By Maddie Ruud
It’s easy to feel like your body is the enemy. After all, Western philosophy is heavily dependent on the idea of dualism (the idea that the body and mind are separate), and we’re surrounded by propaganda that rams that message home. Advertising rhetoric is full of language that aggressively pits “us” (ie., our minds) against our bodies’ natural inclinations: we “tame” our tresses, we “fight” hunger, we “conquer” cravings, we “battle” the bulge, we “kill” pain. At worst, we see our bodies as wily adversaries, to be regarded with suspicion and kept in constant check. At best, we see them as accessories, merely vehicles in which to tote around what we see as our true identities — our minds.
But whether we treat our bodies as foes or as slaves, we seem to expect them not to resist, revolt, or die from the abuse. We enter these battles without an exit strategy, with an almost adolescent short-sightedness. We ignore dissenting voices from our bodies — after all, they’re only property. Most of us can never be as thin as we’d like, but if our bodies try to tell us this, we deny it like a stubborn child. “Mind over matter,” we say. Perhaps genetics didn’t give us the breasts we want, so we go to a doctor to cut us open and implant artificial ones. “It’s what I want,” we say, never thinking to consult our bodies about what they want. We’ve made up our minds, and damn the consequences.
In one of my own personal wars, I spent a decade entrenched with an eating disorder. For the most part, I was in complete denial that I was killing myself, body and mind, but I recall moments, experiencing heart palpitations or unable to stop vomiting, when I bargained with God to save me — that I’d never do it (starve myself, over-exercise, purge, abuse diet pills) again, if I could just live through this crisis. What I failed to see in those moments is that it wasn’t God with whom I was pleading. It wasn’t God who would determine whether or not I lived or died. It was my body. It was me.
During my recovery, I came to an uneasy truce with my body, but it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with a virus-induced chronic pain condition 2 ½ years ago that I began to understand I’d never made true peace. I tolerated my body — even humored it occasionally — but I still saw it as “other.” It may seem obvious, but I was surprised to find first-hand that constant physical pain antagonizes in the same way that insecurity, low self-esteem, and depression do. I tried to ignore it, function as if it weren’t there. I tried to use pure willpower to obliterate it completely. I even went back to bargaining, though this time fully aware that the fight was not spiritual, but between parts of myself.
The consequences were still disastrous. Wherever I pushed, my body pushed back. For every tactic I tried, my body had a counter-attack. Go out to meet friends for dinner, even though I’m in agony? Here, have a nice bout of pain-induced vomiting to remind me that I need to go home. Heading to the office even though I was up all night with pain? How about drifting in and out of consciousness throughout the day?
There are a lot of self-help gurus out there telling us to “listen” to our bodies. But it’s also a common refrain that “listening” is not the same as “hearing.” To really hear someone, we’re told, we need to empathize, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. And here we are, in our own shoes, refusing to identify with our bodies — with our selves.
I’d like to be able to tell you that the moment I realized that I am my body, everything changed. Unfortunately, it simply isn’t true. I still live in a world surrounded by propaganda telling me that my body is not only separate from my mind, but inferior to it, and these messages were too deeply ingrained in me as a child. But some things did change. Even when I have internal debates, as we all do, over what to eat or what social events to attend, I know that on both sides of the aisle the goal is the same: to live a long, healthy life. My body and mind might have different ideas about the smaller priorities within that goal, or the best way to achieve it, but that doesn’t mean one party should assault or enslave the other.
So, how do you go about negotiating between these often opposing voices? It may sound cliché, but I’ve found that the old method of listing pros and cons comes in handy here. Often in our decision-making, we tend only to think about emotional or mental factors, so I try to very consciously give equal weight to both my physical and mental concerns. Adding my body’s values alongside the more obvious, intellectual pieces helps me not only to make a more educated decision, but also to anticipate the consequences of that choice. I may decide, based on my full and inclusive list, to act in a way that isn’t optimal for my physical well-being based on other factors. For example, I might go to a friend’s birthday party even though I am having a bad day with my pain, because it’s a meaningful occasion and only happens once a year. But even in this case, I have an advantage in being able to predict what my body will need as a consequence, as well as plan ahead for it — such as clearing my social schedule for the next few days after the big event. In this way, rather than letting one part of me dominate the other, I set up a compromise where all of me receives care and validation.
It comes down to this: in a war against yourself, you always lose. It’s only by communication, acceptance, and cooperation — the same principles applied in personal relationships and international peace-making alike — that you can emerge a winner.