licking to liberation

If you struggle with the modern, American obsession with the self, I recommend you look at a piece of art called Lick and Lather. Janine Antoni licked seven busts of her head made of chocolate into different shapes. Then she repeated the process by lathering herself with seven busts of her head made of soap.

She made herself a vessel of sensuality and reformed it.

I think her art expresses the malleability of the self. One licks and lathers through life, experiencing pleasures and toils, and the self changes form. The self is not a fixed entity living within us, then, but the byproduct of sensual experiences. I think chocolate and soap were particularly powerful mediums to portray this paradigm. I have experienced myself as the arbiter of the taste of chocolate and the feeling of washing away that sense afterward.

Through a process of cultural confusion and relations to others, I felt lonely and afraid at times during college. I think other people can understand that. I thought that no one understood my experience of those emotions at the time.

I sought distractions from my feelings. I read and wrote, analyzing others’ works without connecting to the individuals that wrote them. Or the peers with whom I could discuss them. I called my mother crying as a source of comfort. I ignored the pain I delegated to her.

I sought other sources of comfort. I remember one mid-February day during my second year of college, I sat on my bed, read Master and Margarita, ate a brownie and felt so much better. I did this every day for the next month. I noticed my body change under the sensuality.

I began to feel terrified when I enjoyed eating. I noticed a tiny change in my body and aggrandized eating chocolate into a sin.

A wise woman listened to what happened next and told me, “Oh, you felt body anxiety.” Simple as that. I believed it was much more complicated. I became tangled in narratives of feminism and what I believed was a progressive worldview — I could eat whatever I wanted to eat, I told myself, because I was a woman liberated from patriarchal expectations. I felt sick afterward because excess is a malady of the spirit.

I think feminism calls for a strong connection to one’s spirit.

I went abroad, without internet or electricity, to escape the pain that compounded. I told myself I travelled across the world to “find myself.” Redundant and spineless, since I laughed at the concept of “finding” oneself.

What if you got in a car accident and your body was destroyed? My stepdad asked me once, probing the limitations of the spirit.

It was like walking in a Gaugin painting every day when I went abroad, dark and colorful with crocodiles in the water and coconuts in the trees. I ate the food quickly, avoiding its sensuality. I hear this narrative among other women. I wish, today, I paid more attention to the taste of that place.

I ignored my feelings most fully by intellectualizing them. I wrote a paper on the links between childhood neglect and adult eating patterns. I reduced my emotions to a pathology, which I think is a widespread problem today. I distracted myself with the idea that I was a good student, had always been a good student. I hear this narrative among other women.

I buried my emotions and with them the truth of what made them so powerful. I imagined myself as weak for experiencing my sensuality, imagining idols that deprived themselves of feeling. The sparest of models, Da Vinci’s sleepless night mapping the stars, Gandhi. I wish I had noticed this idolization, how it related to human fear, the desire for affection.

Author Jonathon Haidt says that humans seek to worship to transcend the self. A person’s behavior can be understood, in other words, in terms of what he or she idolizes. We place a locus of force outside of the self and it guides our view of the world, our choices. David Foster Wallace also speaks of this notion in his “This Is Water” speech. Other than God, he says, “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.”

I broke my hip before my body worship ate me alive, and I am left with the pieces. I fell one day after running too far and too fast, trying to sweat out the feelings of guilt at my own sensuality — whether I’d had sex or enjoyed my lunch. A feminist might point out a genuine error in this thinking.

I am aware that the breaking of one’s hip is often reserved for those above 70 or engaged in extreme sports. I am neither, though I feel the creaking reminder of two nails in my side to slow down.

I worry about the little girls of today with their SoulCycle and Hägen Daz hamsterwheels, going so fast, calling themselves “spiritual.”

I think rather than worshipping the body, I worshipped work. The original source of my isolation drew in large part from my idea that I needed to work all of the time to mean something. I believed my life edged toward a form of nirvana in which the ultimate cause for my energy would channel me to a cubicle of heaven, fixing the world. That idea most certainly made me die a million deaths.

I appreciate the idea of the natural human desire to worship and that tendency creating the propensity for pain. I also think the flow state created by worship can be reenacted through creativity. Creativity, which feeds upon feeling.

I think about Lick and Lather again, and the praxis it gave me to understand the self. I subscribed for a while to the idea that the self should be foregone in favor of forces of nature and the movement of the world. That very philosophy, however, necessitated self-acknowledgement. I now prefer to engage with pleasure and pain as they come, and to take a step back more often — to observe the changes that these experiences bestowed, like art.

I remember feeling wind blowing on me when I felt lonely and feeling so much worse. I loved wind, its smell, its sensation; to have it touch my aching spirit reminded me that I was alive and felt that way.

I will taste again. I will feel my body as I bathe again. I will write as I ride along the riptide again.