Most of us want to be able to control our bodies. That verb might sound quite condemning, and if we were to delve into semantics, I might offer ‘check,’ ‘keep an eye on’ or ‘curate’ as a nod to creativity. I’m also aware that that choice of verb bears my own foibles; they’re strewn about it like bunting. Nonetheless, it’s my firm belief that each of us, in some way, wants to foist some degree of control over our physicality. I feel that if we, as a society, considered that more deeply, and tried to understand and have compassion for that tendency, it would open up a whole new debate on body image.
Control can come in many forms. If we’re ill, we strive to recover and build ourselves up again. To call that control may sound insensitive, but I wouldn’t exclude it from the debate entirely; seen in simple terms, we are reluctant to let the body take its course when we are suffering, or unable to function. We want to be cured; of course we do. If we’re into sport, we work hard to fashion as fit a physical form as we can, in order to enhance our performance. And then there’s the question of body image: our current collective effort underscores muscularity and/or thinness as its goal. There are few who strive to be ‘flabby’ or overweight, even if they are comfortable being so; those states simply do not pertain to the objectives of control laid out by our cultural narrative.
But what if they did? Perhaps I’m being a little facetious, but what would it feel like if being larger or less toned were states that we actively tried to attain, rather than accept or avoid? In some cultures, being bigger than the average is seen as a sign of wealth, hence people strive for that. In other words, a desire to control the body is still present, it’s just that its object is informed by different cultural norms. As humans, wanting our image to say something about us – if not speak for us – transcends societies; with this in mind, it’s worth acknowledging, and having compassion for, our wanting to make our bodies do, and say, certain things. Once that compassion is cultivated, I believe we have freer rein to wield more control over that need for control.
It is an odd paradox, trying to control and render constant that which is always in flux. When we try to ‘get fit’ or ‘lose weight,’ we rarely do so with a view for it to be temporary; rather, when we try to ‘control’ the body, most of us envisage a state of permanence (even if we don’t always achieve it). And why wouldn’t we? As human beings, we have a natural aversion to transience, hence the marriage vows we’ve come up with, and the nature of work contracts (though perhaps not in the current climate, ahem). We ought not to be too hard on ourselves for needing to maintain a certain body shape, or for being afraid of the changes that come with age, for example. And yet we must be aware that whenever a desire for control becomes excessive, even if we are self aware and come to terms with our need to do it, we suffer.
So is it possible to reframe the debate around body control, and, in doing so, go some way towards changing the narrative on body image? The last thing I want to do is be flippant about any recommendations I make; I know through personal experience of an eating disorder that image, control and the challenges of trying to break free of that can induce extreme suffering. However, I do sometimes fantasise about the idea of putting a new spin on control. Control predicates choice, and because weight loss or muscle gain are (usually) a choice, I think we worry about weight gain and/or muscle loss because we don’t often choose those processes. Instead, they happen to us, so we don’t have as much agency; couple that with a general cultural inclination towards thinness and leanness, and you find a society under pressure.
But what if we were to choose varying and temporary states for our body, as we would choose the clothes we wear each day? I reiterate that I don’t want to be insensitive or trite, and I know there are many, many reasons why people cannot choose to alter their body form. But what if those that were able to could recalibrate the whole argument and, within healthy limits, decide to, say, enjoy their body for six months and gain weight for a time, then declare that they intend to get ripped, but only for a year, because they plan to move on to pastures new, work on just their arms for a bit thereby letting the rest of themselves return to how it was, before getting bum implants, but just for two years to see how they like it, with a half-formed view to go back to gaining some more weight until they decide to possibly, or possibly not, lose it again. It’s a silly anecdote, I know, but I’m convinced that if people started declaring, for instance, that they were planning to lose weight, or get a six pack, but with the intention or at least the notion that it wouldn’t be forever, that it was just until they fancied another look, or until it no longer suited their lifestyle, that would reduce anxieties around control.
Presenting body changes as alterable choices does not take account of everyone’s circumstances, physical or psychological. Yet in a society where we are constantly exposed to the results of people’s control and coercion of their bodies, adding a footnote about impermanence and reversibility would be a bold and novel stance to take.