Resolved: To Be More Free
In the fourth quarter of his life,
which is to say, as long as I knew him,
my Grandfather was obsessed
with following the literature on how to live longer.
He would try any method with enough gravitas behind it,
and funny enough,
(by which I mean of course,
given the $70 billion dollar industry to support it)
these methods were usually dietary restrictions.
He went through any number of diets:
no fat for a while, then no carb.
One time, he got on a red wine kick,
though he used to be something of a teetotaler…
He would drink a glass every night like medicine,
for its antioxidant benefits.
At least that one he seemed to enjoy.
The last one I remember was in his much older age,
when, as though desperate for more days,
he read and implemented a study that severe calorie restriction
would give him this longed for time.
He shrank and shrank before our eyes,
irritable with hunger.
Waning alongside his life.
I think he gave that one up.
I hope he did.
I hope his final years were delicious.
Because the end of this story
is the same as them all.
Death came for him, eventually,
in his case after a goodly number of years.
Death came for him on May 27, 2011,
after a long decline,
and on the very next day
after his first great-grandchild was born.
He was 90 years old.
Did he succeed in extending his life?
Or was his longevity written into his genes,
or the Book of Life,
the social circumstances of his white male privilege,
or the vagaries of an unpredictable universe?
In practice, who knows?
But I will tell you the theologically sound answer.
The answer that is not shattered by the injustice
of cancer, novel corona-viruses, accidents,
and any number of circumstances that take our loved ones from us.
We cannot persuade our bodies to stay
beyond their unknown number of days,
no matter how fiercely we grasp
at the circumstances around us.
We cannot persuade them to stay with diets
or essential oils
or extreme caution.
When it is time to go, they will go.
And no, that time is not written
into any book
or entirely determined ahead of us,
but it is also unknowable
and mostly outside of our power.
And this is not fatalism but mysticism.
It is not that what we do doesn’t matter.
It is that everything matters,
and we will never ever know how.
It is that our efforts to control the body
will always be circumvented by mystery,
and when it comes down to it,
what actually matters
is how we love the world
through these bodies that are the only way
we get to know the world’s beauty.
You cannot control your body out of suffering and death. These simply are and cannot be outrun, no matter how hard we try.
You cannot control your body into worth. It simply is and cannot be taken away, no matter how hard they try.
Every body is limited and so so precious amid those limitations.
This is…. MAYBE NOT what you’re hearing ‘round every corner this time of year…
It is resolution time.
It is the fever pitch shouting days of diet and wellness culture, and the heyday of their driving forces of fat phobia and ableism — those supremacy systems that question the goodness of the body with the promise of control and the binaries of worthy and not. These systems that try to shove us in a box and then fill us with shame when we don’t fit, when our glorious bodies refuse.
It is the fever pitch month of diet culture which rests on several premises:
the conflation of size with health and the pathologization of larger bodies;
the suggestion that some people are more or less good and worthy based on their body size;
the creation of thin privilege which makes thinness a gatekeeper to comfort, access, jobs, and more;
the framing of movement as punishment for eating or as means to change or control the body rather than a source of pleasure or joy;
the framing of food as moral rather than value neutral or a source of sin rather than nourishment and joy;
and the total devaluation of fat bodies to the extent that we are taught illness or death is preferable to growing in size.
— Adapted from Ragen Chastain
Incidentally, a member of the community I serve, Ginny Winter, who heads up the MU Center for Body Image Research & Policy found in a study earlier this year that more than a quarter of respondents would rather get Covid than gain weight during quarantine — chilling evidence of that final point.
This month is the fever pitch of diet culture and it is the fever pitch of wellness culture — fat phobia’s friendlier relative! — who insists the restrictive diet is to give you more energy, or to help you eat clean or live healthier. Never mind that framing health as the pinnacle of human experience leaves us little value amid chronic illness, disability and physical challenge.
Wellness culture is the privileging of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to an established definition of health. And there is nothing wrong with activities, choices, and lifestyles, except that privileging them and enshrining certain definitions of health will always exclude many bodies from worth for whom they are simply not accessible.
These cultures are deeply entangled in our lives year round, but we give them extra space in January.
It is resolution time. When the $70 billion diet industry is here to tell you that your body is wrong and they can help you make it right.
And the broader $4 trillion wellness industry is here to tell you that if you will try this cleanse or that yoga course, you can outrun limits and suffering at last for your unruly or aching or chronically ill or stressed out body.
Let me be clear, this is not to say there is anything in the world wrong with yoga or juice. And this is CERTAINLY not to say that we should simply consent to suffering or pain when relief is available.
This is simply to say, counter to many dominant cultural voices, that perhaps it is enough to experience your body as a very good gift and the only means by which you can love and experience the would, even amid its limitations, and especially in its unique difference…
Perhaps it is enough… enough in the sense that this body is all we need, and enough in the sense that finding this experience of goodness and sufficiency is hard enough work to fill our days in the culture that we’ve been given.
I am not saying we cannot seek more thriving for ourselves. What I am offering is an invitation to carefully vet your resolving instincts and their attendant goals for the year….
Who put them there? Are they feeding into a system of domination and control, starting with that of your own body? Are they a hubristic refusal of the limits that give your life shape and meaning? Are they a rebuke of other peoples’ way of being in the world by consenting to a hierarchy of bodies?
Or are they based in nurture and a rigorously expanding culture of care that celebrates and nurtures the inherent worth and goodness of every body?
I have a suspicion that this year the diet culture invitations to self-alteration will be all the more tempting because we are living in a terrifying and mortal time. We are so hyper aware of the fragile tethers of our bodies to this life. Anything that could give us some sensation of control over our well-being feels pretty appealing right now…
Except that our spiritual and political work remains the same as before the pandemic: To accept our ultimate helplessness in the universe, so that we do not fall prey to the power hoarding of supremacy systems that offer us control while destroying the fabric of our inter-being. To move from power-over to care-with, now more than ever.
The diets, the self-improvement goals… the intimate ways we internalize the idea some bodies have greater value than others is the way that supremacy systems get lived out in the world. This seems easier for white liberals to understand around racism. But it is just as true of the ableism and fat phobia that we are slower to interrogate.
The truth is that diet and wellness culture are supremacy systems that privilege some bodies over others, and that supremacy systems work through all of us with the false promise of control: that if only you will do this or that, you can finally be sure that you will be safe, worthy, valuable, and cared for… all the things that you have every right to expect as your birthright; but that the systems wish to deny, plunder, and steal.
The slipperiness of fat-phobia and to some extent able-ism, is that they give us a clearer illusion that we could get there, that we could finally earn that worth that we had all along. You can’t change your skin color, but you can diet! We won’t affirm your gender, but you can have more energy all day long without sugar!
Control of the body, from within if they can, and from without if you will not consent, is the goal of supremacy systems. Because the body is how we are free in the world, and supremacy systems are built on the zero sum assumption that your freedom threatens mine. That there’s not enough to go around. That your body is something for me to fear or loathe, because that is the only way to escape fearing or loathing my own and its limits and its shame.
These supremacy systems, patriarchy, heteronormativity, transphobia, able-ism, fat-phobia. It seems to me they all spring from a great horror of the body: the body that bleeds and births, that finds its pleasure, that defies your categories, that works differently than yours, that rejects the confines of smallness. The body that is full of mystery and limits, inelegance and mortality. The body that refuses your control.
Does it not follow, then, that a rigorous love of the body with all its bleeding and pleasure and defiance and largeness and limits and mortality — that a love of the body, of yours and of all of the bodies around you, is essential to the dismantling of these oppressions?
The poet Hollie Holden writes:
Today I asked my body what she needed,
which is a big deal
considering my journey of
not really asking that much.
I thought she might need more water.
But as I stood in the shower
reflecting on her stretch marks,
Her roundness where I would like flatness,
Her softness where I would prefer firmness,
All those conditioned wishes
that form a bundle of
She whispered very gently:
Could you just love me like this?”
Could you just love me like this?
Once I preached that our job is to love the world, but it that matters how we love. It matters that we practice the love that frees.
Love, laced through as it is with the inevitability of loss, can so often lead us into clinging fear. Love can so easily slide into grasping control. This is true for the way we love our selves and our bodies, and for the way we love others and their bodies.
And this is also where the intimate meets the political….
Where fearful clinging love turns to control, oppression, and deathly culture.
Where free, loosened love with open hands can blossom into freedom, thriving, and, extending outward, into collective liberation.
The antidote to the supremacy systems of diet and wellness culture isn’t a sentimental personal body love, but a fierce and political one. Fat Liberation activist and thinker Sonya Renee Taylor reminds us: “This is not just about feeling good in your body. This is about power.” This is about every body deserving goodness and thriving in a world that tries to keep those things for a very narrowly defined few.
The personal is political and the little ways that we opt into diet culture on January 1 are part of the slide into wide scale fat phobia year round. Because our body shame leeks out to harm others, inexorably, powerfully. We are relational beings, and self-hatred cannot help but be other-hatred. We are relational beings and other-hatred cannot help but be self-hatred.
So it’s the beginning of the year and it’s the shouting time of diet and wellness culture, and perhaps we can make some small commitments that are intimate and political and that lead us to liberation instead of oppression.
Perhaps the little ways we each opt out of body control can help us all get a little more free.
And you obviously get to think about what makes your body feel good and what makes you feel good in your body, but here’s a question to ask yourself with any resolution: Is this resolution about control or freedom? Is it about nurturing what is good or changing what I suspect is wrong?
Can you love your body as it is right now? In the shape and size that it is right this moment? With the pain that it is in right now. Within the limits it has?
Can you accept its goodness, no matter its size or ability? And from that place can you ask what caring for your body really means? Can you extend that care to every body around you?
Can you celebrate and affirm the diversity of bodies that give us each this totally unique view of the beauty of our world and lives? Can you change up your media consumption to fill it up with lots of different bodies?
Can you push back on diet talk and wellness talk, understanding how it spreads shame and control, refusing to swallow it for yourself and refusing to put it on others? No more: “I’m so bad for eating this!” No more: “I need to go walk off that dinner.”
Can you eat what feels good to your body and what you enjoy for nourishment and for pleasure? Can you move your body in ways that you love? Can you celebrate others doing the same?
Can you trust yourself?
I think you can.
Can you resolve to be more free in your body this year? More wild and delighted more clear about your limits and the preciousness they bring?
Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano writes:
The Church says: the body is a sin.
Science says: the body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The Body says: I am a fiesta.
This year, let’s listen to the body.