After having let the dogs out and fed them in the early hours of this morning as is our routine, I was lying in bed listening to the latest episode of a beloved podcast. One of the persons interviewed was a woman whom the interviewer asked how she would identify herself, what words she would use to describe who she was. She began with what she was not, by saying “I am not my body.” This was an especially important distinction for her since she had once been a world-class athlete who identified herself by, and was identified by others for, her physical prowess. Her body had been the center of her life, her very identity, until a terrible accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. No longer an “athlete” or a “machine” as she had often been called, her body became a liability and her identity was adrift. Now, decades later, she says that her identity arises from her heart, not her physical self.
Though I have never been an athlete, unless being a world-class complainer counts, I can still relate to my identity being tied to my appearance and capabilities. For over twenty years, the military determined my worth to them as much by my physical abilities as by my technical skills. My effectiveness as a business owner was also tied to my physical abilities, though my intellectual skills were most essential. Setting myself aside for a minute and speaking more abstractly, do we not refer to people by how they appear to us (“that blonde woman with the big hair” or “that tall Mexican guy” or “the dark-haired man in the wheel chair,” just to provide a few examples)? In a way, physical appearance or presentation is all that we have to describe folks if we are not acquainted with them. Leaving the associated issues of racism and classism that are inherent to this form of identification for another day, I want to focus on the stereotypes. How does this way of identifying people by their appearance reinforce the thinking that our bodies define us more than our character?
In western culture, we have been trained to dress, act, and groom ourselves a certain way to fit in. We alter our appearance based on the occasion, our mood, and current trends. Some of us develop signature styles or accessories that become a key part of our public identity and hint at the character that lies beneath the package. For me, hair has always been an important part of my appearance, perhaps because I was never happy with how the rest of me looked; the hair I could control, the nose and butt, not so much. Suffice it to say that I never felt that my appearance was good enough nor adequately portrayed who I believed myself to be. But, then, how can we reasonably hope to be informed about someone from one look at them, or a brief interaction?
It is clear to me now that appearance has played far too important a role in my life and continues to cause me angst. Though my obsession with appearance is much less than it used to be, I still compare myself to others – how can we avoid it amidst the barrage of media telling us to do just that? I feel as though there is constant pressure to look a certain way in order to be accepted. Even though I know intellectually this is a fallacy, I am still vulnerable to these ideas. Despite occasionally pushing back with a messy hairstyle and no makeup whatsoever, some days it takes an hour to get dressed to go to the grocery store because all my clothes make me look stupid or fat. I realize that this is a mild form of body dysmorphia, as it is nearly impossible for clothes to fit one day and not the next. Most western women can relate to this and are somewhere on the image-obsession spectrum themselves. Men, too, can be appearance-obsessed, though far less emphasis is placed on their looks than on women’s in our society. You would be hard-pressed to argue that we are not all weight-obsessed here in North America.
This practice of focusing on the package people are wrapped in rather than the content of their personality and character has a strong connection to our physical well-being, also. Despite emerging science – and dare I say some ‘common sense’ – that weight and appearance alone do not dictate one’s state of health, we all believe that they do. If you are fat, you are automatically assumed to be unhealthy. What’s worse, you are also assumed to be lacking self-control, unable to stop eating. Dieting with the goal of weight loss is an epidemic in our country, with many healthy people making themselves sick by trying to be thinner.
What people do not want to admit to themselves is that our bodies often dictate our actions. Though our intellectual will can occasionally override our physical instincts (think hunger strike), people who eat, drink, or smoke too much, or engage in other activities that are harmful to their bodies, are usually doing so because something is wrong with their bodies. Their chemistry, metabolism, hormone levels, or other critical body systems are off kilter and the result is these behaviors. We damned well know that most people are not choosing to harm themselves in these ways, and yet we tell ourselves that they are, we blame them for their condition, for not conforming to our societal norms, for being weak.
Why do we do that? Why do we blame each other when our bodies do not conform to these crazy rules we have made up about how we are supposed to look? Why do we even have these rules about appearance? Well, I’m only a budding social scientist with no formal research experience (yet), so I cannot render a professional opinion, and it is undoubtedly complex. But my personal opinion, the one I’ve developed from living these things for over fifty years, is that we place this blame because we are afraid of what it will mean if we accept that we are not in control of our bodies. What implications does it have if we accept that despite exercise, eating well, avoiding the use of harmful substances, and doing all the things that science currently thinks are in our best interests, our bodies still get sick, get fat, develop chronic pain, and flat out betray us?
Well, it means that we are human. It means that, collectively, we only know enough at this moment in time to extend our lives, but not necessarily to improve the quality of them. It means that we have made progress, but we still know only a little. It means that we probably ought to stop judging people by their appearance and, at the very least, view folks with extreme habits or conditions as people in need of medical treatment, not people guilty of character flaws or moral weaknesses. That there are currently no universally successful medical treatments for many of these ailments does not mean that people are not in need of such care, only that it is not currently available.
As I begin this next chapter of my own journey by embracing chronic pain, my empathy for others has swelled yet again. I have done nothing to cause this. I have done all the “right” things: I eat better and cleaner than most people I know; I get plenty of physical activity and am strong; I ingest very little caffeine; and I no longer smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol or use any other sort of recreational drugs. My general health has improved, and I have been able to stop using some prescription medications because of my lifestyle changes. Yet, here I am with this newly developed chronic pain that is, some days, completely debilitating.
While my doctor and I are still exploring possible causes, I do not expect it to be an obvious diagnosis. I already have one auto-immune disorder (Hashimoto’s) and one ill-defined, chronic gut condition (IBS-D), so I fully expect this pain disorder will turn out to be another nebulous ailment. Auto-immune disorders – the most likely ‘cause’ of my pain – are not well understood and are hard to definitively identify; because their causes are unknown, there are no conclusive laboratory tests (though there are some that can provide clues); diagnosis comes only through identification of clusters of symptoms coupled with a ruling out of other, better understood conditions. This, of course, does not account for any currently unknown conditions, which are undoubtedly numerous. Just as we now know our gut bacteria to be a key part of our immune system but do not yet know all of its mechanisms, many of these so-called autoimmune diseases could be the result of invading bacteria or viruses that we have not yet identified. But until we know more, those of us who are afflicted are left to manage in whatever ways work for us. Medicine cannot help us much at this moment.
I am fortunate to be in a place of great flexibility in my life. With few exceptions, when I have a bad pain day, I can just lay low. I had to drag myself out yesterday in the midst of much pain to attend to some appointments, and I managed. But usually, I can just take my laptop to the sofa or to bed and work from there or postpone my activities altogether. I feel pretty fortunate. I am writing this despite the pain in my fingers and wrists that is exacerbated by the jarring from typing, and the pain in every other part of my body that is worsened by prolonged sitting. I am standing at the kitchen counter right this minute because sitting became too painful. I will spend the day working on various written projects because I must, alternately standing and sitting. This is my new normal. I am still figuring it out.
Like the former athlete, I am not my body. At this stage, it has little to do with who I am at all. It is merely the vessel that permits my presence in this realm and allows me to interact with all of you. I honor my body, for without it I would not exist, at least not here. But it most certainly does not define me. So, when my hair appears to be thin and falling out, or my choice of clothing seems odd to you, or when I am causing an impediment in the grocery aisle because I am moving too slow, don’t expect an apology. My body is doing the best it can, as am I. Tomorrow I may be doing yard work like a boss; it is all up to my body. I hope that you will look past my appearance to the human being that I am and have some compassion, as I do for those who have not yet had to face the hard truth that who they are is not defined by their appearance or physical capabilities. We are so much more than that.