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the body-awakening of a cerebral being. (or, my quest to gain weight in an obese country.)

June 9, 2008

SCIENTIST OF THE SELF

FROM THE TIME I FIRST LEARNED DARWIN’S THEORY I began to ponder my ancestral equivalent, somewhere on an African savanna: svelte, frail, quick, and (seemingly) undesirable, evolutionarily. Sure, my body type (tallish, and very thin) would be effective for climbing trees, or sprinting. But, what purpose did I serve in those herds of early humans? Why did they keep me? Messenger? Look-out? I didn’t have the brawn to hunt, I would’ve been annoyingly needy when it came to food because of my high metabolic rate, not curvy enough or wide-set enough to bear children easily, not well insulated against changing temperatures. . . What good then was early human me?

I’ve also thought, from an early age, about the inescapable truth that I feel ‘lucky’ to have been born in the 20th century. At any other time in the history of Western civilization my body type would be considered chiefly unattractive. I am not voluptuous, fleshy, promising of good health, ruddy, ripe for the bearing of children. I would not have modeled for any Renaissance painter, wouldn’t have been married well, and probably wouldn’t have survived the scourge of diseases. Waif did not equate pretty until the 1920’s, by my calculations. What changed?

I’ve always thought that what constitutes the ‘ideal’ body-type, particularly for women, is that which is least easily attained. As cruel and counterintuitive as this is, I think it bears examination. In earlier centuries, a heavy woman was beautiful because having enough to eat was a sign of luxury, as was having pale unblemished skin (not the deep bronze coveted today, which would have marked you as a laborer, a commoner). Now, with diets saturated in fat, sodium, corn oil, and other unbalanced pound-producers, the least attainable body-size is svelte, not fleshy.

CEREBRAL BODY EXAMINATION:  WHAT?!

There’s no doubt that I live inside my head, primarily, and not inside my body.  As I heard a lecturer joke recently, ‘college professors treat their bodies rather like a vehicle for getting their brains to meetings.’  At least in part, this is symptomatic of a Western, particularly Am’rican, upraising.  Which is arguably the reason we find ourselves– as a nation– in a critical state of unhealthiness, when it comes to bodies.  But bodies ‘remember’ in the way that forms ‘remember’ in poetry.  I think about bodies, and about my own body, a lot.  Think.  About bodies.  As metaphors, primarily.  I hope I don’t come across as a biological essentialist (my body, your body, do not define who we are.  Bodies are malleable, in fact.  And I’d rather not explicitly engage in feminist discourse during this little thought train.)  But I do think about bodies as metaphors, as physical representations of spiritual being or personality traits.  Not that they are, but just as a thought experiment, I try to match up brains and bodies, connect the dots, since the great Mind-Body Dichotomy is not something I buy into (reference posts on mental health, or buddhism).

BODY AS LANDSCAPE

My thoughts about the body intersect my frequent thoughts about landscape.  My own body, I have always thought, most closely resembles the topography of the Carolina shoreline near which I grew up, and from which I have genealogical ties, on both sides of my family.  My flatness, thinness, evokes the firm flatness of coastal plane, the thinness of reeds, my ribs the rippling divots of tidal pools, or the undersea fingers of sand produced by rivers dumping into the sea.  Perplexedly, I never thought I had the right coloration to be a maritime body; unlike my maternal extended family, I don’t have pale spun-gold hair, like sand, or blue blue eyes, like sea.  My own coloring is a hybrid, between the luminescent paleness of my mother’s family and the rich, organic darkness of my father’s family (eyes and hair so dark they’re almost black, which I hadn’t seen habitually repeated in a genome until I went to rural France. . .).  So, my coloring looks like forest: green eyes, green trees, brown hair, brown earth.

Which brings me to a realization I have only had in the last year or so of my life: I love mountains.  I really love them; probably for all sorts of buried psychological reasons I won’t plumb here.  Loosely, I attach to mountains a sense of exoticism, having lived on very flat land always, and a deeply instilled sense of peace.  Only in mountains am I so caught up in examination of my environment, that I forget my self entirely.  I release my ego, I spread my soul and knit it to the universe, make it the universe, and annihilate it all at once, in true Buddhist fashion.  But there is something else to my love of mountains.  Mountains are feminine, curvy, rounded, fleshy. . .  They are physically everything that my body-landscape is not, and somewhere in my brain a small voice says it should be.  Which is terrible.

MY BODY IN CRISIS

So, we come finally to the reason I am siphoning off all of these ‘body thoughts’ onto my blog.  I have always been naturally thin, and have always received in due proportions envy, praise, misunderstanding, diagnoses, scorn, ridicule, and shame from others for this fact.  As a child, the jokes about my thinness were constant.  I was that late-bloomer. . .or as I thought of it, a never-bloomer.  I waited for puberty.  It came and passed, and I didn’t exactly “fill out” as promised.  I was still thin, still a waif, a bit boyish.  90% of the endearing nicknames I have accumulated throughout my life have had to do with being thin: skinny-minnie, long-tall-sally, bones, legs, olive-oil, etcetera.  As a young adult, and late adolescent, the responses to my extreme body type have continued to be extreme.  Once, a distant cousin of mine remarked with envy that ‘I was built like my grandmother, and she could wear a paper bag and look beautiful.’  For every ‘I’m jealous’ there is a judgmental comment, a scornful look, a whisper that there is something unnatural, or sick about the way I am made.  Accusations and inquisitions about eating disorders have followed me for years.  I don’t have one.  I don’t.  And it angers me that people misunderstand the signs of one enough to think that I might.  In turns, I have felt ashamed, embarrassed, defensive about my body.  Like many girls and women, almost never have I felt truly pleased with my shape.

All of this is changing for me now, though.  In the last months, my struggle with issues of mental health, and stress, have brought about a noticeable weight loss.  And weight loss for a person of my build becomes dangerous quickly.  I always ignored my body– denying it sleep, food, without thought, if it meant doing better in school. (Though don’t get me wrong, my love-hate relationship with make-up, and the fact that I always wear it, is a topic for another whole post.)  My second semester freshman year, my mentor said to me once that I should “remember that I can’t eat books”– he was saying, in short, that my brain can’t work if I don’t take care of its vessel.

So, in a nation of morbidly obese people, in a culture that at once prizes and stigmatizes thinness, I am embarking on the rare journey of Being An American Woman Who Is Trying To Gain Weight.  There are less than 2% of the US population that are considered ‘underweight’ according to BMI’s.  Most of that 2% are elderly, or have psychiatric disorders contributing to intentional weight loss.  Not me.  My body just remembers its traumas in the form of pounds shed, meals skipped, sleep forgone.  In doing research on how to gain weight, I have never felt more alone.  The literature published about packing on pounds is primarily for men who want to gain muscle-mass.  Type the word ‘underweight’ into Google and you will get scathing rants on unrealistic fashion models, unhealthy role models, premature babies, or developing countries.  My health crisis isn’t discussed; and, it seems out of place in my surroundings.

The endless commentary about my body-type has bothered me for as long as I can remember.  I always empathized with obese people, who undergo the same scrutiny, but WORSE.  I felt that my body was genetically predisposed to this type (which it is), and that made negative judgment of it all the more cruel.  No one heckles people with physical deformities; and, I felt physically deformed sometimes, grotesque, unappealing, etcetera.  And, I thought there was nothing I could do to change it.  So, I didn’t.

I am learning, slowly, about nutrition (with the help of professionals).  I have reconstructed and rethought my diet, and my exercise.  I am consciously checking on my body, rather than ignoring it, or putting it on ‘auto-pilot.’  I have to listen, because bodies remember, and bodies speak.  For the first time in my life, I am learning that I can make my body healthier by diligence in the same way I have worked for nearly twenty-two years to make my mind and spirit stronger and healthier through other practices.  I dwell not only inside a mind that thinks about its body, but inside a body.  Period.  So far this journey, painstakingly slow and difficult as it is, is helping me recenter myself.  Bodies are temples, but not only in the abstinent sense, but also in the constructive, procreative, sense.  I have to build up my body, not because I am dissatisfied with being thin (I will always be svelte), but because my body is crying out to me that it is hurting, weakening.  And I want to heal it– for myself, for my future children.

It’s gonna take a lot of milkshakes and avocados, but I’ll keep you posted.  And if you’re out there, listening, 1/100th of 2% of Americans, you’re not alone.  You’re not alone.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. A-man-duh permalink
    June 9, 2008 2:31 pm

    wow. It’s always hard to read a post (and shockingly yours is not the first i’ve read) from the other end of the spectrum. Hard, because we always want most what we don’t have. That was beautifully articulated, but still, a larger part of me aches to have your problems rather than my own (is it sick that i would like to trade body issues???)

    I have never been heckled or even the cause for concern (at least to my knowledge) from anyone but my mother, but I am largely ignored. In a society where I fit right in, I also blend right in. Here is an interesting point you barely touched on but interesting nonetheless and I know we’ve discussed it. You wear makeup, without fail, all day, everyday. I barely wear any and don’t really think too much if there are days I go completely without it. It’s not that I don’t care about my appearance, but in most social situations it doesn’t really make a bit of difference. I understand now. You “have” to wear makeup because you already stand out (whether you’re getting male attention or bitter female scorn) but my apathy is due to the fact that deep down I feel like no amount of makeup will make a difference in how i’m regarded in a crowd.

    This is all interesting from a cerebral standpoint and can quickly turn (probably overly) emotional if we were to really discuss it, which we should, but not here. Our issues seem to run on very parrallel lines of discomfort, shame and confuson. I’ve never been good at putting metaphors to my body, or even really thinking about it….treating it, i guess, as purely the professorial vehicle you discussed in your post.

    Good for you for taking care of yourself! Having been the poster-child for nutritionists care in my ealier life I’ll offer you suggestions if you want. One thing I learned about bodies which always fascinated me is that they have a “starvation mode”. If you don’t eat they accept it and think of it as the new norm. Eating many (6-8) small meals a day is the best way to combat this as skipping meals (i have painfully learned) will maintain your present weight if not make it worse on either end of the spectrum….ie: a thin person begins to lose weight as their already hyper thyroid goes into overdrive and an overweight person gains weight as their dying thyroid slows and each meal sticks with em….cuz the body doesn’t know if it might not be its last.

    blah. Yet another reason to move to Europe and get healthy.

    ps. you should come visit up here soon

  2. A-man-duh permalink
    June 9, 2008 2:32 pm

    ps. that sunglasses guy was supposed to be the number 8 but i unwittingly typed and emoticon….woops

  3. Momma permalink
    June 10, 2008 2:19 am

    Thank you for sharing how you feel throughout this journey. It really helps us to understand, and hopefully be more supportive. I realize that you feel utterly alone in this, even though our love is with you always. We are all cheering you on, in every way. Love, Momma

  4. June 11, 2008 4:57 pm

    I found your blog through this guy named Zach Farrow. You’re an incredibly talented writer. Good luck being healthy.

    Marshall

  5. June 20, 2008 3:59 pm

    Amazing. It was as if you looked into my head and articulated thoughts i’ve had. often. Found your blog through another and will be waiting for your updates – may you have the strength to do what others wont understand.

    thank you, your words touched my soul.

    🙂 Heidi

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