loving the body: a theoretical triptych
Having a body can be hard at times. If you look in any way non-normative, or identify as non-normative in some way even if you don’t look it, or if you experience your body in ways that are non-normative, the dominant narratives about how to have a body might not fit and might actively harm you. For that matter, even if you look and feel completely normative, heteropatriarchal capitalism still wants you to feel shitty about your body. It is not possible to live in a Western or Western-influenced context without absorbing the message that no matter how hard you try, it is fucking impossible to have a normative enough body. You must always be in the process of becoming a better version of yourself, or you’re doing it wrong. Whether it’s body hair management, keeping up with fashion trends and the “right” brands, making sure your face is perfect and your hair is perfect and you don’t have bad breath or body odour or thighs that touch or boobs that sag or muscles that aren’t sculpted or gawd forbid anything that makes you, y’know, FUCKING HUMAN – there’s always some entity trying to shame you into tasty, seductive, profitable self-hatred.
But let’s get back to the non-normative folks. Different sub-sets of people have different languages and frameworks for discussing the body. Communities and theories about people who are disabled, trans or genderqueer, queer, intersex, fat, Indigenous and/or racialized (and any number of other experiences that aren’t white, cis, able-bodied, slim and hetero) go into great detail on the particularities of what it’s like to live in those bodies. Progressive narratives generally arrive at the conclusion that loving our own and each other’s bodies, in all their differences, is a radical act.
How, exactly, to accomplish this body-loving project, though – that advice is harder to come by. It’s not that nobody’s talking about it. Far from it. It’s just that once you get that loving your body is a good plan, a lot of the instructions on the next steps get kinda prescriptive. Or proscriptive. Or both. As in, you MUST or maybe MUST NEVER cover up / reveal yourself / lose weight / gain weight / wear make-up / go bare-faced / have long hair / have short hair / use product / go product-free / have surgery / go without surgery, and so forth. Failing which, you’re a tool of the heterocapitalist white supremacist patriarchy. Thing is, progressive folks are often just as invested in controlling other people’s bodies and making them fit in as mainstream folks, we just have different ideas about how that control and belonging should happen. This shit is really, really hard to escape.
I don’t pretend to have a perfect solution to any of this. But as a lifelong sex-loving, gender-fluid queer poly sadomasochist, I’ve spent the last decade-plus living inside a body that’s been crippled (literally and metaphorically) by chronic pain and cancer, and gained and lost and gained 60 pounds. It used to be easy to love my body but that hasn’t been true in a long time. And yet, my body-loving politics never changed. It’s just that the easy routes to bodily self-love (have great sex! do yoga four days a week! look hawt in skinny jeans!) got really clogged up. Over time, I developed this theory I thought you might like to hear. I’m still white and I’ve never experienced a medical gender transition or any number of other body-related things, so I understand this might have holes in it that I can’t see from my perspective, but here goes.
I think the project of loving our bodies can be accomplished along three axes. I call them the three Fs: feeling, function and form.
Feeling is about sensation. We can love the way our bodies feel. That might include taste, smell, auditory stimulation like music, the joy of movement or exercise, pleasurable interpersonal touch such as massage or cuddling or SM play, non-personal touch such as the feeling of fabrics or other materials against the skin, temperature such as bracing cold snow or a hot shower or a sunbeam, sexual pleasure, and all manner of other physical sensations. Even if nothing else good is happening, body-wise, we can love the way our bodies feel and we can do things to deliberately enhance or increase that kind of positive experience. We can choose to eat foods that taste amazing and make us feel good, exchange touch with friends or partners, masturbate, take a bath – basically anything that’s about the pleasures of the senses.
Function is about what we can physically accomplish. We can appreciate the way our bodies get us places and let us do things. Maybe it’s your hands and their ability to create beautiful art or play music. Maybe it’s your muscles that let you lift heavy things, perform feats of athleticism, or dance with grace. Maybe it’s your eyes and their ability to catch tiny grammar mistakes or diagnose a mechanical problem.
In some cases, function is about competition against others, striving for a kind of externally recognized excellence in sports or performance or skill. But it doesn’t have to be. Function-love can also be about self-improvement and besting our own past accomplishments. That might look like trying to best our own score at a skill game, tackling a 5.9 climb when we’ve gone up to 5.8 so far, or managing a walk around the block when last week we had a hard time walking down the driveway. Competitive self-love might mean setting ourselves a task and succeeding at it, or perhaps challenging ourselves to try doing a new thing and learning over time to do that thing better. Learning to knit or bake, to fix our bikes or paint a wall, to touch-type, to unlock the next level of a video game, to meditate. As long as we’re doing it to build ourselves up and not cut ourselves down, let’s do what works best for us. This is about taking pride and pleasure in what we can do.
This isn’t about buying into ableist nonsense about what we should be able to do or what “normal” people do – it’s about appreciating what each of us uniquely can do. People who are “disabled” are still very able to do lots of things, just as people who are “able-bodied” can still be unable to do some things. There’s no room here for unreasonable or non-applicable standards.
Function can also be about appreciating what we can do without requiring it to be held up against what others can do or even what we ourselves have done in the past. That can be a pure thing – as in, self-appreciation independent of all comparison. For instance, I’m in awe of the way my hands work. They’re such incredible precision tools. It’s not about having better hands than anyone else, it’s just the wow factor of watching ten fingers at work, doing a zillion things a day.
Form is about the way we look. This can include things like learning to love the body we have, right now, even if it’s not the perfect body we wanted. But it’s not just an inner thing. Loving ourselves via form can also mean deciding that our bodies are worthy of care and adornment. Haircuts, grooming, fashion – these things are not (necessarily) tools of heteropatriarchal white supremacist capitalism, though like everything else in life we must both resist and navigate that system to gain access to the things we need to achieve the beauty we want to appreciate in ourselves. It can be dangerous to focus on form to the exclusion of all else. And of course it can be dangerous to buy into the beauty ideals foisted upon us by systems that don’t have our best interests at heart. But that doesn’t mean beauty is a bad thing. It’s deeply human to want to create and appreciate beauty. You get to define what that means to you, and then go make it happen. Express your gender, enjoy your own unique brand of gorgeousness, connect with your historic cultural symbolism and/or your subculture(s) of choice via your looks, do the things that make your physical self shine.
Of course these three axes can overlap or combine. Learning to distinguish wine varietals solely by taste is a function thing – but enjoying the wine is a feeling thing. If you enjoy a clothing or footwear fetish, or enjoy both the process and the result of getting tattooed or pierced, you’re engaging in form and feeling at the same time. Some kinds of exercise lead to visible changes in the body while also boosting things like flexibility and strength, so maybe your physical practice is about both function and form.
And surely other people out there would have brilliant ideas to add to this list, or brilliant challenges to it that arise from their own experiences of having a body that I might simply not be aware of or able to speak to authentically here. I welcome your comments, critiques and ideas.
All I can say is that, for me, it’s been really useful to realize that I don’t have to stop loving my body because it’s not behaving the way I want it to. I can shift the way I approach loving my body so that even if some aspects are working less well at a given moment, others can be called upon. If I’m hurting too much to exercise (function), I can still enjoy scouring the Internet for that perfect pair of second-hand shoes (form). If I’m unhappy that I can’t fit into a dress I used to love (form), I can still enjoy tasting chocolate (feeling). And so forth.
In a world that tries to shame and regulate the body in general, and in a specific physical body that sometimes makes daily life difficult, this little theoretical triptych has given me an extra tool or two to bring some gentleness and joy into my physical existence. Perhaps it’ll do the same for you.