Anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer and beat it like I have feels a strong sense of gratitude for both the doctors and the body that fought so gallantly. Of course, a niggling sense that your body betrayed you in the first place may linger, but if it rallies in the end, you just let bygone be bygones with a big dose of muah.
But for women, gratitude towards one’s body comes hard and, even after a bout of cancer or other life-threatening illness, doesn’t last. We’ve been taught body hatred from the cradle. Through commercials, conditioning and unasked for commentary, we’ve learned that our body is either not enough or too much. We’re either unsexy or too sexy, too skinny or too fat, too tall or too short — all depending on the transient, subjective whims of male of the species. As if the whole point of our body isn’t to house our spirit or allow us to move from one place to another, it’s to attract men. And when it does, we find a whole new reason to hate our bodies as it often “entices” unwanted and unasked for attention.
This indoctrination of bodies as primarily sexual vehicles starts at an early age through exposure to media and corporations which have traditionally been run by men. While we have long understood that media can have positive influences on learning — Sesame Street started in the sixties — we are just now beginning to understand how media has been used to sexualize female bodies. A four phase study conducted by University of South Australia professor, Leslie-Anne Ey suggests “that the pervasive influence of mass media contributes to the construction of a sexualized milieu in which children grow and develop, and in this way has an impact their development.” It also found that “children were adopting attitudes and presentation, congruent with popular music discourse, from a young age.” Another study by researchers Christine Starr and Gail Ferguson show that “American girls aged between 6 and 9 years showed a preference for sexy clothing and anticipated social advantages generated from looking sexy. These preferences and views were thought to be associated with young girls’ learning to value sexiness through agents such as the media.”
Research is building the case that the sexualization of children, especially girls, is affecting behavior. In the book, So Sexy So Soon, Diane E. Levin PH.D and Jean Kilbourne ED.D. write that while children are sexual beings and learning about sex and sexuality is a natural and gradual process, sex in the commercial culture may provide a damaging sexual education based on marketing and consumerism.
To put it simply, our culture sexualizes female bodies in a harmful way, sending troubling and confusing messages to girls very early on for money. No wonder eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders are rampant.
But what if we turned our backs on our indoctrination for a whole new paradigm? What if we taught young girls how to build body gratitude?
I’ve been thinking a lot about my own body lately. Not just because I’ve put on 13 pounds since my summer of reset low, or that somehow or another I’ve only worked out sporadically this fall and winter. Nor because I’m over fifty and the rate of muscle mass deterioration when not working out is quicker. (Though trust, me all of those things are running through the back of my mind.) No, this new preoccupation with my body has arisen from a variety of sources and is more positive than it’s ever been.
First was a writing workshop at the Corporeal Writing workshop called Hibernal Writing. One of the concepts taught was to feel your writing — that it has a physical component. So much of the creativity work I’ve previously done focuses on the intellectual or spiritual. Corporeal writing teaches that there is a physical aspect, as well and why shouldn’t there be? Our bodies are part of who we are. By learning to listen to my body as it pertains to my writing, I started seeing it in a different way. As a part of the whole rather than just the house. Yes, it’s of the corporeal but it informs the emotional and spiritual part of ourselves just as our emotions affect our physical health.
The other experience was a series of meditations I did on listening to the body. Most meditations start by assessing the body, looking for tightness or discomfort, then moving the focus to the breath. These meditations stayed with the body, teaching that listening and concentrating on what our physical selves are doing all the time without our knowledge is miraculous in and of itself and we should be grateful. Most of us aren’t grateful until the body doesn’t do what it’s supposed to — how much richer would our lives be if we were grateful for our bodies before something goes awry?
Cultivating gratitude for our bodies starts with understanding that:
· The beauty industry makes money on teaching body hate. (American spend over 60 billion dollars a year on the diet industry alone and that doesn’t include fashion, cosmetics or cosmetic medical interventions.)
· Female body dissatisfaction stems primarily from the changing dictates of male sexual appetites.
· Our popular culture teaches body dissatisfaction very early through its media.
Healing that body dissatisfaction and hate starts with an awareness that our body is part of our whole (intellectual, emotional and physical) and integration of all those parts includes simple gratitude for our physical selves. Right now, as I write this, my heart is beating, sending blood with life giving oxygen to all the parts of my body including the fingers typing this essay. As you read, electrical impulses are firing away, taking information from one part of your brain to another, decoding, deciphering and comparing the information to the bits of data already stored and filing it away for future use.
These are freaking miracles and we should be grateful.
The more aware we are of the miracle that is our physical selves, the more leery we are of messages that disparage it and the easier it is to change up those destructive messages. For instance, “Excuse me, my legs might be short and chubby instead of sleek and long, but they once ran a half marathon and when I got up this morning, they walked my ass over to the coffee pot like freaking champs!”
See how that works? When you feel gratitude for a special person in your life, you show them with actions and behavior. When you feel gratitude for your body, you slowly begin to treat it differently. You try to help it do its role instead of hindering it. Body gratitude leads to body acceptance and taking care of that body like the hardworking rockstar it is. Care of it includes learning about how it works, what helps it and what harms it. I’ve had cancer twice. Helping my body should be a priority and yet, I often imbibe in too much alcohol, skip workouts and eat food that hinders rather than helps. Why? I believe it’s partially due to a lack of integration between my incorporeal self, and my physical self, but mostly, a lack of gratitude brought about by over fifty years of cultural conditioning.
Tips on cultivating body gratitude:
· Learn about your body and what nourishes it.
· Cultivate awareness of what your body does on a regular basis. A regular meditation practice helps with this.
· Turn destructive cultural messages around. Remember they’re making money by promoting body dissatisfaction. (And environmentally, the fashion industry is worse than the airline industry for pollution and carbon usage .) Think about function over form — do your arms lift? Do your stomach and digestive system do its job? Remember six pack abs matter less when you are going under the knife for diverticulitis, etc.
· Even if you have body parts that work less than optimally, there are still things to be grateful for. It’s a matter of focus.
Switching from body dissatisfaction to body gratitude is transformative. Remember, however, that it’s not an instantaneous fix. Hating my body is deeply ingrained and takes constant reprogramming. This kind of paradigm shift is fighting decades of patriarchal based brain washing. But it can, when practiced on a regular basis, be life-changing.
Starr, C., and G. Ferguson. 2012. “Sexy Dolls, Sexy Grade-Schoolers? Media & Maternal Influences on Young Girls’ Self-Sexualization.” Sex Roles 67 (7–8): 463–476.10.1007/s11199–012–0183-x
Ey, Lesley-Anne. “Sexualised Music Media and Children’s Gender Role and Self-Identity Development: A Four-Phase Study.” Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, vol. 16, no. 6, Jan. 2016, pp. 634–648. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1114792&site=ehost-live.
Cbsnews.com. (2020). Fashion industry’s carbon impact bigger than airline industry’s. [online] Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/earth-day-2019-fashion-industrys-carbon-impact-is-bigger-than-airline-industrys/ [Accessed 28 Jan. 2020].