I spent roughly one hour and 10 minutes twice a week for an entire semester discussing the body. I’ve thought that after the amount of time spent reading about this physical entity — and believe me, even English classes about the body know how to work you — and pondering over its purpose, I thought I would come closer to understanding what this thing I’m living in is.
The body to me is such a beautiful thing. The unique aspects of each and every body fascinates me. I think it’s lovely the way skin folds and smooths. I appreciate the wrinkles that appear around the eyes when people smile — and the ones that remain. I laugh at my bony toes and love my friend’s knobby knees. Although my relationship with the body hasn’t always been completely positive, I think I’ve always had a sense of appreciation for it.
But I know that some people’s relationships with their body have been far from positive. Pressure from society has impacted the way people — especially women — see their body in dangerous ways. From covers of magazines to social media posts to actresses in TV shows, women feel the need to look a certain way in order to be liked and considered “beautiful.” As much as many of us know what goes on behind photos in order for women to appear the way they do, it would be unrealistic to say we don’t have some kind of desire, at one point or another, to look like that ideal.
What I’ve come to realize in the past few months is how powerful the body is in dictating the interactions we have with people every single day. The first thing someone sees when they meet you is your physical body. It acts as a display of oneself. But why should it have the ability to do so? Is the color of our skin, the shape of our eyes or the length of our hair true indicators of who we really are? When we discussed the body in class, we touched upon the complex aspects of it, such as its relation to race, sexuality and disability. We read texts about how race, seemingly portrayed by the physical body, has been responsible for the “othering” that occurs within minority groups. We watched the film Freaks and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and examined how different bodies — differences influenced by physical disability or sexual differences — lead to a similar type of “othering.”
Having been so engrossed with this deeper meaning of the body, the answers I got from questions I asked for a final group project surprised me, although before taking the class, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. My group decided to ask friends, family members and acquaintances questions about their body, such as what they believed physically defined them and what about their body they loved. We would use these answers in a visual art project.
When people responded to our questions, they focused on their weight. They talked about their hair. They complained about their hips. They admitted to being “just average.” I guess I had expected something else. Maybe I wanted to know how he felt being a straight white male. Perhaps I thought she would talk about what it meant to be both an Asian and a female. But I thought about how I would respond to my own questions, and my own hypocrisies came to life. I would, similarly, talk about how my dyed hair is a defining factor about me. I would, in response to a question about how others view me, respond with something about my petite figure.
And I think it’s because things such as race and sexuality are associated with our identities, and there’s a difference between thinking about ourselves (in terms of our identity and personality) and our bodies. When we think about our bodies, we immediately focus on the physical traits that make us up — our strong legs from running track and field, the scars on our back from when we got in an accident, our wide hips that make jean shopping such a hassle. It’s interesting to think that the things that so influence who we are, and are responsible for our physical traits, are not the immediate things that come to mind when we are asked to think of our bodies. There are people, of course, who would find it impossible to separate, say, their race from their physicalness. But for the majority of people I talked to — and my other group members found it to be the same — we focus on our eyes, our hands, our legs. I think it’s our culture, too, that has made us so critical of the features of our body. As I said earlier, social media and other outlets have made us hyper aware of the differences between our bodies and the ones posted in magazines or hung up in Times Square. So when we think about ourselves, we’re thinking of our bodies in comparison to others.
I could write pages on what I believe the body is; what it stands for, what it does. Even then, I still have dozens of questions about this strange entity we inhabit and something as powerful and complex as it will take time to understand. But I think it’s important to not only appreciate the individual features and attributes of our bodies, but to think more deeply about what truly defines us and why we allow them to do so.
Gaby Leung is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.