This weekend I attended a professional conference focused on the treatment of eating disorders. Yesterday we had a tour of a new state of the art hospital-based treatment program, a beautiful facility that provides everything from art therapy to yoga to medical management. As as we walked through the halls, we saw some of the women who are patients there, and I wondered what it was like for them to see us, touring the facility while they were hanging on for life.
Although they have had a scant few male patients so far, the majority of their clientele are female. Our Western culture both glorifies and vilifies women, and although much has been written and studied already about that, I felt like I was seeing it in the flesh, or in the disappearing flesh as it were. People with eating disorders experience a complex relationship with their bodies, often describing a paradoxical feeling of being dissociated and engulfed simultaneously. Themes like compulsion, drivenness and absence of speech are common in these professional workshops.
People will starve themselves, or force themselves to vomit, or compulsively exercise, sometimes taking themselves to the brink of near death or grave illness. What are we doing to our bodies?
For those whose bodies have been violated by abuse or trauma, the relationship with the body can have yet another aspect of challenge and complexity. Our brains have extraordinary capacity to cope with trauma, yet sometimes those coping strategies are no longer useful or healthy and we need create new ones.
Our relationship with our bodies is profoundly affected by hormones, aging, illness and the environment. Talk with any adolescent or perimenopausal woman about how hormones affect mood, sleep, and sexuality, or someone coping with chronic illness or disability and you will likely hear themes of loss, shifting relationships and, hopefully, discovery of new resources and relationships.
What does culture, gender and power have to do with our relationship with our bodies? Ask anyone who grew up being forced to conform to gendered expectations of what to wear, how to play, or express herself and you will usually hear about how they had to suppress and constrict her authentic self in order to satisfy others, not to mention to survive. Tomboys who were forced to wear dresses and girly clothes, gentle young boys told not to cry, forced to play sports or who secretly played with dolls. Not to mention if God forbid you fall in love with someone of the same gender.
In her book The Last Time I Wore a Dress, author Daphne Scholinski writes eloquently about how her gender conformity was used as a marker of mental health when she was in a psychiatric hospital as an adolescent and young adult. Expectations of gender conformity are more than just sociological phenomena; they are weapons of mass destruction.
These suffocating expectations also value youth, thinness and whiteness as standards of beauty; even the majority of professionals attending this conference reflected those standards. There were very few people sitting in that auditorium who looked like me, dressed like me, or talked like me, and I would hardly characterize myself as gender transgressive.
I can't help but also think about the epidemic of plastic surgery in our society, people who are injecting botox, cutting themselves apart, bleaching their skin or erasing any evidence of aging or variation from these impossible expectations. Just think about the images of the late Michael Jackson that we have seen over the years, particularly in these weeks since his death. How and why did his visible expression of gender and race change over the course of his life?
At the same time, I am heartened by the recent popularity of mindfulness meditation in the general population (beyond Buddhists who have been practicing it for many years). We also now have excellent data from major medical centers in the US about the positive impact of mindfulness on physical and emotional well being, thanks in part to the work and wisdom of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. You can even find a video on YouTube of Dr. Kabat-Zinn teaching a mindfulness session.
How are you feeling in your body right now? Where are you holding any stress or tension? Where do you feel loose and relaxed? Where do you feel disconnected from your body? Whom do you talk to about this? What is one thing you could do to honor your body today?
Love after Love
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.