The world made flesh

[image, unknown]

Bodies. Human bodies. We love them. We need them.
But examine the body, and you will see a lot more besides, argues Vanessa Baird.

Along the white corridors are garish, coloured illustrations showing parts of the body I hardly knew existed, let alone cared about.

They take on particular significance now, some organs and their functions especially so.

We make our way, down one floor, to the operating theatre. Above its twin doors are strict instructions not to enter. A few yards away, opposite the doors, are a couple of tables with blue covered chairs. Here we sit and wait.

Not for the first time am I aware of a horrible congruence. I was in the early stages of putting together this issue of the NI on the theme of 'the body' and had just finished commissioning the main articles, when there was a phone-call saying that a close relative has been taken quite unexpectedly, seriously, ill.

He is now behind those swing doors, fighting for his life.

Strangely, during these hours, while his actual body is undergoing a massive medical assault, it's not his body that fills my conscious-ness. Maybe because it doesn't bearthinking about. But I don't think this is the only reason.

As I gaze out of the window, up to the dark, ragged fringes of fir trees on the snow-clad mountains, I think not of his body but of his love for snow. And as I watch the birds darting and weaving between the eves, their lives and gestures so vital yet vulnerable, it's his vitality, his spirit that fills my mind.

After ten hours in the operating theatre the surgeon comes out. The operation was very tricky, but it's worked. The patient has age and strength on his side.

The next day we visit him. The first thing he does, in between all the tubes, and without a moment's hesitation, is to beckon and kiss us each in turn.

And it's perfect. The simplest, most direct way of expressing all the love, fear, relief, hope, gratitude. Bodily communicating what desperately needs to be said, but would take volumes to say in words.

[image, unknown]
The quiet intricacies of physical intimacy in a park in Vietnam.

Body politics

Returning to Oxford I find, on my desk, the piles of books I'd started reading on 'the body'. It's a trendy, 'hip' area of study these days. Much of the work is being done not by biologists but by philosophers, psychoanalysts and feminist theorists, drawing inspiration from French thinkers such as Helene Cixous, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida or Luce Irigaray. Debates on the 'materiality' versus the 'discursivity' of the body abound. And a lot of it is frankly impenetrable to the general reader.

I flick open one of the less jargon-bound collections and read: 'The body of woman is the site where culture manufactures the blockade of woman.' My mind quietly boggles at the prospect. Another text offers: 'Poststructuralist discourse analysis engages with the extra discursive of social reality (social practices, institutions etc) and of corpo-real bodies (their physical beings)...' Well, there you are.

I find it hard to relate these writings either to the feelings aroused by the personal experience of the body of a loved one at risk or to the subjects that lie at the heart of the New Internationalist's concerns. Issues like the right to the basic, vital things your body needs to survive: food, water, shelter, access to healthcare. The right not to have your body violated by others, be they oppressive regimes, employers or those with most clout within your family or community.

But there is a connection. These texts may not dwell on what bodies need, but they do examine what bodies 'mean'. And what bodies 'mean' in a particular culture or society actually plays a crucial role in determining who can have what they need in their lives and who can't.

More explicitly, inequalities in the world are established and maintained by the 'meaning' that we give different bodies.

It's often extremely crude. For example, in many parts of the world, if you are born with a female body you are automatically denied control over your own life. You are the possession of your father or your brothers or your uncles until you become that of your husband and later your sons. Inferiority is 'read' into your body at birth. Your very chances of survival may be affected. In Bangladesh girls have a 70-per-cent higher mortality rate than boys for the simple reasons that they are fed less and are less likely than their brothers to be taken to a health clinic if ill.1

Gender is not the only issue. Not so long ago - before 1994 to be precise - if you were one of the 30 million South Africans with a black-skinned body you had to live in designated areas and were not even allowed to vote in elections in your own country.

The stamping of inequality on our bodies occurs in an infinite variety of ways. If you are disabled you generally do not have the same rights to a job or to mainstream education as an able-bodied person. In many countries - Romania springs to mind - you are likely to be incarcerated in an institution at birth.

Body prejudice also comes in more subtle guises. It may be focused on what you actually do with your body. If you come from a class background in which it is usual to sell your bodily or manual skills rather than your cerebral abilities then the chances are you will receive lower wages and be less valued for the work you do. Unless, that is, you happen to enjoy the elevated status of a sports celebrity or supermodel.

Finally, your chances in life can be determined by whether your body conforms to your society's ideals of beauty. This has been particularly true for women. Without political or economic power, a woman is entirely dependent on male patronage and thus male ideas of how she should behave and appear. Typically, this is internalized by women and becomes an obsessive concern with physical appearance. It's not just a case of 'you are your body', but 'you are what your body looks like'. If you have any doubts about the continued power and prevalence of this, consult any magazine rack.

If we look at the body, we can see the world. If we look at how different bodies - black, white, male, female, rich, poor - are viewed, and what kind of privileges or privations that accrue to them, then we see a picture of the world of human, social and economic relationships. In this sense the body is 'the world made flesh'.

Skinny things and nipple rings

And look at bodies we do. For we are fascinated by them. Although most major religions in the world maintain that our temporal bodies are not the most important thing in life and it's our eternal souls that really count, body-consciousness rules supreme.

It makes sense in a way. Our bodies are our prime source of pleasure and pain, our first point of contact with the world. What would our lives in the world be without our bodies? They are a source of delight. Cultures and religions that have tried to deny the flesh have almost always lapsed into hypocrisy. Such regimes - be they Catholic or Puritan - become obsessed with the flesh, especially female flesh. The women in Tehran or Kabul trying to navigate kerbs and potholes via the tiny permissible slits in their veils, are at the sharp end of such denials.

The joys of physicality may be simple, like feeling the air on your face as you step out on a Spring morning. The cold smoothness of a stone. The rugged bark of a tree. The exhilaration of water. The comfort of the bodies of loved ones. The intimacy of loving eroticism. The magic of sex.

The body is also an amazingly powerful medium for transmitting information and emotions between living creatures. Even when people are speaking to each other face-to-face, two-thirds of their communication is non-verbal body-language.2

But our fascination with the body far exceeds these simple functions and pleasures. It can also be a very potent zone of self expression, giving scope to tremendous creativity on the one hand, dreary uniformity on the other. It has led to extraordinary feats of dance and athletics, and dazzling displays of imagination when it comes to adornment.

International and popular culture bombards us non-stop with body consciousness. Beautiful bodies are used to sell almost anything. And there's a lot of money to be made in the products and services of the body business, be they the provision of fashionable 'energy' drinks or cosmetic surgery. As Jeremy Seabrook says in his article Of human bondage (see page 28) human bodies are the world's biggest cash crop. The body is both the means of industrial production and the market for its products.

What the body business most profitably taps into is our use of our bodies to identify ourselves. This need is fundamental and universal. Tribal markings are everywhere to be seen: in the etched cheeks of a Yoruba villager in Southern Nigeria and the pierced nipple of a gay teenager in a Liverpool night-club; in the pure-silk sari of the Bombay socialite and the designer tie of the Wall Street financier.

With the globalization of the world economy, and the aggressive marketing of 'cool' body images, the definitions of desirability and available identities seem to become increasingly narrow. The young and trendy wear Billabong cult clothing, be they in Brisbane or Bogota. And traditional aesthetics are rapidly being replaced by a Westernized, globalized image.

Nowhere is this more painfully expressed than in the hyper-slender model for women, the 'Barbie-doll' look that has swept the world. Recently there have been reports of anorexia - previously thought to affect only white middle-class teenagers - among young black women in Southern Africa. 'In African culture beauty is traditionally associated with round bodies but as Western culture creeps into this society, so anorexia is affecting more and more Africans,' quotes Tsitso Rampuku, reporting from Lesotho, where there has been a spate of recent cases.

Across the border, in South Africa, it's a similar story. Malinda Motaung, a nurse working in Bloemfontein, says she has noticed a big increase in an illness that was unknown in her clinic five years ago. Mampho Mokhethe, mother of a 17-year-old anorectic, blames this on the way young urban women are bombarded with images of beautiful and successful women. 'And almost without fail, they are thin,' she says. 'The subtle message is: if you want to get ahead, you had better look like supermodel Naomi Campbell.' 3

Anorexia has to do with more than fashion. It has to do with power. Although a few males are affected, it's mainly a female problem. For many young women, eating is the area in which they feel they can have real control. US academic Susan Bordo quotes Aimee Liu, an ex-anorectic recreating her mindset at the time of her illness: 'Energy, discipline, my own power will keep me going. I need nothing and no-one else... I will be master of my own body, if nothing else, I vow.'

Like the flesh-denying ascetic, the anorectic's ability to live with minimal food makes her feel powerful and worthy of admiration in a world from which, at the most profound level, she feels excluded and unvalued.4

The terrible irony is that it is so self-defeating. As Bordo points out, the symptoms of anorexia isolate, weaken and undermine its sufferer, as she turns the life of the body into an all-absorbing fetish. In effect she capitulates to patriarchy's traditional demand that women limit themselves and live in a shrunken world.

Ultimately others - principally medical professionals - intervene, and take control.

[image, unknown]
Experience - as well as culture - writes itself
on the face of an elderly woman in Beirut.

The body in parts

Few encounters require that we willingly submit our bodies to a group of strangers, to examine, prod, poke, inject and even cut open. But that, in theory, is what we do when we cross the threshold into a doctor's surgery or a hospital. If you are in pain or in danger it's only natural to want someone to make you better, to magic the trouble away. You may feel so grateful to that person that you don't question too closely the magic they are using, or its premise. The power we hand over to our chosen healers is really quite astounding when you stop to think about it.

Until the 1970s the authority of orthodox West-ern medicine went virtually unchallenged. Although it borrows much of its terminology from the Classical Greeks, it does not use the same premise that mind, spirit and body are interconnected. Rather it uses the Cartesian notion that mind and body are quite separate entities and the body is but a kind of biological machine.

This mechanistic view has given birth to the stereotype of the consultant zooming in on an organ or a condition, ignoring the person it belongs to and then talking to colleagues about it in technical language the patient doesn't understand. This is not just the hackneyed stuff of comic movies. Although slowly changing, it's still the experience of many people around the world when they come into contact with the medical profession.

Medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes reports that poor people in Brazil fear that health professionals will 'steal their organs' for transplant. This fear is in a sense realistic, but it can also be seen as is a symbolic response to a medical approach that has scant regard for the integrity of the human being.

In the rich world, too, there is growing disenchantment with Western medical system that treats people as though their bodies were machines, with parts that may go wrong and need discrete and specific treatment.

This has fed the growth of 'holistic' approaches and alternative therapies. Most popular are acupuncture, homeopathy and osteopathy. More than one in three people in Britain has consulted an alternative health practitioner, and similar figures apply in Australasia, Canada and the US. Even the World Health Organization has criticized doctors for failing to accept acupuncture as a useful complementary medical technique.

Many argue that the boom in alternative medicine is giving patients choice and more power over their own bodies. This is debatable, as some alternative practitioners can be even more interventionist and paternalistic than orthodox doctors.5

But the idea that mind, body and spirit are interconnected, and that they have their own self-healing mechanisms, is gaining currency even in the most unexpected quarters.

I recall the surgeon who operated on my relative. He had said prior to the operation that during it he would be doing half the work, the patient would be doing the other half. And as I watched the birds and thought of the flow of his mind, body and spirit, this felt absolutely right.

One body, one world

We tend to think of the body as an entity with firm contours. In fact it is mainly fluid: two-thirds of it is water. If we thought of our bodies more in this way, I wonder what difference it would make. Would our thinking about our bodies be less hard and possessive? Would we think in terms of sharing an economy of vitality? Would we think differently about inner and outer, about self and other, about the boundary between your body and my body?

The word 'body' is not always personal and individualistic. It can also be used to describe a collection of people. It's long been recognized by ethicists that belonging to a 'social body' makes it possible to equate one's own good with that of another and thus to refrain from mutual injury, violence and exploitation. Why shouldn't the terms of reference be expanded to include the universal body, the international body of humanity?

Let's conclude with a little holistic exercise. The world is a body, your body. The top half of your body, the Northern part, say, gets all the goodness it needs to survive and more. In some parts it's actually quite bloated.

The bottom half, the Southern part, say, is in a state of perpetual struggle to get what it needs to survive. It has plenty of vitality, is capable of joy, but somehow it never gets quite enough goodness or nourishment in relation to the energy it expends just to stay alive.

In between the two, somewhere below your belly, is a belt. A very tight belt. It has to be that way, you are told, because your Northern body and your Southern body are different.

Not a very healthy state of affairs. Might it not be a good idea to loosen the belt a bit, let some of the goodness and nourishment flow around the whole body? Wouldn't Northern and Southern body benefit from this?

Your toes would probably agree.

1 United Nations, Women: Challenges to the Year 2000, New York, 1991.
2 Alan Pease, Body Language, Sheldon Press, 1997.
3 Tsitso Rampuku, 'Health fears as slimming mania hits Africans', Gemini News Service, London, 1997.
4 Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, University of California Press, 1993.
5 Dr Vernon Coleman, Spiritpower, European Medical Journal, Barnstaple, 1997.

Contents - this Issue     Magazines Home


New Internationalist issue 300 magazine cover This article is from the April 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop