Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Body and Our Obsessions

Life today pays too much attention to the body and therefore, too little.

We are acutely aware of how our bodies are perceived by others. We know and obsess over whether our bodies are fat or skinny. We compare them to images in popular media. How we occupy our bodies determines our social position. We hold ourselves upright, or we slouch. We feel intensely whether bodies are beautiful or ugly, young or old. Our bodies mark our social class, our sexuality, our race, our gender. We worry about how they smell, what size clothes they wear, how wrinkled they are, and what they say about us. Our bodies tell others whether we are disciplined or lazy, conventional or rebellious, athletes or couch potatoes.

For all of these reasons, we obsess over our bodies and the bodies of others. Our bodies, perhaps more than our voices, our thoughts, or even our families and friends are the great communicators of our selves. Lulu and I went to see Giselle at the Nashville Ballet this weekend and witnessed the body's full possibilities as a work of art. As Wittgenstein wrote, "The human body is the best picture of the human soul."

Despite the great power of the body to communicate--or perhaps because of this power-- we think of the body as an object to be controlled, disciplined, trained, shaped. We treat it as a slave to the needs of consciousness and attempt to organize it, to dominate it, to put it to work for us.

This attitude towards the body has a long history. But the present purposes of these attitudes are easy to see. They feed and fund a large segment of the economy that teaches us that the body is a site for the application of products. It needs to be shod and fed. It needs to go on a diet. It needs to be monitored, measured, and watched. It needs to be covered, enhanced, relaxed. Its pains need to be soothed. Its anxieties comforted. There is a bodily need for every product. The body is a privileged site in our culture of corporate consumerism.

A thought-experiment for you: how many of the interactions that you make with your body are mediated by a product? How many are named by a corporate brand? How is your idea of what your body is, how it operates, its problems and possibilities, educated into you by the products that you buy?

There is a product for every aspect of running. In fact, corporate culture is actively making running more and more complicated, giving it more and more aspects, so that there will be more and more possibilities for products associated with running. For example, 10 years ago there was no such thing as trail running. Trail running was just running through the woods. There were no special shoes for it. No hydration paks. No trail-running shorts. No trail-running gaiters. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as marathon training. Marathon training was just running a lot. We didn't know there were thresholds in the body that had special devices to monitor them. We didn't know that there were optimum heart-rates to be measured. We didn't know that our feet over or under pronated, whether our arches are high or low. In short, we did not conceive of our bodies as systems to be controlled and manipulated in the most efficient way possible through the use of multiple consumer products. To get in shape so that I can be an effective 3:10 pacer for the Nike Pace Team in the Bank of America (Chicago) Marathon.

Today, however, this is the first lesson that the new runner learns. He learns that the body is complicated, inarticulate, and unintelligent and therefore dependent upon a multitude of products that will help him or her contain, control, and train the body toward the goal. The first essential lesson in exercise consumption: the body is confusing. We don't know our bodies, says Polar and Garmin and Nike and Jack Daniels, PhD, so therefore we must turn to products and experts to educate ourselves about them. Ignorance is not bliss. It's money in the bank. And this ignorance and confusion is actively and consciously educated into us by corporations intended on profiting from it.

"So what?" I hear you saying. "I enjoy geeking out." "I enjoy my new shoes--they're part of the pleasure of running." Good enough, if it floats your boat. But know this, too. The pleasure of treating the body as a site of consumption and as a site of technological mastery is different from finding the pleasures of the runner's body. The thrills we get from this sort of mastery have very little to do with running. Further, treating the body in this way makes training unintelligent. It mistakes a body that is produced for the purposes of marketing for YOUR body, the one you live in and with.

If you don't believe me, then listen to British marathon record holder Steve Jones: "What I do is make it simple. There's no science in it – no heart-rate monitors. It's just running – running instinctively. Anyone who saw Steve Jones run in the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties knew that he ran by the seat of his pants nearly all the time. You don't see that any more and that's what I'm trying to teach these guys. None of it comes out of a book. It all comes out of my own experience."

The body can be controlled, measured, trained, and covered with gear. But it can be more than that, too. Your running body is a spontaneous and productive and free site of experience. Intelligent training begins from this principle. It knows that we run and train with the body. We don't use the body to train, to accomplish a goal, or to check something or other off a life-time list. We live in the body.

In opposition to the body as marketplace, I want to affirm a simple point. We can have direct and unmediated experiences of our bodies. We can feel them as they are. There is a body beyond how it appears to other people, beyond its being sliced and diced into possibilities for buying and selling, beyond its capacity to be disciplined and trained, measured and controlled.

How to find this body? How to make this contact, this way of paying attention? It's the simplest thing in the world. You quit treating your body in terms of efficiency. You quit treating it as an excuse to buy one more thing. You stop covering it with gadgets. You stop paying attention to the experts, the internet pundits, the marketers.

Here's what you do. You go for a run. And there, on a blue morning, with a few friends, under brilliant October leaves: the body.

9 comments:

  1. "whether our arches we high or low." believe you mean "were", not "we".

    not wanting to nitpick a brilliant post - just wanting you to get the most from your verbiage.

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  2. Thanks, ace. Fixed it. And thanks for reading!

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  3. Well said.

    The days are shorter now. After reading your blog I don't want to run on the treadmill. I will head outside. But first I have to put on my blinking red light, so people in cars can see me, and my LED headlamp, so I can see any hazards on the trail. Can't forget my cell phone just in case. Where is my watch...? Ken

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  4. Yeah, Ken--you're right. I love my tech-fabric shirts. I run with an ipod too every now and then. I own way too many pairs of shoes--including trail shoes. Ain't no reason to feel guilty. Just a reminder that it's okay to run without these things too!

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  5. Wow, excellent post. I wonder why running has become so complex. I mean, if you think about it, running is one of the simpler things you can do. Why have so many chosen to complicate it? It’s almost as though there is some required minimum level of complexity. If it’s too simple, then it’s too simple and must be “improved”.

    I don’t know, maybe it’s marketing, but it’s hard for me to believe that marketing is that effective. Then again, maybe people will buy whatever’s being sold to them. Hmmm. Something to think about.---Ben_1415

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  7. I am glad to say that some of the gear you mention is still unfamiliar to me (gaiters?). In this sense, I am still somewhat unspoiled.

    Your writings serve to hold me back from flying headlong into something ugly. Like you, I do own some stuff, but it's always nice to remember that it is not *about* that stuff.

    Blessings.

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  8. Excellent read Jeff. One of my best runs this fall was without a watch. The geek stuff has its place but its nice to just put one foot in front of the other and connect to the road and the sound of your feet on the pavement/trail.

    Thanks for reminding us.

    Norm

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  9. I'm glad I found this blog. I keep going back and forth about buying a Garmin, but I hate "stuff." I've been using a watch, which works perfectly, that I got 24 years ago! Jeff, you are a fantastic writer. It's was a blessing that I came to find your blog. Very inspirational.

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