Body Image

This was  written in 2013. To view this post in its original format for mindbodybrew, please click here.

When you picture your body in your mind, what do you see?

The term “body image” typically relates to the image we see in our minds of our own external body and the relationship we have with that image. When talking about body image, we talk about our weight, our muscle tone, our bone structure. For some, this begins to take on a somewhat negative approach that too often focuses on shape and size. Our thighs can seem too big, and our breasts too small. We may not like the shape of our noses or think that our ears stick out. We want our biceps to get bigger and our waists to get smaller. The tendency to label our bodies parts with “like” and “dislike” runs strong in a culture where we are constantly flooded with images of sculpted, toned, tanned, and surgically altered bodies that we are told are the ideal for a man or a woman. Even for those with a healthy relationship to food and physical exercise, the pressure to conform our own body image to those “ideal” body images can be hard to resist. It’s even more confusing when you remember that this “ideal” image can change from generation to generation and can be radically different in other cultures. What are we supposed to look like?

For this reason, I love that yoga practice asks us to view our body from within. On the mat we can strip away mirrors and shape-oriented approaches to the body, and we can experience our body from the inside out. We develop a feeling for how our quads and hamstrings actually work, how our weight feels in one leg, and how our bones and muscles coordinate together to accomplish tasks beyond the standard walking, sitting, and lying down. For many committed yoga practitioners, I suspect that their internal body image and relationship to it begins to become much more important than their external body image that is typically supported by our culture.

In the yoga practice, we talk a lot about muscles and bones, which are typically the most important body parts when discussing proper alignment for an asana practice. We also talk much about the lungs, and even sometimes the heart, and their role in breath coordination. And then we begin to talk about viewing the body energetically, using imagery to experience our bodies in a deeper way than we can by just thinking about muscles and bones. These images can run the gamut from water to tree branches to electric currents to spirals of DNA. As teachers, these images give us endless opportunities for creativity within our language and teaching style, which is one aspect of the teaching practice that particularly excites me as a new teacher.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my body actually looks like. And by that I mean the inside: the organs and the tissue, and yes, even the blood and maybe the guts. While I’ve absorbed anatomy and kinesiology lessons in varying formats by this point in my dance and yoga studies, the opportunity to study anatomy in cadavers is a particular privilege, or a punishment depending on your perspective, that is typically reserved for students in med school or biological studies. I have never seen inside a body and most likely never will. Most people live their entire lives with a limited understanding of how their own bodies function, let alone what their insides look like. Perhaps we don’t need to. After all, blood and guts are topics usually best avoided in a yoga class given the general repulsion by them.

It’s a strange thing, really, to live in a body that you will never see, and this is one of the topics in Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ book, Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body. Aldersey-Williams writes:

“It is obvious that the human body is a difficult subject. Perhaps we are too close to it. The human body is routinely described as a marvel of nature, but it is surely the marvel of nature we least stop to observe. When all is well, we simply ignore it. I suppose this is as it should be- no other animal spends time pondering its wellbeing, after all. But for us ignorance is not bliss. We are frequently ashamed of our bodies and embarrassed by them…We disguise them with clothes. We distract attention from them with accessories, a hairstyle, a gait, a repertoire of gestures, a voice, a way with words, to the extent that these become the greater part of our personal identity.”

But what if we tried, just a little bit, to think of our insides as just as much a part of ourselves as these other personality traits? After all, our stomach, intestines, liver, and blood go with us wherever we go. It’s not just our bones, muscles, and minds that benefit from the yoga practice, but our whole bodies.

Aldersey-Williams says, “Blood is unclean or polluted as soon as it leaves the body. It shares this property with other bodily emissions…But it does not normally leave the body like these other substances, and so its appearance in the outside world is always remarkable.”

In reality, it is only when we see our insides out the outside that they become disgusting or strange to us. When they stay where they belong, the inner parts of our body are simply natural parts of the whole, of us.

When I was about 10 years old, one of my favorite books was Sugar Isn’t Everything, by Willow Davis Roberts. This book is about a young girl who develops diabetes. Among other things, this novel explains some of the basics of the disease, especially the function of the pancreas. Ever since then, and this may sound strange to you, I’ve always felt a particular fondness for my pancreas. It makes me laugh to even write it, but it’s true. Perhaps it’s gratitude that, unlike the girl in this book, my pancreas works perfectly well, or maybe it’s just that I have a positive childhood memory associated with an internal organ, which somehow makes it seem less gross.

I’m not suggesting that we start going into yoga classes and tastelessly start blabbing about blood and guts, but I do think it’s important to remember, as teachers and practitioners, that our body is made up of more than muscles and bones, and even more than energetic qualities we explore in the yoga practice. In truth, there’s a lot of stuff inside our bodies. Perhaps if we can dial our initial distaste down a notch, so that our connection to our inner parts is at least open, maybe our body image can become something more than how we look. Perhaps it can become more about how we feel, how we connect, and how we take what we “see” on the inside to better relate to a cultural ideal of the body that is always changing.

Aldersey-Williams says, “These are exciting and troubling times for the human body. We seem both excessively aware of it and yet the same time profoundly dissatisfied with it. The biological sciences promise many things about the way we will live in the future. But, however beautiful we are, however super-capable we become, however long we live, we still must inhabit our bodies. Perhaps, by recognizing the human body as a site of continual invention, we may overcome the distortions of the present moment.”

So now, I ask you again: When you imagine your body, what do you see?

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