“I want to be a mirror for your whole body… I want to unfold.” –Rilke
This is probably something of a confession. It has been difficult for some time now to do the work that is mine to do.
As I write here, as I try to offer back into the world in this small way, I consistently sense a gulf between what I set out to do in the beginning and what I’m actually doing.
It isn’t the case that things have naturally progressed, and I have followed the flow of the work. Instead, I have a consistent sense of betraying myself in what I put out to be read.
I set out at the beginning to write about the body, and in particular how the body prays and what it means theologically and culturally to have flesh. Under that umbrella is a slew of directions that could take.
But what often comes out is a random smattering of all sorts of things, a sometimes off-topic and worded veneer which I fear I am hiding somewhere behind. I frequently find myself wishing I was saying something else which when I try, I have a hard time finding words for – something with more risk, something more vulnerable, less tidy, more true.
Some of the struggle to say comes from an attempt at gentleness with myself, maybe a sense of privacy and caution, even protection of my own heart as I work through my own messy life as a body – one that is particular and culturally unconventional, with complicated meanings.
In part, the struggle is also made up of fear. Am I drawing the right kind of theological distinctions, is my theology too white, am I “woke enough”, am I far too in-process for this to be fruitful? Am I too theological, are other people saying the same things, am I just talking past the heart of me to make intellectual arguments about abstractions instead of grounding down into embodied human experience? Am I too personal, not personal enough, am I alienating people by being so honest? Is this just embarrassing for everyone?
I know that all of us as human beings are navigating life in a body, with competing claims on us, and our own intimate concerns, the ebbs and flows of desire, experiences of rejection, senses of alienation and even our body betraying us. I don’t pretend that I’m the only one. In part it’s why this, together, could be fruitful – because underneath all the particulars are equalizing factors, questions and experiences we have in common.
Still, what makes this difficult are the particulars. I have spent a lifetime navigating a body that is on the outside of the mainstream, and that has lead to attempts to minimize the role of my body in every sphere – from friendship, to romantic relationship, to career and vocation, and beyond. For better or worse, this one body is the body I have. Often my attempts to change it have been fueled by scarcity and have done more harm than good. Because our current culture is obsessed with thinness and a particular (usually white) feminine ideal which my body can never seriously aspire to, it’s been easier to do what I can to take the focus off of my flesh.
One way of talking about my relational life is to name the way I am a manager of your perceptions of me.
I have worked very hard to divorce my identity from my body. If I couldn’t be pretty, I would be smart instead. If I couldn’t be classically athletic, I would be musical instead. If I couldn’t be sexy, I would be funny instead. If I couldn’t be desirable, I would settle for likable and your judgment of me based on body alone would expose you, and not me. I would be amazing and judge you when you couldn’t see me and be amazed.
In short, I would be intense, and serious. I would be driven and control whatever I could, out-speak you, out-write you, out-brilliance you. I would go the way of every unbeautiful woman who has ever become great for her depth. I would go down in history with substance. And I would conquer you on the way.
Most days, I haven’t thought this consciously. But some days, I have. Under it all is entire worlds of insecurity, scramblings for worthiness, anxiety and desperation to be other than I am, the deep pain of wondering if someone, anyone, would ever get me and love me for everything I am.
At some point and for countless reasons, the hustle for worth began to be too hard to maintain. I bumped up against the practical limits of who I could become. I began to despise my judgment and suspicion of others. Some have said you have to love yourself before others can love you; I bought into that, employed it as a strategy to obtain love. But things began to shift when I started to see that my pain was causing others pain – namely others who did and do love me, who have fought past my bullshit and micromanaging of their perceptions to love me. Me, who I am, body and all.
I began to do this work, and talk about bodies from inside the experience of having a body I have wished to make disappear. Essentially I made visible a body I have worked hard to keep invisible. (Cognitive dissonance and I are good friends, you may have guessed.) Most often, I have come at this work sideways and flinching, waiting for the blows of rejection, the possibility of which I have fended off my whole life.
How do I advocate for something I’m pretending not to have? How do I help you see me, when I really do want you to see me, but I’m afraid you won’t like it, so maybe I don’t want you to see me while I also desperately do? And could I just get outside the struggle and talk about other things entirely? Do we have to talk about my body?
But in the past few months, I have felt further subtle shifts within, guided along by others who have done their work with boldness and tenderness, and who are still doing their work – amazing human beings who navigate this culture’s obsessions around body perfection in their own unconventional bodies with wells of audacity and strength. I’ve learned that I’m in recovery from disordered eating, for instance. I’ve had to look at my own prejudices and desires, the ways I want some bodies but not others and occasionally find myself making decisions based on these. But most, I have clung to their witness for dear life on some days when it’s been harder, studied their photos, listened to their stories and wept for the ways we’re so similar, dreamed of loving this one body of mine as she is and for what she is.
(It isn’t only about size, but also race, also gender identity, also disability, age, health, sex. Also, also, also.)
In the midst of their work, I have begun to understand that this is also my work, not just for my own sake, but for the sake of others too – because at some point, all of us will be outside the sexy thin white female conventions in bodies no longer valued for their pornographic utility. Some of us just got a head start by means of factors outside our control to begin with. And frankly, should we want into this in the first place? Those who are conventional, they suffer too, are diminished too. It isn’t about being in or being out, but needing entirely different frameworks which still take seriously things like desire, hunger, love. And yet, the wanting to be in makes so much sense when an entire culture is bent toward rewarding those who conform while punishing those who do not with real consequences bound up in injustice.
When I get down under my pain and the ways this culture has scripted me into a certain role with limitations on my worthiness, what I see are questions of incarnation and the meaning of human flesh. And while others are doing this work compellingly from their other subject positions within justice and resistance efforts, what I don’t always hear is how this connects to the life of faith – in any faith, but particularly the Christian one. Christianity is part of my subject position; my body, for everything else it is, is also a baptized body – unconventional par excellence.
Yet these questions of body justice have everything to do with faith, because of the imago dei, and because of the incarnation, and because everything in this way of life is all creation and ground and eating and body and practice. We eat, we love, we sin against, we die, we rise again (we hope), and a thousand experiences in between, all mediated through the life of the body. These bodies mean so much more than American culture lets on. These bodies relate to beauty in ways far more profound than we are led to believe.
Which is all to say, I want to be a mirror for God’s whole body.
I want to be strong enough, capable enough always to hold up God’s swaying and heavy picture.
I want to unfold.
And I want my grasp of things true before you and God. (Rilke was on to something, I think.)
I want to get back to what I thought I was doing, to walk into this undaunted, and do the work.
That’s my hope in days to come – to press in, to learn the body, to pray the body, to cherish and nourish the body. Mine, yours, God’s whole body. Thank you for being here for this.