Embodiment

Eating disorders are about bodies. Duh. They’re about fat and losing weight and body image and skinny models and photoshop. Wait, what? That’s not right. Eating disorders are about the experience of being in a body, the limitations and lack of control that being embodied necessitates. Much better. I’ve been wanting to write about this article at Science of EDs on embodiment for quite some time, but I haven’t known exactly what to contribute beyond “yeah, that!” The article looks at a study of embodiment in which participants rated how much they experienced their body externally, through the feedback and sight of others, through objective measures, or through physical ways of controlling their bodies. Unsurprisingly, high scores on these measures were correlated with eating disorders.

When I read this, I felt a resonance with these experiences and questions: yes, what drove my eating disorder was a feeling of discomfort with having a body, an inability to imagine how my “self” fit into that body, a confusion about how my body actually fit into people’s conceptions of me, and a kind of certainty that the only time I really was in my body was when I was doing something to it or with it. But embodiment has always meant more than that to me. Having a body means you will die. That’s a pretty basic fact at this point in time (although there is the potential that through technology we will change it). Having a body also comes with a variety of limitations: you can only be doing one thing at a time, be in one place at a time, you are bounded by temporality and space. Even if you’re a highly capable person who can probably accomplish nearly anything they try, your embodied nature says that you can only try a limited number of things.

Bodies, and particularly bodily functions (like eating) are a constant reminder of these facts. For much of my life, I have not been able to stand being present in my own body (aware of my senses, my location, my body) because it was so limited. Some people are able to accept these limitations without struggle. Some people don’t find that being in a body is a constant reminder of their miniscule nature in the entirety of reality. But many of the people that I have met who also have eating disorders are the kinds of people who have been told their whole lives that they can do whatever they put their mind to, that they can do so at a high level of accomplishment, and that they can change the world. The perfectionism that this breeds hates limits, even ones that are utterly reasonable (like not being able to live forever).

Some people have certainly wondered why those with a high drive for control and perfection choose their bodies as the realm on which to enact their personal battles. The experience of embodiment as mortality and limitation gives a good window into this connection. It might seem that the whole world is not within our control, but the most basic level at which we have no control is the fact that we are embodied, our bodies do things we don’t want them to, we can get sick and die, and having a physical presence inherently limits the ways that we can affect the world.

It’s quite possible that few other people with eating disorders are consciously aware of hating their body because it represents the fact that they cannot do everything they’ve been told they could; I cannot cure cancer and reconstruct Proto Indo-European and become a bestselling author and be a feminist/atheist activist and play taiko for a living and learn neuroscience and solve the problem of consciousness and star in an amazing TV show. I have to pick and choose, and¬†knowing that I am giving up on some potential opportunity is painful. But even if others don’t consciously recognize that the reason they can’t do all this is because they are physical beings, on some level I suspect they feel it: it comes out in the guttural anger at the body and at the failings of the body, it comes out in the unrealistic expectations of perfection in every way, it comes out in the unnaturally high achievements and the insistence that slack is for other people.

Embodiment might be at the heart of all eating disorders, but not because of bad body image or a struggle to reconcile self-image with the perception of others. Somewhere in there, all of us want to be little gods, capable of anything. Bodies will always remind us that we never can be.

 

Settling for Happiness

For most of my life, I was fairly certain that the worst thing that could happen to me was an average life. Settling. I would think about working an average job (even one that I enjoyed) and coming home to a normal house and it all sounded like stagnation. It was the worst thing I could imagine. Most millennials have been told that they could be the best, which often translates into the implication that you should be the best. For me, this was the conviction that unless there was something in this world that I accomplished that no one else could, I was not doing enough.

Perfectionism is a nasty curse. There is always more that you could be doing. If you’re dedicating your life to writing, you’re losing out on your ability to make music or research neuroscience or learn languages. Possibility is always a kind of pressure. One of the biggest problems of defining yourself by your achievements is that there are always more things to be achieved. You might reach one of your goals, but there are five more that you could complete today alone.¬†“Average” tends to be defined by goals and accomplishments. You know someone is outstanding when you can point to their resume of accomplishments. Or so we’re taught to believe.

The problem with this model is that I know dozens of people who have done amazing things in their lives. All of them have found different ways to excel, and dedicated themselves to whatever their passion is. I hear news stories almost daily about people accomplishing things I could never hope to achieve. There’s no way to live up to all of these possibilities. What I don’t hear is stories of contentment. There are very few people in my life who seem to simply exist in the space that they’re in without any energy pushing them somewhere else, any driving need to be doing more or appearing better.

Contentment is not a competition. If all your friends are content with their lives, you don’t have to be more content in order to feel ok. In contrast, achievement and perfection are values that compare: the more your friends achieve, the more you have to achieve if you want your achievements to stand out.

So here’s a new goal: settling for happiness. Are you content with your job? Do you have a place to live and a regular income? Do you have people that you love? Do you get to see those people on a regular basis? Awesome. Settle for that. Relish it.

A few nights ago I got to see my friends for the first time in over a month. We didn’t do much. Ate some cookies, played Mario Kart, and just goofed around with each other. I laughed a lot. I smiled. I got hugged and teased and affirmed. It was hardly a mind-blowing experience, except that there was no anxiety, no worry, no desire to be anywhere but where I was.

Yesterday I went to the Renaissance Festival with some new friends and felt nothing but affection and excitement for who I was with. I was a little tired and didn’t have the money to spend on all the exciting things I saw, but again, there was no question in my mind that this was where I wanted to be and these were the people that I wanted to be with.

Tomorrow I’m starting a new job and I’m a little anxious, but I get to hang out with one of my best friends afterwards, and I know that no matter what happens or whether the job is a good fit or not, I get at least a few hours tomorrow of pure contentment. That’s more than some people can say in months. That’s amazing.

I’m not saving the world. I’m not making tons of money. I’m not living in the nicest house or recognized around the world as a world changing genius. But I like who I am and I like who I’m with. I will settle for that any day over saving the world, because I have saved my world. Somewhere along the way I hope to improve the lives of some people around me, but the best way to do that is by being happy and doing things I like to do. So I’m going to settle. I don’t necessarily need a high powered career or a book deal. I don’t necessarily need an excess of disposable income. I suppose if that’s settling, then I’m all for it, because I’d rather be happy than amazing.

Infinite

There’s a scene in The Perks of Being a Wallflower in which Charlie and his friends are driving their truck through a tunnel. They stand up in the back while their favorite song plays on the radio. Charlie says “In that moment, I swear we were infinite”.

Sometimes, when I’m walking down an empty street at night and the wind is warm and my skirt is swirling around my legs, I wonder if I am infinite. Unnameable feelings rise in my throat, as if my self were too big for my body and might burst out somehow. As if I could walk to heaven if I just pointed myself in a direction and started going. As if I might be able to see the whole world if I climbed high enough.

In the first season of the rebooted Dr. Who, Rose Tyler looks into the heart of the TARDIS and becomes infinite: she knows everything. Unfortunately, she simply can’t contain it: if it remains inside her it will kill her. No human being can process that much information.

More often than not, I feel like Rose, burning up from the inside with all the bits and pieces that flit through my mind. I jump from one task to the next, my brain racing with answers and analyses and concepts that don’t quite process fully.

I wonder whether I can ever hold on to the infinity, or whether my body will burn up. I want to breathe in the whole world through the pure taste of summer. God smells like lilacs and lily of the valley. The angel choirs are singing 90’s music. In heaven, I dance like Baby from Dirty Dancing.

But my body doesn’t move like that and lilacs die in a week and the 90’s are over. Every night when I fall asleep I remember that I am finite. Sometimes I pretend I can subsist on air to convince myself that I’m god-like enough to hold onto the joy of nights that sing and smirk and dance. Sometimes my whole body deflates and I collapse into myself when the hot air I puff myself full of gives out.

How could I not be melancholy when I have glimpsed perfection and fallen away?