catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 24 :: 2013.12.27 — 2014.01.09


Body image

On some Friday nights, after our weekly community potluck, we head over to the all-ages Riviera Theatre bar to continue conversations over beverages.  This past Friday, a few of us chatted about body image, including the different ways men and women perceive ideals for their own bodies and how clothing sizes — whether the objective, numerical sizes of men’s pants or the subjective, fluctuating sizes of women’s clothing — shape our beliefs about what’s normal and desirable.  One person shared how he felt conspicuously small for a male; another talked about how, even though he had no general anxiety about his size, he did feel that his hips were too high.  As someone who shops thrift stores and garage sales for vintage clothes, I shared about the absurdity of women’s sizes and how my wardrobe, which probably spans 50 years of manufacturing, also spans a range of about 10 sizes — so what is “normal” anyway, besides a moving target manipulated to keep us in a constant state of anxious consumption?

The conversation was good and honest, but, in a highly visual culture, it highlighted how much time we spend thinking about our bodies, particularly how we look and feel in comparison to others.  Surely there is goodness in the artful communication of identity through clothing, and in learning to see beauty in ourselves and others not just in spite of, but because of our physical differences.  But the outside of our bodies, what we can see, is just a small part of who we are as physical beings (consider how someone with limited vision experiences personhood no less fully in herself and others).  There is also what we are able to do because we are embodied.

I recently finished reading Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck, in which the regal Madame Wu, head of an ancient and wealthy Chinese household, encounters a Western priest when he begins coming into her family’s courts to teach her son English.  Madame Wu’s relationship with Brother Andre deepens from her initial surprise at the priest’s physical features — his huge stature, his hairiness — to an exchange of ideas as equals, in which they share their philosophies about who we are and why we are on this earth.  In one of their conversations about her son, Madame Wu challenges Brother Andre to define his religion:

“You are trying to persuade me to let you teach him your religion,” she said shrewdly.

“You do not know what my religion is,” Brother Andre answered.

“I do know,” she said.  “Little Sister Hsia has read me often out of your sacred books, and she has explained to me your foreign ways of praying and all such things.”

“My religion is not hers, nor hers mine,” this strange man replied.

“Explain me yours,” she commanded him.

“I will not explain it, for I cannot,” he said.  “Little Sister Hsia can read you out of a book and speak to you a way of praying, but these are not my ways.  I read many books, I have no set ways of prayer.”

“Then where is your way of religion?” she demanded.

“In bread and in water,” he replied, “in sleeping and in walking, in cleaning my house and making my garden, in feeding the lost children I find and take under my room, in coming to teach your son, in sitting by those who are ill, and in helping those who must die, that they may die in peace.”

Now, I think it’s important not to let Brother Andre’s ideas about the life of faith exclude those with physical disabilities, because religion is not only these things.  But I do think it’s worth considering his response to the challenge to articulate “where” his religion is, particularly as we celebrate once again the incarnation of God as a human child, alive in a particular time and place.  For Brother Andre, devotion to the divine is not in the head — in ways of praying or believing the ideas out of books. Nor is it in perpetuating the so-called natural order through displays of physical beauty and wealth, as Madame Wu was brought up to do, and yet it is still physical, expressed in the ways that his body is able to care for other bodies (including his own) as they eat, age, move, clean, learn, suffer and die.  Each body, no matter how broken, is gifted with abilities to express devotion to God through physical care for self and others.  Simply being alive can be an act of devotion, an expression of reciprocal love toward God-with-us.  As Thomas Merton writes in Dialogues with Silence,

My God, I pray better to you by breathing.

I pray better to you by walking than by talking.

And when we’ve walked our last step, and breathed our last breath, we have this strange, incomprehensible promise of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, which is a mystery both within and beyond a size 12, high hipbones, a body adorned in secondhand sheik.  In the meantime, we can expand our energy, whether of thought or action, again and again from the aesthetic dimension of our own bodies to the full goodness of being physical: with hearts that beat blood as well as compassion, eyes that perceive both light and love, hands that bind us to one another in labor and in friendship.  Being embodied is good.  It is complicated and awful and pleasurable and strange.  And it is one of the mysteries into which Immanuel enters with us, a baby who is God, the image of the invisible, a brother who is also a King. 

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