A Song for the Body Electric
When we moved from Boston to Salt Lake City, my husband had been working as an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. He completed both medical school and his residency through Harvard, and we all thought of him as a highly competent doctor. But early in his subspecialty training at the University of Utah Hospital, his colleagues stumped him. They asked him to interpret a chest x-ray that presented a condition he had never yet come across — strange shadows at the bases of the lungs that didn’t fit the picture for pneumonia, cancer, or heart failure. But it was a condition he would encounter frequently while practicing in Utah: breast implants.
I don’t have a good scientific sense for what the relationship between Mormonism and enthusiastic attention to physical appearance might be. My impression from reading, travel, and conversation is that the broader cultural environment influences the way we think about physical appearance far more than Mormonism. But it is also true that people living in California, Utah, Arizona, Idaho (areas with significant LDS population, what some call the Mormon Culture Region) direct substantially more attention to the shape of the body and the hair — even the curve of the eyebrow — than do people in the Northeast. I have seen in Utah the flourishing of those industries that whiten teeth, perfect skin, and use surgery to augment or diminish as fashion norms dictate. For this, I grieve. I want my coreligionists to know better than to treat themselves as if an unmanipulated body is shameful.
I don’t blame people—and of course women, vulnerable to the unhuman expectations of their male partners, support the industry more frequently than men—for their pursuit of physical improvement. But I despise the ideas that lead us to spend so much energy and money on a kind of self-rejection that will never fix what matters most about us. I am convinced that physical appearance can never provide lasting satisfaction.
I believe that one of the best things we could do for human society is to believe and behave in accordance with our belief that what we do matters more than how we look.
At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion last weekend, I listened to a paper that described devastating results from the belief that how we look matters more than what we do. Communion can be painful instead of healing for people who suffer from eating/body dysmorphic disorders: the presenter related how distraught a teenage Baptist girl had felt when she found herself unable to avoid taking Communion. She estimated the ritual had cost her 170 calories (a large piece of bread dipped in sweet wine, almost certainly an overestimate), and after partaking she began sobbing. Other parishioners assumed she felt moved by the ritual, which made her feel worse. Purging the ritual tokens of Christ’s body and blood shed a few of those calories, but only increased her shame. The speaker suggested there might be other ways for people with the condition to interact physically with the host, smelling it or holding it. I felt simultaneously glad to hear her strategize about how to ease the alienation anorexia nervosa could bring to worship, and frustrated that anorexia nervosa exists in the first place. In a way her techniques seemed to me only to highlight how body dysmorphic disorder separates a person from Christianity’s most potent ritual of spiritual healing. I know that anorexia nervosa involves many factors, including issues of control and pain, but it includes an inordinate attempt to shape one’s physical appearance. What I wish to convey here is my distress that the mores of our society create an environment for this disease to flourish. I want some way to convince its disconsolate victim of her worth.
In what seems to me a tragic twist, the emphasis surrounding us on the appearance of physical bodies often takes away the spiritual power of bodies. I believe in the lasting satisfaction bodies’ spiritual power can bring. A body that resists temptation; a body made sacred through baptism, Communion and other ritual; a body that does good works; these bodies move us toward the defeat of shame.
On this Thanksgiving day, fraught for so many of us because of the food we will or will not eat, because of the ways we might feel unworthy vessels for the spirit of God, I wanted to raise my glass with gratitude for our bodies. I hope that we will learn to see their perfection, despite their imperfection. Walt Whitman knew how to do it. He wrote in his song of the “Body Electric”: “The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account, That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.” I give thanks for my tongue that could taste the brussels sprouts, for my intestines’ talent of digestion, for my ears that heard little ones’ whispered enthusiasm, “which one is the Jello?,” and for my arms all day as they embraced those I love, stirred all those pots, and rolled out that dough.