This musing is brought to you from a number of conversations I've had recently around bodies and self. One with Different Drummer, who is helping me with my gym routine through a mix of traditional training and (hopefully) performance enhancing hypnosis techniques. We talked about our bodies as our "projects" and the enjoyment we got from changing them, making them stronger and "better."The other with Knight of Wands over the idea that you "grow" into your face, echoing the Orwell quote that at age fifty, every man has the face he deserves. To cap it all off, there was a discussion on the radio about a survey commissioned by QVC (a shopping channel) on a woman aged thirty-one is on average at the height of physical attractiveness. Whether this is to be believed or not is another thing, but there are some interesting implications raised here that interested me.
Let's start with the personal. My body is my site of personal study and development, particularly now I have a bit more time and space to spend on it. I've always take a keen (possibly over-keen) interest in it. I want to look after it for the long term, keep it functioning. It is the home I will live in for at least the next sixty years, all things being equal, so it makes practical sense to feather the nest. But more than that, I want it to look, and feel, good. Not simply healthy, but better in a wider sense. The terms "better" and "good" are subjective and almost certainly doesn't always mesh with other people's ideas of good. Which is fine, because it's my body not theirs.
Our bodies are the stories that we write of ourselves, they are the map of where we have come from, probably the only physical thing that we will keep with us for the whole of our lives. We are all born with them and they are blank, new. We grow into them, and they into us. This process is ongoing, with our own changes, and that's one of the reasons why I mark my body with tattoos and piercings, I note the milestones on. A memento vivi. This is not entirely my own work. How are bodies look is created and reinforced by whatever society or culture we live in, our families, friends and the environment. All of these things also help develop our selves and our idea of self, so the two are intertwined. Body politic.
What I'm interested in at the moment is less about the social aspect, although I am aware that my ideas of what a "good" body looks like is certainly informed by my own background, but on how changing my body makes me feel. My body is me, it's who I am, how I represent myself - that bit of me that lives between my ears - to the world, how I interact with the physical universe, with other people in meatspace and a source of many joys, and sorrows. So making my body "good" is also about making me good. Not just because I can feel powerful, or in control (although those things are important) but because having a body that matches my sense of self makes me feel whole and by improving my body I can improve myself. I like self-improvement.
I am currently working on changing the way my body looks, feels and behaves. I already do my best to eat a balanced diet, more recently I've stopped taking oral contraceptives. I'm interested in seeing how my body regulates itself without additional hormones. Note that this will be the first time in around ten years that I haven't taken these so in many respects I am without a reference for what my adult body feels like "naturally". I'm not expecting to experience any massive changes, my periods were never particularly irregular, heavy or painful (a major reason that many women take the pill aside from contraception), so I think its more a type of mental satisfaction, a liberation.
Then there's the gym. I'm three weeks into a new routine aimed at adding muscle mass and trimming fat. The results have been striking, and I've received a lot of comments already on my changed shape and tone. I find myself slipping into gendered terms when I talk about it - using the word "boyish" quite a lot. The look I'm actually striving for is something more androgynous, I think I captured it best in discussion with a friend where I said I wanted to look like a strong and beautiful person. Most noticeable in the change have been my arms, which were fairly scrawny and now have defined muscles which I am enjoying showing off at every available opportunity. Second to that is my stomach, which now has a firm layer of muscle over it. It feels hard and strong and I find myself touching it a lot, almost reassuring myself. And the reason I'm reassuring myself is because my stomach area, like my arms, is getting bigger and this is making me worry. Because in my mind "bigger" in that area equals "bad".
My stomach has always been an area of concern, it's the one bit of my body that I am rarely happy with. For a start, it fluctuates (probably not as wildly as I think, and almost certainly imperceptibly to others). One day it will be flat, the next rounded. I have invested an astronomical amount of sit-ups on my stomach and yet it has only ever had a pleasing flatness for a few days after I had been horrendously ill for two weeks and thus unable to eat or drink anything beyond salt replacement sachets in a bit of water.
It's quite worrying to me that my concept of what a "good" stomach looks like is one that is terribly, unhealthily and unsustainably altered. Furthermore, altered in a damaging capacity that left all of me feeling weak and vulnerable. Starvation is my body's enemy. It is also my own personal enemy, and whilst I am aware that my issues with food will never totally leave me, they are also a warning sign about myself. When I feel so low I stop eating, I know that I need to manage those anxieties which are causing me to exert such extreme control over my body. In many respects, exercise and body building are part of maintaining control but in a more positive way. I am trying to build rather than destroy, create something stronger rather than take away from my self. In doing so, I hope to also be able to build a better image of myself, one in which wasting away to nothing, rendering myself physically invisible, is no longer a badge of pride, but instead I can enjoy owning the space I occupy with a body strong enough to take whatever comes my way.