Tuesday, September 4 2012

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In this blog, Xin take a look at how we perceive and value our bodies, and who the real us is.

Image Credit: Rainbowhill LL | Flickr

What’s more important: who you are, or the way people see you?

What do you value more: a healthy body that doesn’t look particularly “attractive”, or an “attractive” body that’s quite unhealthy?

Although the answers these questions might seem obvious in isolation (generally speaking you’d want to pick the healthy body, right?), in this complex society we live in, they are not always easy to answer.
We live in a world where we are pressured to maintain appearances, sometimes at the cost of our health.
We might see this manifesting in choosing to wear a short dress on a freezing night, depriving ourselves of food in order to avoid putting on weight, choosing shoes that kill our feet but look fantastic, and other such markers of appearance before practicality.
But when we struggle to lose weight or gain muscle, to appear taller or look curvier, what are we really trying to achieve?

The world is in a constant state of composition and decomposition. Every moment of the day, some of the cells in your body are dying, and new cells are being created to replace them. Almost every part of your body is literally being replaced every couple of months.
And unfortunately, your body is going to break down and stop working one day: it’s part of the package deal of life. Why then do we cling so desperately to the image of something that is constantly changing? When you look at it like that, being attached to your body seems to go against the nature of life itself!

There is more to you than the body you’re inhabiting.

Quick exercise: point to your consciousness/soul/identity.
You can’t, right?
Who you are, your sense of “self” does not exist inside the brain, or the heart, or anywhere in the body. The brain might be a tremendously complex information processor, but there are many schools of thought (including the neurosciences) that believe that the “mind” (consciousness/soul/identity etc.) exists separate from the brain.
Buddhists believe in reincarnation- that your body is like a car. You own it for a number of years, taking good care of it so that it will last a long time, but you can get into accidents or it can break down with age. It’s nothing to worry about: the driver can get out of the car and buy a new car when the old one stops working.

Taoists believe that behind the material world there is an immaterial world that cannot be seen, touched or sensed physically. Because the material world is in a constant state of destruction and renewal, life and death, yin and yang, only a fool would cling to it. The wise person instead realises that nothing that matters can ever be destroyed, and therefore lets go of his or her attachment to the material world. Personally, I believe that all life is fuelled by energy and that when we die the energy is transformed, not dissipated. Basically, I believe that who I am is not what I am, and that the who is infinitely more important than the what.

Image Credit: ObscuraDK

At its essence, the body is just a bag of flesh to help you move through the world! In Paul Jennings’ story “Clear as Mud”, the people of the world get infected by a strange disease that turns their skin transparent. Imagine that when you looked at your best friends and loved ones you could see their organs- it’s hard to look “attractive” when your bowels are showing!
And that’s exactly what our bodies are: meatbags. But what wonderful meatbags they are!

From my studies of human bio, I have been constantly amazed at the incredible complexity of an organism made of billions of unique cells, functioning in remarkable harmony. The closer I look at the human body, the more awed I become at its genius and miracle. But it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s constantly changing, and that as we grow older it deteriorates. Rather than resisting this change and being obsessed with physical appearance, it’s so much healthier to focus on being a good person rather than a good looking person.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t feel good about the way you look, or that you shouldn’t try to look attractive to other people. You’re on the earth, and you have a body, and you may as well enjoy it. Humans are social creatures and are drawn to connect with one another. But a friend of mine once said “Looks draw people in, but personality makes them stick around.” There’s more to you than just your appearance!

“Looks draw people in, but personality makes them stick around.”

And besides, “attractiveness” is highly subjective, and there is no perfect model of a human being. TV, magazines, our friends, our societies, and the world in general might seem to promote a particular type of look or style, but in the end it’s all artifice.
There’s no reason to take my word for it, but please trust me when I say that your idea of “attractive” is not universal. For every part of your body that you want to change, I guarantee that there is someone in the world who wants you to stay exactly as you are because they love you. And really, if someone is going to judge you for the way you look, they have such a shallow insight into what’s really important and they’re really not worth your time and company. If you’re lucky, you’ll have people in your life who see you exactly as you are, without veneer or facade, and who accept you unconditionally. If you don’t have any such people in your life, start looking, because it’s not worth lying to yourself and others in order to feel accepted.

So next time you get on your bathroom scales, or you suck in your stomach when you take your shirt off, or you pick clothes that show off a certain amount of skin, remember that what you are is not the same as who you are. There’s more to you than just your body, and once you accept that, how wonderful it becomes to be alive on the earth! Stay healthy everyone- I hope you’re all around to enjoy life for many years to come.

Xin

 

This week is Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week – check out our body image section and our eating disorders section for videos, stories and factsheets

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