenery all around. I love the feeling of my chest rising & falling at the summit as I gaze for miles & miles, soaking in the sherbet sunrise. I hear firecrackers, set off not far away & roll my eyes.

God, I love this place.

This walk triggers a plethora of memories. When I was a child the mountain seemed so long, the trek lest arduous but definitely more lengthy. During high school for a time I climbed the mountain weekly with a fierce group of young women. We explored the crags & swung off tree branches. It got easier for us every week, but never lost its’ lustrous challenge, it never stopped reminding us of the warrior-women within. None of us spoke out loud of how powerful it showed us to be, this weekly strength practice–we were taught to be docile & dainty–but I know we all felt it. And secretly shared it. If the other girls do not remember, then I will be guardian and remember-er, and secret keeper of these memories.

In yogic philosophy  there is an idea called “tapas”. According to Deborah Adele, Tapas is the fiery determined effort we can make to offer ourselves up to transformation, by way of strength training, meditation, or any other focused practice. Tapas is discipline, it is taking the difficult action because in your gut you know it is the right action. Tapas is the courage to step into the fire for the sake of being purified.

Pinnacle Mountain has been a place where I have cultivated Tapas. That summit has been & was again tonight the altar where I offer myself to God, to transformation, to my higher, truer, better self.

I love it. Oh, I love it very much.

Here’s to more cardio & less carbs.

Feel the holy burn, friends!

 

Lydia Nomad