The holidays are coming, and I am ready. I finally know what to say when somebody tells me I look great, that I look like I’ve lost weight, that my skin looks good. I will quote Jonah Hill, the actor and producer, who wrote on Instagram, “I know you mean well but I kindly ask that you not comment on my body. Good or bad I want to politely let you know it’s not helpful and doesn’t feel good. Much respect.”
Do you think that will work? I’m not sure. This new policy may upset people. They could feel defensive because their intentions are pure. They don’t realize what happens in my head when the subject of my body comes up; the shock of remembering that I have or perhaps simply am a body.
I smell smoke; a bright white light obliterates everything, a loud siren begins to wail, sending urgent shots of warning throughout the aforementioned body. I am a body that sweats and bleeds and will inevitably disintegrate and fade into the ground. My mouth clamps shut, my fists tighten, and I don’t mind telling you that my whole butt clenches! That’s not the best energy to bring to the party.
My Christmas wish is that nobody comments on my body. No doubt some people will understand why I ask them to refrain from remarking, and we will share a tender moment. But others will not, and it’s not fair to expect them to obey my demand. I must be realistic, meet them where they are. When it comes to beauty, we’ve all been marinated in history and steeped in socialization for far too long just to flip the comments switch off. Being beautiful, or being told you are, is no straightforward, objective thing. Too often, to be beautiful is to be able-bodied, white and thin, and those rules are disgusting to me. To be beautiful means believing the twin lies of being both in control and being controllable.
It’s funny sometimes just how freighted the experience of showing up in a woman’s body can be. Last week at the comedian Jacqueline Novak’s one-woman show ‘Get On Your Knees’, I felt the audience roll back with a massive wave of resonant laughter when she said, “The female form is its own burden, a sack of sex potatoes you can’t leave home without.” Novak went on, “You owe an explanation for, ‘no taters for sale, tonight!’ – a question in the air: why would you bring those out if you didn’t bring enough for the class?”
Approving comments about my body read as code words for ‘Congratulations, more and more men that you don’t know will want to have sex with you because of how you look now.’ And that, if you can believe it, is not a significant objective of mine.
My true objective is not to hate my body and not to worship it either. Outside voices remarking on my body remind me of that inner confusion, distorting and amplifying it. I need some next-level thinking. Kevin Townley is a Buddhist meditation teacher, so I call him up and demand that he teach me how to accept my body. I tell him I need to cultivate some damn neutrality. Slowly and with great compassion, which is the least you’d expect from a Buddhist meditation teacher, Townley explains that it’s not possible to have a neutral relationship with your body. “We’re going to have our initial reactions no matter what. We have our prejudices, we have our preferences; those are based on all sorts of things.” We cannot step outside of this culture in which we are immersed. People making comments, our feelings about people’s comments, our feelings about our own bodies; all pop up unbidden.
So what does Townley recommend? More mulled wine. I’m kidding! Equanimity, that is the thing. “There isn’t any other moment except the one in which you’re having whatever experience you’re having, right? And so the equanimity is to be able to ride that out.” It will pass, and we don’t have to act on it. “Equanimity is the willingness to be with the shifting ground of how we feel about ourselves. And it’s a practice.”
I’ll get to practice equanimity a lot during the holidays, and perhaps you will too. Good luck to us all. And remember, when you open your mouth to remark on what someone looks like, pop a mini quiche in there instead, and we’ll all enjoy ourselves that little bit more.