Theology Of The Imperfect Body

Theology Of The Imperfect Body June 17, 2014

(An old, but evergreen post from my old blog; reposting prompted in part by this excellent post by Calah Alexander on how modern beauty standards warp our perspective)

L’Imparfaite is an erotic print magazine published by students at Sciences Po, the elite Parisian university. Since many friends are recent alumni, I’ve been able to lay my hands on a few copies and, by and large, it’s much what you would expect, a mostly-embarrassing display of hipster undergraduate pseudo-intellectualism. L’Imparfaite means “The Imperfect One” in the feminine.

But recently they launched a new tumblr, Les Corps imparfaits (“The Imperfect Bodies”, link NSFW obvi), built on submissions by readers of photos of their, well, imperfect bodies.

And they’ve hit the mark.

In this pornified, siliconed, photoshopped world of ever-present yet thoroughly sterilized sexuality (a product of Protestant-Puritan fear of the body, by the way), there is something profoundly erotic about an imperfect body, because an imperfect body belongs to someone you might actually have sex with. Because an imperfect body belongs to an incarnate, real person with whom communion is at least conceivable. And because there is a soupçon of transgression associated with the display of imperfect bodies in a society that holds up impossible ideals of “beauty”.

I couldn’t help but be struck by this.

For we are called (as Augustine well knew) to be imperfect bodies, at least until the world to come, and the theology of the body is, on this Earth, to be a theology of the imperfect body, and this has consequences for its erotic dimension. As true lovers well know, one comes to cherish one’s lover’s bodily imperfections, to go from loving their bodies in spite of them, to loving these imperfections, and from there to loving them because of these imperfections, so that if we were able to trade them for supposed perfections we would not.

It is through loving these imperfections of your body that I grow to love you as you, not some idealized fantasy, but you personally. These imperfections are called, in other words, to be transfigured by love. Through these imperfections I am called to love you personally, for you, to become this selfless divine love of which carnal union is meant to be an icon.

Of course, this theology of the transfiguration by love of our bodily imperfections has implications way beyond the erotic realm—witness the testimony of those faithful who live with physical handicaps.

But it seems to me that in Catholic-land, we need to rediscover this erotic dimension of the imperfect body. If I am called to marriage, I am not called just to an abstract union, but to one-flesh union with a specific person, and to love that person completely, with all of her or his imperfections. This fact has a profound erotic charge.

This dimension could stand as a powerful witness against both the traditional squeamishness towards the body and eroticism of the recent centuries (itself a historical oddity) and our bizarre postmodern view of the sanitized, detached, plastic body.

Edgar Degas, “Nude Woman Standing, Drying Herself”

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  • mochalite

    Good one. Whether we are embodied souls or ensouled bodies, perfection ain’t happening this side of Heaven. When we try for it, we get “our bizarre postmodern view of the sanitized, detached, plastic body.” You may have already seen this:

    How much better to cultivate in children strength and health of mind, spirit, and body, an “early have I loved thee” upbringing so they have some shot at understanding “the transfiguration by love of our bodily imperfections” when the time comes!

  • BTP

    Yes but.

    We are our bodies (we are not only our bodies, but we are not ghosts in a machine, for sure). And so there must be some way in which so-called superficial beauty is some sort of virtue. So, when we look at a beautiful body, we are also looking at a beautiful person.

    Because I’m not something other than this body of mine, I have certain responsibilities in developing and treating it. So I don’t suppose that a desire for, say, 6-pack abs or a great chest are wrong any more than a desire for other exceptional virtues are wrong. Devoting too much time to these goals in a world where the results are determined by so many other factors not in our control is a problem, of course. But let’s be honest: being fat is some sort of sin.

    • No.

      First of all, only actions can be sins. States of being are not sins. Eating that third serving of pie is probably a sin, but being fat cannot be a sin. Subtle but crucial difference.

      Second of all, only voluntary actions are sins, not involuntary ones. And there’s simply very little we know about how much control we have over our body weight, and it’s different for every person. All sorts of metabolisms exist. There’s a lot of controversy over whether people control their own obesity.

      Third of all, being fat may or may not be healthy, but that depends on the person. There’s a lot of research that suggests that each person has a different “natural” weight, which deviating from is both unhealthy and often virtually impossible (where a lot of the “yo-yo”-ing phenomenon in dieting comes from). For some people that natural weight might be “fat” by our contemporary standards (which are not, by any means, absolute, just look at art history).

      And all of this is without even into getting into the things that Theodore points out re: environmental and social factors.

      I certainly agree that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and we should treat it with respect. But there’s a lot of ground to cover between saying that and saying “fat = sin”. And given how very little we know about fat, what causes it, our extent of control over it, etc. it seems to me it’s just impossible to just categorically say that it is or isn’t a sin. We should say that people should view their bodies as temples, try to be healthy, exercise temperance and refrain from gluttony. But guess what, some people do that and are still fat. There are Olympic athletes whom we would consider “fat”, and yet these are people who definitionally are at top health and vigor.

    • Only if being fat includes gluttony (in my case, it does to some extent, but in many other cases it does not).

      One cause of obesity is simply not being able to afford the time and money it takes to stay thin in a country where value of food is measured in Calories/$ with no respect to nutrition.

  • Apologies for repeating a point I’ve already stated, but I think “perfect” is the wrong word here. Or rather, It needs to be supplemented. What you’re talking about with so called perfect bodies are actually idealized bodies (well, idealized outer bodies, the organs could all be failing for all we can tell) somewhat in the sense of Platonic ideal, except that they are biological instinct focused through cultural layers. Which is to say, we are driven to be attracted to healthy bodies, but what is considered healthy is shaped by cultural cues. In America today, rail thin, in France of yesteryear, voluptuous plus.

    We all have this sense of idealized beauty, however shaped by personal preference, and each of us as an imperfect copy of that idealized beautiful human, even and especially our lovers. But that changes

    There is research that suggests that over time that humans reinterpret faces of those familiar with them (like, say, spouses) to be more normal (average) which for most of us, means closer to attractive and beautiful. I think its more than that though. Its also learning to care about different things, about investment. It isn’t love blinding you to flaws, its love focusing your attention so that flaws do not blind your sight. That is to say, love transfigures.

    Love transfigures your lover from an imperfect copy of your ideal into a perfect copy of themselves. Or perhaps it is better to say that you yourself are transfigured – your understanding of your lover becomes better than it ever was.

    • Great comment, thanks.

      And I take your terminological point re “perfect” vs “idealized.”

  • Dylan

    BTP, your efforts to make some philosophical distinctions have rather dangerously muddied the waters than clarified them. I say dangerously because to call “being fat a sin” is incredibly insensitive and naive, not to mention demonstrably false. It seems to flow from some misunderstandings of the principle of hylomorphism (that the human being is composite of body and soul), or at least of its implications, but to deal with that here would create an inexcusably long post.

    Let’s deal with “being fat” as sin, first. Let’s grant that being overweight is a defect in the average person. Let’s define “overweight” as the condition of having an unhealthy amount of body fat. Now, the condition “being fat,” whose language we’ve clarified to “being overweight” is a physical defect by its definition as unhealthy. But a physical defect does not necessarily entail a concomitant moral defect, (a moral defect being what sin is); this assumption is the assumption of the pharisee about the man born blind, not Catholic thought at all.

    This is not to say that there is no relationship between sin and defects of nature: Catholic theology accepts that natural defects are a result of original sin, but it rejects the idea that every particular natural defect is the result of a particular sin. Certainly, the person has a responsibility for his body, to ensure its health to the best of his ability. But sometimes being overweight is beyond his responsibility, as in the case of thyroid disease:

    Further, even when we consider the “average person”, there are always particular circumstances which accompany the person. Physical fitness (virtue, if you want), like moral and intellectual virtue (you will recall the golden mean from Phil. 101, are not judged solely on a universal scale, but must be considered within an individual scale. As an example, I will never be in the shape my good friend, a runner, is in, because I have discerned that my scale of fitness is not that of a runner, but of a professional student. For me, walking once a day will keep my standing heart rate reasonably low (60-80 bpm). For him, running 9 miles a week (at least) will keep his standing heart rate from 30-40 bpm, and make him able to run more efficiently. I cannot be blamed for not being built as a runner. In short, physical fitness and its moral implications are as much a matter of conscience.

    So, to say “being fat is a sin”, to be generous, is imprecise. “Being fat” can be the result of sin.

    To treat your anthropology very briefly: I understand that by “we are our bodies” you mean to emphasize human hylomorphism, but you have unwittingly expressed materialism. If you qualify it by saying “we are not only our bodies” you move the argument forward not an inch and express dualism. The fact is we are, on the level of personal existence, neither the body nor the soul, but the composite. To behold a body is not to behold a person, anymore than to behold a soul (if one could) is to behold the person: it is to behold that aspect of the person.

    • BTP

      Don’t think I can follow you here. We seem to agree that normal people have a responsibility to ensure health to the best of his ability. If one does not fulfill that responsibility, one is sinning — though the seriousness of the sin is obviously determined by lots of factors.

      Frankly, I’m not sure why this would be controversial; I suspect it isn’t, really.

      To PEG’s post: I think I have to disagree. I don’t support the current set of Photo-shopped lies — because they are lies. But, no, I am not loved because of my physical imperfections.

      • There are situations and markets where one is prevented from having enough money and time to maintain good health.

      • Dylan

        1. I’m not sure what you mean by “follow me”; understand me (quite possible, given my limitations), or that you disagree with my argument on some rational level, clear as it is. Please tell me which it is.

        In the interests of time and space, I will preempt the former: The broad assertion that being overweight necessarily entails sin is incorrect and does not account for the not uncommon cases in which being overweight does not entail personal responsibility. Further, taken technically, it does not adequately express the relationship between the physical defect and the moral defect when personal responsibility is a factor.

        2. I’m glad we agree on this.

        3. I wouldn’t say controversial, simply because the word connotes a broader audience than your particular statement enjoys. But the unqualified sentiment as you present it belongs materially to that genre called fat-shaming, which anyone who’s been through grade school should be familiar with. If you still can’t see how “being fat is a sin” can be emotionally damaging, place yourself in someone’s place who reads that and has to live the next twenty-four hours (or lifetime) carrying that sin around. To clarify by saying something like “Being overweight in many cases is the result of vices like intemperance and laziness,” allows that person the room to deal with the actual sin, rather than misplace his guilt on the physical defect. The theological/philosophical imprecision does have practical ramifications.

  • I see obesity has not hit France.

    • Heh.

      • This remark was finally made from the safety of my house, after viewing the NSFW link. I don’t know if they’ve eliminated the submissions from fat people, or if the fat people just failed to submit, but the pictures were surprisingly skeletal.