The Matter Matters: Restoring the Body to Body-Positive Activism
A couple days back, I finally posted “Skin Deep” — a poem I’ve been working on (to varying degrees) since mid-summer. It’s my first new spoken-word piece in over 2 years, and I promised to talk a little more about it, once it had the chance to stand on its own for a bit. (I’m always interested in what people make of art without input from the person who put it out there. And yet… this is a piece I want to talk about further.) So here I am, 48 hours later, taking a swing at keeping my promise.
A few months back, I had one of those strange and wonderful experiences reserved for people who’ve been writing A Good While. (At 25, I rarely consider myself old enough to have been doing anything “a good while,” but if there’s an exception to that standard, writing is probably it.) This particular strange experience started when Adbusters.org featured “Shit Ain’t Pretty” (one of my spoken-word pieces from 2008), spurring a temporary flood of viewers to my largely inactive YouTube channel. Kind comments poured in about the piece, drawing me back in time to a poem I’d largely walked away from. Writers and artists who’ve “been at it a bit” might recognize this experience: the sudden fanning of a piece you don’t relate to currently, the corresponding challenge to take another look at art that’s started to feel like it was drawn by somebody else. It’s lovely in some ways; it messes with your mind in others.
Now- to be clear- there’s a lot about “Shit Ain’t Pretty” that I love. And the outpouring of support for that piece, specifically, has meant a lot to me. But so has the commentary of one dear friend, who commented on the poem back when it was first posted – and who reacted far differently than any other listener from whom I’ve heard. Said friend knows me about as deep as a person can, knows me to my guts and bones and back. Perhaps because of that, he knows me well enough to see through my own unpretty bullshit and — in a poem where so many others heard strength and feminism and a calling out of -isms — he heard something else: my own unwillingness to focus on the idea that I am beautiful.
“Shit Ain’t Pretty” begins with a few lines about how often women (specifically) get told we aren’t pretty. It pays homage to Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl” — “I am not a pretty girl; that is not what I do” — then blurs (as DiFranco does) the line between not being pretty and being so much more than that: “I am not pretty/ only, I am not pretty/ merely – I am also fierce, intelligent–” etc. It starts in a space somewhere between confirming that I’m not pretty and playing with that assumption. It does not, at any point, dismiss ugliness as the bullshit it is. As the Friend Who Knows Me put it:
What’s all this sh*t about you’re not being pretty? O.K. – if you only said that in order not to be objectified, then you have to go with beautiful- both inside and out. Just because you’re passionate, intense, missioned, and dedicated doesn’t mean that you can’t be pretty too. And [I’ve] a lot invested emotionally in you and can neither bend the truth, nor can I tolerate your demoting yourself in any way. If you don’t want to comment on your aesthetics because you (understandably) deem them irrelevant to your very important message, you don’t have to say anything; just don’t distract your audience or take any hits to your self esteem – no matter how big or small you deem the hit to be – in order to emphasize the truth – that you can still be beautiful and at the same time, refuse to be treated as a Barbie at the exclusion of your other superior qualities…
You can see why I love him, right? And maybe you can also see how his point about this poem (about my argument that I am/ we are worth something in spite of how I/we look) has led me to think about it differently than many others do. I don’t write off the good messages in this piece. But I do cringe a little when I see evidence of that particular message, (“I’m not pretty, but I’m other more important things”) be it in my past work, my current thinking, or the work of others.
Non-trolls have brought up a few interesting critiques of “Shit Ain’t Pretty” — including its apparent “dismissal” of body policing and body image issues among males. (A lot of the editing I did on “Skin Deep” focused on trying not to do that a second time, and although this video of SD uses my body – and thus feminizes the poem somewhat – the text itself works to be inclusive.) But — outside of that aforementioned exchange with the Person Who Knows Me — the poem’s suggestion (that we can solve our collective body image woes by focusing on something other than the body) remains largely unchallenged. That absent critique — one I’ve taken up more and more in the years since I wrote “Shit Ain’t Pretty” — is at the heart of the new poem, “Skin Deep.”
In essence, “Shit Ain’t Pretty” responds to the cult/ure of beauty. Skin Deep responds to the response. It’s important — to me at least — that when “Skin Deep” starts, I’m verbalizing the same advice that I’ll take issue with later in the poem. It’s a reflection of my history with body image advocacy, an illustration of the uncomfortable truth that — over the years — I’ve made (and aligned with) many points about bodies, some of which I still agree with and some of which I don’t. To quote myself, as unpretentiously as possible: “Increasingly I question the very ideology that saved me.” Increasingly, I take issues with the rhetoric of the body-positive culture — the same rhetoric I have clung to in the past.
I take issue with my old arguments — (arguments about inner beauty, about the personality as “true” self, about the superficialty of appearance) — and I take issue with how common those arguments remain — for many reasons. Perhaps the most crucial is that I no longer think we can fight for better body image by claiming the body doesn’t matter or that it matters less than “who we are.” I still hear from so many people that our personality is more important than our bodies, and I cringe at the number of times I’ve repeated that same idea. Because frankly, our bodies matter. They have to matter. If we’re going to battle a message of “you are worthless because of how you look,” we have to respond to that message on its own terms. We can’t simply say, “I am worthy for other reasons; my sense of humor, my intellect, my ability to be a good friend outweigh how I look.” We have to be able to say, “The idea that I’m ugly is bullshit. I am fucking gorgeous.”
Or – to quote a defunct WI emo band: “The body has got to be worth saving.”
Now, obviously, “the body” is more than appearance. (This is another fave point in body-positive culture. ) The body is also what it can do, what it can feel, what it makes possible. My body isn’t just my brown hair and pockmarked skin; it’s also bike-riding, kisses, rocking my nephew to sleep. Learning this has been key in my recovery, and it’s not a message I want to abandon. Taking pride in what my body can do, particularly as someone who was never an athlete, feeds my sense of contentment. That said – I’m not being told I’m worthless for what my body can’t do nearly as often as I’m being told I’m worthless for how I look. (Ableist messages abound, but the “disabled” body is as stigmatized for not fitting the beauty ideal as it is for not being “able.”) So, if I’m going to shield myself against those negative messages, the strongest defense is still a response about appearance specifically. Yes, my body kicks ass for what it can do. But the response to society’s continual message of “you’re ugly; buy things, then go die” is not “I have mean hiking skills and give hugs with the best of them.” The response is, “I’m sorry, have you SEEN me? I’m gorgeous.”
So — maybe it’s just my secret longing to have been on a debate team at some point — but I fundamentally believe we need to respond to the Haters-that-Be with a direct attack on their original claim. Beyond that, I think trivializing the body (and the appearance, specifically) is dangerous for body image activism, as well as for the individiual and collective health that activism works to promote. It’s dangerous — (not just ineffective but dangerous) — because it plays into one of the most damaging concepts around: the notion of the mind-body split.
The mind-body split shows up again and again in body-image activism. It shows up as the notion that the personality matters more than the body, that inner beauty matters more than appearence, and that our “true” selves matter more than the “vessels” that carry them around. All of these ideas appear liberating at first glance. (Sometimes — I can testify — they look liberating for several years.) But they miss a key point: the body and the self are inseparable. The parts of myself that I am able to love — my intellect, my sense of humor, my empathy — are literally my body in action. My personality, my inner beauty, and my true self are creations of the cells, the neurotransmitters, the muscles and nerves and organs that are me. I fail myself when I argue that I matter in spite of my physicality and because of all these great non-bodily features. I fail myself because my physicality and my personality are — in fact — the same.
The notion that “our bodies are intrinsically ourselves” is crucial. There is no full liberation from body hatred inside the mind-body split. The point of that split has been to privilege the rational/ mental/ personal mind above the irrational/ physical/ sexual body. To restore the body, we must bridge the gap.
Obviously, this isn’t easy. It’s certainly not easy on a societal level. It’s not even easy in the context of our invidiual lives. A site of contention, insecurity, and discomfort isn’t easy to embrace. Given that the body remains so uncomfortable for most of us, it makes sense that we rely on arguments that trivialize it. Personally, I understand why it’s easier for me to argue that I’m a pretty cool person, regardless (of my looks) than it is to say, “Shut up, I’m stunning.” I understand that it’s easier to focus on what my body can do than to advocate for my appearance, unsupplemented. Even here, I find myself swerving back into old tendencies– pointing out the intellect my body makes possible, pointing out “what my body can do” at a cellular and chemical level.
Embracing a stance against body-hatred based firmly in radical body-love is endlessly difficult. Likewise, it’s a constant challenge — to each of us — to integrate the mind-body split, despite cultural reliance on their separation. But, for now at least — (until another two years pass, until I write the next poem) — I firmly believe it’s necessary. It’s necessary to quit clinging to the “consolation prizes” of personality, at the expense of the core issue: the body and its beauty. It’s necessary that we quit directing people to their smarts, their senses of humor, and their creativity, to help balance out their idea that they aren’t beautiful. Not because “who we are” matters less than how we look. Not because we don’t truly have all those marvelous qualities we list. We are, indeed, as smart and funny and loving as we claim.
But we are ALSO gorgeous. And that matters too. Messy and snared as the path may be, we need — finally — to choose the most radical path: the one where we fight back, not with the idea that beauty doesn’t matter, but with the idea that we’re jaw-droppingly gorgeous, full-stop.
“There is no way back to the body. The body is the way.” -Geneen Roth