Whose Bodies Matter?
By Gabrielle Roth
It saddens me that the body carries so much shame, so much fear. I guess it all started with our fall from grace, when Eve did her apple thing – I’ve always appreciated the fact that she offered Adam a bite; at least she wasn’t selfish. So, they shared the apple and fell from spirit to flesh, and it was all her fault. And what image does the Bible throw at us to symbolize how low they have fallen, how unworthy they have become? Does it show us Adam and Eve being cruel to each other or pulling out flies’ wings or burning down all the trees or eating yogurt that wasn’t fat-free? No. It shows us their naked flesh.
And how did God make them feel? Ashamed. They fell from bliss to self-consciousness and anybody who’s ever been self-conscious knows how awful that feels. What a horrible punishment – to be self-conscious about your own body, to be ashamed of it, scared of it, maybe even to hate it. 
When I was in elementary school, my best friend, Heidi, and I used to play Russian Spies, running along the hedges outside the townhouses on our way home from school, leaping over them to hide, ducking quickly behind them when a car came barreling by. We’d crouch and shout, or simply use our radar eyes to see if they were carrying weapons, or our e.s.p. to read their minds. When the coast was clear, we’d be up again, laughing and running along until it was time, again, to jump the hedge.
Later, we’d play exotic dancers, turning the music up loud and gyrating our hips, stripping as we danced, until one night, the door opened suddenly, and Heidi’s very serious mother stood in the doorway, bringing an end to our excitement and any possibility of careers as exotic dancers. And now I find myself in the ministry…
Heidi’s dad had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. That was serious business. I always tried to picture what the iron curtain looked like. Was it like a stage curtain, only made of iron, with people sneaking under it just in time before it hit the ground like a guillotine?
Their house, unlike ours, was tidy as could be. Regimented, it seemed. Whenever I went home with Heidi after school, her mother would give each of us two graham crackers and a glass of chocolate milk, which we’d eat at the table. At our house, a whiney “We’re hungry, Mom!” would garner a simple “Go get a piece of fruit!” So the grahams and chocolate milk were a real treat for me. Once I asked Heidi to ask her mom if we could have more, and her mom simply said, “No.”
After she caught us dancing, Heidi’s mom called my mom to let her know what we’d been up to. I know this because my mom, more curious than concerned, asked me about it. Naturally, I knew enough to lie when interrogated. After all, we’d played Russian Spies for years. It fell to my mom, in the face of my lying, to explain that Heidi’s mother had said that Heidi wouldn’t be allowed to play with me anymore.
Like Adam and Eve, I fell from bliss to self-consciousness. I felt ashamed. One moment I was a child, playing with my best friend; the next moment I was unfit to play with. And it wasn’t the game of Russian spies that did it.
The reality is that all of us fall from bliss to self-consciousness, if we live long enough. In most cases, reaching puberty is long enough. Think about it for a moment: Do you remember when the body you’d lived in for years suddenly felt like foreign territory, when you didn’t recognize the feelings stirring within you? Do you remember the incredible self-consciousness of meticulously dressing for a date, how beautiful you felt in your first long dress — or how ugly; how handsome you felt in your first suit — or how awkward? Do you remember comparing your body to others, to those in the locker room or the gym, to those on t.v. or in magazines? Do you remember choosing to adorn you body: dying your hair blond or purple, getting pierced, or tattooed, growing a mustache, choosing clothes that enhanced certain features, or hid them? Do you remember sweat-soaked underarms, staining your shirt, or the flush of red the first time you bled through your underwear? Do you remember how you felt? And how do you feel now, remembering?
For some people, the fall from bliss to self-consciousness happens earlier than puberty, in the moment they become aware that they are different from others. Often the point of difference becomes a source of shame, particularly if other people identify the difference as a flaw. I know a little boy who’s loved wearing dresses since he was very young. His favorite activities are dancing and playing with his dolls. His parents have conscientiously, kindly, lovingly tried to help him find a way to be exactly who he is, while at the same time protecting him as much as possible from the inevitable pain, which he expressed in these simple words at the age of 5 or 6: “Mom, I think God made a mistake.” Whether Jimmy is really a girl born in a male body, or whether Jimmy is a boy who happens to like the clothes, activities and toys that are typically associated with girls, like most children who don’t fit neatly into the binary categories of girl or boy, Jimmy pays closer attention to the world than most children, to figure out where it’s safe for him to be himself, which means wearing dresses and playing with dolls, and where it’s not. He instinctively knows that it’s safe at home and in his extended family, but out in the world, or when his friends come over to play, he wears “boy” clothes and says the dolls belong to his sister. Because our culture operates with a binary understanding of gender, Jimmy feels he must present a different person to the world than the person he is at home. The cost to him is enormous, as is the cost to those who love him, and who know that he is beautiful and perfect just as he is.
Most of us have had the experience of recognizing that, in some way or another, we don’t fit the stereotypes of our gender. Relative to those stereotypes, we may cry too easily, or not enough, for our gender. We may be too assertive as girls and women, or too passive as boys and men. We may be girls who want to be doctors or ministers, or boys who want to be nurses or church ladies. We may be sensitive new-age guys, in touch with our feelings, or strong, assertive women. We may be men who would rather cuddle than have sex, or women who haven’t the slightest interest in foreplay or afterglow. We may be effeminate men or masculine women. We may be girls in boys’ bodies, or boys in girls’ bodies. Whoever we are, wherever we fall on the gender spectrum, it takes guts and self-love to define ourselves as anything other than manly men or feminine women.
I see reason to hope: Young people today seem more comfortable with their bodies, however those bodies look, and they’re more likely to push against or transcend gender stereotypes. A few years ago, I was part of a teaching team that facilitated the middle school version of Our Whole Lives, the life-span sexuality education curriculum developed jointly by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. As facilitators, we were prepared to counter stereotypes, particularly in the lessons on sexual orientation, gender identity and disabilities. What we found instead was open-minded curiosity in the youth, and an intention to learn rather than judge. We were prepared to answer the boys’ questions about girls, and the girls’ questions about boys, but the youth told us they were having none of that: They wanted to hear from, and share with, one another. Then they courageously asked and answered a wide range of rather intimate questions. It was wonderful to witness, and certainly a testimony to loving and courageous parenting, and a loving and courageous faith community. Even the few parents who had difficulty with some portions of the curriculum chose to let their teens participate. That takes guts.
But for all that, it’s still the case that transgender people often have a difficult time accessing health care and receiving emergency services, and they’re still the targets of hate crimes that lead to death an average of once a month. In his book Just Add Hormones, author Matt Kailey, a female-to-male transgender person – that is, a male who was born in a girl’s body, reflects on the experience of being transgender. In discussing the difficulties transgender persons face in caring for their bodies, from the self-consciousness and shame they feel to the humiliation and ridicule they are often subjected to, to the downright refusal of some healthcare professionals to provide care, Kailey writes, “As transpeople, we take our bodies to a level that we’re comfortable with in our transition, then we take care of them as best we can…” In other words, transgender people may go through none, some or all of the processes that bring their physical bodies into congruence with their gender identity. Much of society is uncomfortable with this, and sometimes medical and emergency professionals – and I dare say, psychologists and ministers – refuse to provide care. Kailey offers the example of Robert Eads, a female-to-male transsexual, a man who had female reproductive organs, who “died of ovarian cancer after over twenty doctors refused to treat him, saying that they didn’t want to deal with him or that they didn’t want him sitting in their waiting rooms.” And “Tyra Hunter, a male-to-female transsexual, died after a car accident when emergency medical technicians discovered her penis and discontinued treatment at the scene, choosing instead to laugh and make jokes while onlookers pleaded with them to help her.”
What’s this about? Why didn’t the bodies of Eads and Hunter matter? I believe those people who refused to provide care suffered from what so much of our culture suffers from: Our human capacities for courage (our guts!) and love (our hearts!) are blotted out by shame, the shame which we feel in and about our own bodies, which we project onto others. Perhaps this is most poignant in the area of sexuality, and the reason violence against sexual and gender minorities is so prevalent.
But we can see the same dynamic in another area, too: in the ways we view bodies – our own and others – when they are ill or differently-abled. Perhaps you, like me, remember the first time your body stopped cooperating with your expectations. In the flash of a diagnosis or the gradually increasing pain in your joints, you became aware of your body, instead of simply living in it. Perhaps you also became aware of your mortality. For some, illness or injury usher in a deeper respect for our bodies, a more conscious living in them; for others, they are a source of shame or a call to arms.
I was 21 years old when I was diagnosed with Type I, or insulin-dependent diabetes. The first night I was in the hospital, a nurse asked if I’d like her to give me a backrub. I thanked her and said that I didn’t want that. You see, I felt sorry for myself, and I was afraid that her kindness, her touch, would unleash the flood of tears I was working so hard to hold in. Having just been diagnosed with a chronic illness, I was acutely aware of my own vulnerability, and I felt ashamed, both of my vulnerability, and of my self-pity, so I mounted the ramparts and took charge, controlling my diabetes with a vengeance! I probably don’t need to tell you that that vengeance affected more than just my diabetes. 15 years passed before I simply grieved deeply and honestly. When I did, everything about my diabetes care became easier. Maintaining good blood-sugar control became an act of self-love rather than an act of vengeance, and I stopped viewing doctors, nurses, dieticians, friends and family members as unwelcome morality police, and allowed them to help me care for my body. The objective, clinical evidence shows that my diabetes control has always been good, but the shift from struggling with my body to cooperating with it brought enormous improvements in my emotional and physical well-being. I couldn’t have forseen it 29 years ago, but I’m grateful for my diabetes. It reminds me of my vulnerability and forces me to accept care.
In the PBS series, “The New Medicine,” Rachel Naomi Remen, a physician, counselor, clinical professor and author of such wonderful books as Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings, tells the story of how she felt when she, as a young woman, underwent surgery to remove her diseased colon. From then on, she would live her life with an ostomy, a surgically created opening in her abdomen for discharge of bodily wastes. In the days after her surgery, she felt self-conscious, embarrassed, ashamed of the appliance of waste which required frequent changing. The nurses charged with her care came in to change the appliance periodically, and after changing it, they went to the sink to wash their hands on the way out of the room, as, indeed, they should. Unfortunately, their handwashing after touching her added to Remen’s sense that she was disgusting, dirty, untouchable. Then one day, something shifted. A young nurse walked in, clearly dressed for an evening out, walked directly to the sink and washed her hands before changing the appliance. As she changed it, she touched Remen, and she sat to talk a bit before she left the room. In that experience, through the conversation and the human touch and the nurse’s acknowledgement –implicit in her initial hand-washing — that Remen’s body mattered, Remen began to see herself as a whole person again.
In this culture, the ideal body is young, lean, strong, healthy, able, and beautiful. Not a single one of us measures up to that ideal, at least not over the long haul. And yet we can simply follow the dollars to see how hard we try: We spend $20 billion a year on cosmetics, and $300 million on cosmetic surgery. We have a $33-billion-per-year diet industry and a $15.9 billion-per-year health club industry, and still 2/3 of dieters regain the lost weight within one year, and 90-95% regain it within five years. Our emotional and physical health suffer as we try to conform to the narrow standards of the ideal body.
I wonder if we might, instead, remember that all bodies, young and old, fat and thin, strong and frail, healthy and living with chronic illnesses, using canes, walkers, wheelchairs or legs, male and female, all of our bodies are blessings, integral to our wholeness, integral to our very lives. We’re elephants and we’re dragons and we’re everything in between, and we’re lots of things that aren’t even in between, and each of us is beautiful. Each of our bodies matters.
I hope that we might learn to bless ourselves the way Saint Francis blesses the sow in this lovely poem by Galway Kinnell:
Saint Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on the brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of the earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Gabrielle Roth, Sweat Your Prayers (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997) 2.
This is a reference to the opening reading.
Matt Kailey, Just Add Hormones. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005) 80.
The New Medicine, writ. Ronald H. Blumer, dir. Muffie Meyer, Twin Cities Public Television, 2006.
Statistics from a variety of internet sources, 2006.
This is a reference to the story for all, in which an animal that looks like a dragon has to convince the elephants that he’s an elephant, too, based on how he feels inside.
Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow”, in ten poems to open your heart by Roger Housden. (New York: Harmony Books, 2002) 35-6.