Body positivity, skinny shaming, fatphobia, fitspiration. The internet has brought the age of infinite scrutiny of bodies. There are a lot of problems with this. There are fights, there’s an us vs. them that appears between fat and skinny women, there’s name calling and huge amounts of pressure to be fit and healthy.
One solution to this that many people suggest is that we should stop paying so much attention to bodies. We should focus on what people do and who they are and what they say. None of these things are unimportant, but the tendency to push the focus away from bodies in order to make people feel better about their bodies has quite a few downsides, and it’s one that I don’t hold with even though I have seen firsthand the dangers of focusing too much on my body.
I was reading earlier today a post with some criticisms of the body positivity movement. I am all for some of their thoughts (no, it’s really not that helpful to replace fatphobia with skinny shaming), but I was surprised when I hit #3: “It Keeps Us Body Focused”. The thrust of it was that we shouldn’t pay attention to what we look like because we aren’t our bodies; we’re the things we do and the personality inside. A lovely thought, but not really backed up by science.
Let’s talk for a minute about embodied cognition. I love embodied cognition, and I think you should too because it’s utterly different from the typical ways that we think and speak about minds and bodies, but also appears to have a fair amount of evidence supporting it. Embodied cognition is the idea that our brains and thoughts aren’t simply housed in our bodies, in many ways they are completely dependent on bodies. Our bodies not only influence the way we think, but sometimes changes in the body can completely change how we think. Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka define it as follows: “Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations.” One great example is this study that found people who needed to pee, who were hungry, or were tired were less likely to believe in free will.
George Lakoff, a linguist, has done a lot of work on embodied cognition and found that many if not most of the ways we speak and think are based off of our bodies. We use spacial metaphors for nearly everything, and those metaphors have a physical effect in the brain which can influence our bodies. For example a study found that when asked to think about the future, participants leaned slightly forwards but when they were asked to think about the past, they leaned slightly backwards.
None of this is hard evidence that our thoughts are entirely dependent on our bodies, but they do give some evidence that what we’re doing with our bodies has a big effect on our thoughts and vice versa. For more on embodied cognition, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Ok, so what does embodied cognition have to do with body positivity and improving self esteem for women and girls?
I have this suspicion that despite the intense scrutiny to which we hold our bodies and the bodies of others, we actually spend very little time paying attention to our bodies. We pay attention to how our bodies look, but not to how they feel or what they’re doing. And we ignore the ways that they affect us. We ignore that when we’re hungry we can’t think and we’re cranky. We ignore that being sleep deprived makes us nasty, angry people. And while there are times that we’re willing to point out how our bodies are ignored (for example when it comes to healthcare), we don’t necessarily talk about how embodiment affects our experiences of sexual and domestic violence, or of low self esteem, or of perfectionism, or all the other problems that women are facing today.
I’m willing to put down money that these things both have an impact on and are impacted by our bodies and our bodily experiences of them. Ignoring the actual, real bodies of women has led to a lot of problems in the past, from horrible medical care to rape. I suggest a reframing of feminism to a focus on bodies, but not bodies that are cut apart from our minds and seen as some kind of separate entity. Rather we need to spend some real time figuring out for ourselves what our bodies can do and how they’re frickin awesome (this may or may not involve looking at your body), as well as educating other people about what our bodies mean to us.
The obsession with certain body types is not actually a way of showing that we value our bodies and that we place importance on them. While it is a kind of focus on bodies, it’s actually a focus on the outside perception of bodies. It’s an obsession with standards and rules. But it misses out on whether our bodies are healthy and functioning, it misses out on all the ways that our bodies communicate to us (many of our emotions come to us through physical signals), and it misses the ways that oppression harms our bodies.
If any person is going to be relatively happy and fulfilled they need to be able to pay attention to their body enough to pick up on cues that something is wrong or that things are going right (like hunger cues or a runner’s high), as well as to understand that we can affect our emotions with our bodies. Respecting our bodies, both male and female and other, is actually pretty damn feminist since the masculine ideal tends to be of a disembodied rational brain. Let’s imagine a world in which politicians take a minute to do a mindfulness meditation when they start getting out of control angry. I imagine it would be a way better world, but I also imagine that it’s a world that’s respecting the traditionally “feminine” virtues a little more.
It’s possible that feminism can be successful by ignoring bodies and focusing on accomplishments. But I find it hard to believe that a movement that seeks to make people more empowered, happier, and create a just society will do so by ignoring an integral part of the human experience.