We get so hung up on these bodies. Their shape and size. Smell and color. The thickness of our thighs, perkiness of our breasts, roundness of our bellies, or texture of our skin or hair. We obsess over how many carbs we’ve consumed, or the calories burned. Yet to what ends? Besides keeping some sort of eye on our health, when it comes down to it, these bodies really are just complex and intricate vehicles carrying around something so much less material.
Nothing brought this home as much as seeing “Bodies: The Exhibition” in Atlanta this weekend. It’s an extremely controversial exhibition, made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of real human cadavers. The tissue has a polymer that renders them into a sort of plastic and gives them a shelf life potentially forever.
The controversy is around evidence suggesting the bodies, bought from China, may be young men who died while being held in work-camps for their spiritual beliefs. No government should ever be allowed to profit from its war crimes.
Yet, if this is true, the exhibition is simply another example of how our world holds life – as objects and often with little respect. Just look at the semis with chickens driving down the highway, the video games showing graphic violence as a form of entertainment, or zoos that hold animals hostage and make them go a little insane for the sake of education. Look at how we hold our own life, turning our bodies into objects rather than subjects.
Yet here we are, for better or worse, in “Bodies” looking at the most amazing of machines – the human form. It is beyond comprehension – the beauty, the complexity, the intricacy. We have over 200 bones, 100,000 miles of capillaries and nerve impulses that travel as fast as 170 miles per hour. Our lungs fill around 673,000,000 times in a lifetime, the cornea gets its oxygen directly from the air, and the human body has enough fat to make seven bars of soap. Every ounce of this form is brilliant, fragile, and sophisticated.
Standing there, eyeballing the eye sockets, skull, nerve plexus and bodily mechanisms once hidden beneath the skin but now nakedly visible, one could easily forget that we are also staring into something much more menacing. We are staring at the face of death. Each plasticized human in that room at one point was a life. He contained a mind, emotions, dreams, passions, skills, heartache and philosophical beliefs. He had parents, friends and potentially children and all the complexities that comes from being alive. He was both consciousness and chemistry. Spirit and matter. Breath and mud.
Never before had I felt so viscerally that for all intent purposes we really are walking around in, what comedian Wyatt Cenac calls, “meat filled skin sacks”.
With such a clear illustration that bodies really is just a vehicle, I became even more acutely aware of how much time, money, energy and self-esteem we waste hating or trying to change our forms. We are SO MUCH MORE than our shape, size or color. We are creatrixes, mothers, daughters, warriors, lovers, dreamers, mystics, priestesses, companions, jokesters, mystics, prophets, agents of positive change, and 1001 other things.
It makes me stop and wonder, what the world would be like if we took off the internalized corset -- stopped shaming ourselves, and others, for the bodies we live in. If we simply loved all of these various forms, and instead took all of that time, energy and power to be brilliant humans with skills, passions and dreams. If we took our creative force and used it to serve justice in the world.
Would we take the millions of dollars we spend on botox and surgeries, and instead fight to protect elephants, rhinos and cheetahs? Would we take the billions away from the diet industry and instead put it toward orphanages in India? Would we take the time we spent in front of the mirror at the gym, and instead write letters to help release prisoners of war?
I’m not sure. But the Chinese, despite their politics and potential war crimes, have an ancient proverb, “when sleeping women wake, mountains move”. Maybe that is why we are here. To wake ourselves up. And potentially to wake the nations as well.
We won’t shift overnight. But maybe next time I start a new diet or exercise program, I’ll also take a few moments to send some money to the animal shelter down the road too. If we all do that, we might actually feel better, and not because of the diet