Let’s start a conversation…about our bodies

by Greg Rosen

We’ve all been there. Navigating our way in Moulton, we pass the desserts. We immediately begin to drool over the blueberry crumble. For some, ambivalent questions may surface and take control. Did I exercise today? How much am I going to have to work out to burn off these calories? Am I going to get “fat”?

Body consciousness. It exists. It’s real. And unfortunately, we don’t seem to talk about it that openly. Could you imagine yourself having this conversation out loud at Bowdoin? Most people would shun this type of discourse. But this input-output calculus can still take place in our heads. Perhaps because we don’t talk about the problem we become desensitized to the issues.

The input-output function of food doesn’t just happen at the individual level. It happens at a societal level. We live in a culture that equates health with body size. “Fat,” thus, becomes unwanted. We internalize messages – from television, from magazine, from social media – that “looking healthy” is “being healthy.” Nothing is wrong with looking healthy, but prioritizing looking healthy may actually lead us to make unhealthy choices. Take, for instance, body size. If we as a community value one specific body type, our goals and daily functions become systematized around the attainment of that body type. Exercise becomes a task, not a joy. Eating, additionally, can become a tool for molding our bodies into an ideal type, as if our bodies where malleable clay – things that we not only can alter through controlled actions but should be altering.

Most problematic perhaps is the rejection of difference in body discourse. “Fat talk” associates “fat” as being undesirable and unhealthy. Every healthcare practitioner, however, will tell you that body fat is necessary for survival and improves overall health outcomes. It seems we live in a society – and possibly even a world – that has replaced health with image. Looking like the ideal type not only becomes more desirable than being healthy – but it actually comes to define “healthy.”

This is not the message we should be hearing from a heath perspective. People’s bodies change over time, and likewise, their self-awareness of their bodies changes at different points in time. Body size shouldn’t matter to us as long as we are making healthy choices about our body. But what is a “healthy” body choice? In reality, it depends on the individual. Eating a donut to relieve stress can be just as much a healthy choice as eating a salad for lunch to get the necessary nutrients our bodies need to function at their highest level. What matters is context. Health doesn’t just have to be about what types of food we eat. It also has to do with the context in which we are making particular food choices.

Why does being body conscious matter at all? Because being body conscious sucks. But that doesn’t mean we should accept it. Because body consciousness is a product of culture, we have the power to change that culture through our language. Start a conversation: talk to your friends and your family, be mindful of the language you and others around you use when talking about their bodies, and compliment each other. The only way we can change how we talk about our bodies is by actually talking about our bodies – and talking about them in positive ways.