Friday, September 7, 2012


I'm covered in bruises.

I've gathered them, like souvenirs, from various places and activities in the past few weeks: moving furniture, carrying a too-heavy bag, walking into a door, etc.

Point is, for someone who doesn't spend so much time on physical activity, I've been remarkably, well, marked, and I guess I'm just lucky I keep Tzniut, or people would take one look at my upper arms and assume they've got to rescue me.

But why do I bring this up?

Since I've become aware of my every movement through sore muscles and painful bangs, I've become more aware of my body in general. Like I said, I'm not the type of person who spends a lot of time on physical activity. Sure, I walk everywhere, and (mostly) watch what I eat, but when it comes to the shell that holds my soul I suppose it just comes in second place to those parts of me I usually concentrate on: my brain (grad school, work, art) and my soul (Rosh Hashanah's coming up, right?). So it's been kind of weird for me to be spending as much time as I have this week thinking about my body.

And before anyone starts this discussion, let's get this out of the way. Yes, I am a girl, so I naturally have plenty of body image issues. No, I do not think I'm fat. Yes, I think my physique could be improved upon, but so could most people's. Happy now?

How do I broach this topic without talking about staring at myself in the mirror self-loathingly or going into details about parts some people would blush to think about? Well, I'll give it my best shot.

My friend and I were looking at a magazine last Shabbat and discussing the ultra-photoshopped models in the ads.

She's a fashion person, so her point of view of the ad-filled issue is perhaps different from other people's. But as we looked at a glossy, computer-enhanced photo of a sculpturesque model with frighteningly sharp cheekbones, she said to me:

"People complain about models being skinny, too polished, not looking like real people. I like it this way. If they were real people this would be like looking at someone's family album."

In other words, to her, models weren't what the rest of us should aspire to be. They were, quite simply, human coatracks, with physiques quite similar to your traditional coatrack.

"And lots of people don't find models attractive at all," she continued, "Some people do, but then others prefer a bigger woman with a full figure."(As if to confirm this, a male friend of ours later picked up the same magazine and expressed his own distaste for the model body type.)

Naturally, later on in the day, as I was getting dressed to go out after Shabbat and I got a glimpse of some of my then-fresh bruises, I thought about my own body.

I could never be a model. Way too short. But then I don't think anyone could call me fat. I suppose in body type, I'm petite, but not particularly toned... or toned at all. I've got some assets others would like to have, but then I'm severely lacking in some areas others take pride in. Average, I guess. But not bad. Which is, I suppose, a victory in today's image-pressure society.

On Arbitribe, I spoke at length about the body image issues of Jewish girls, so I won't be repeating here what was said there, except to bring up another discussion I had with a different friend this week.

"There's a guy I know," she said, "Who asked me if I'd ever heard of Bar Rafaeli. 'Did you know she's Jewish?' he asked me. 'I didn't know Jews could look like that!'"

Eye roll. I'm not even going into that one.

But beyond even appearances, bodies have been on my mind. (WARNING: Mature discussion to follow. Those who would blush, shout, or snigger are kindly asked to direct their attention to photos of internet cats somewhere else. The following discussion is clean, respectful, and honest. I ask you to be, too.)

I'm a Modern Orthodox Jew, so for me certain aspects of bodily function don't enter my usage resum√© until I'm married. That's not to say I don't think about them, they just aren't really a part of my physical activities or current existence.

Sometimes I forget how unusual that is in modern society, but it was made quite clear to me a few weeks ago, when I found myself at a lounge in San Francisco with a group of much less observant, or completely unaffiliated Jews. We had just finished a weeklong, intensive fellowship for a Jewish educational organization, but other than all being North American and genetically Jewish, we didn't have all that much in common. I was one of the very, very few Orthodox Jews involved with this program, and at some point during the "we're done with work" lauding, one of the fellows spoke up.

"Can I ask you some uncomfortable questions about being Orthodox?"

I'm used to the general ones about faith in G-d and Halacha, so I told them to ask away. And boy, oh boy, ask they did. We covered topics from interpretation of Tanakh to women's rights to stereotypes to politics (wow, did that one get heated). The conversation lasted over three hours and so late into the night I thought for sure we were on Tokyo time. Maybe in another post, I'll discuss this event at length. But one of the questions to come seemingly out of nowhere during the night was this. 

Please man, don't hold back.

The sheer reaction to this statement from all, what, six people involved took me rather by surprise. They went on to pity me for my repression (I don't know, I don't consider myself all that repressed. It's not like I don't know how it works), encourage me to get drunk and crazy one night (this came from one who was, ironically enough, rather drunk and crazy themselves), and wonder aloud how a modern, educated woman like myself, who wasn't blushing and crawling under the table from the mere mention of the activity, could not give it a try when there were clear ways to be smart about it.

To all of which I shrugged and said, "This is the life I've chosen to follow. I don't care or comment on anyone else's life choices as long as they leave mine alone."

That's what I said, though with Rosh Hashanah coming up, I feel compelled to admit that it's not entirely true. I don't care or comment on the life choices of people I don't care that much about. I tend to get worried about those who matter most to me. But that's neither here nor there.

This topic, and body issues in general, have been weighing on my mind heavily since. Not just in the areas of lifestyle, image, and sexuality, but also in the terms of awareness. I say Asher Yatzar in the morning, thanking G-d for all of my orifices and for, specifically, my ability to use them. It's, to me, one of the most meaningful prayers in the book.

But then again, I hear horrible stories all the time about Orthodox men and women who do unfortunately stupid things with their bodies, because they've been so closed off from discussion they simply don't understand how they work (I am not getting into THAT now, but maybe some other time), or because they're afraid to speak up when someone is doing something terrible.

Now I've been thinking so much more about the aspects of my body beyond effective function.

Is this a good body? If I were on display in a museum, would the critics call it proportionate? Beautiful? Ugly? Would they wonder about the skill of its sculptor?

Would anyone choose this body over another, if they were given such a choice? Would anyone choose to look at it, even if it wasn't theirs, over another on display on an adjacent pedestal?

If it belonged to someone else, how would they be treating it? Would they exercise more than I am, filling out its potential with muscle and energy? Would they be making poor choices? Overeating? Never moving? Would it be disease-ridden or lice-infested? Am I taking good care of it?

Above all, am I proud of the way I treat it, and the ways I choose to make use of it?

I care a lot about things like posture (bad backs run in my family) and hygiene. I don't drink all that often, and I wash my face in the vain hope that my zits will disappear. I brush my teeth but forget to brush my tongue. I clean my ears but forget to drink enough water. Hey, we've all got areas that need improving.

Perhaps this post qualifies as one of the most narcissistic things I've ever written. I don't know, I hope that's not how it comes across. I don't mean to go on and on about my body, but it's the only body I have the right to comment on. My above questions apply to every body, but since mine is the only one I have any control over, I have to ask myself these questions before I shoot them off onto anyone else.

Maybe when it comes to this topic, I'm giving it too much thought. Maybe others will scoff and say, who cares what you do with your body as long as you're smart about it? Don't drink every night! Don't throw yourself down a flight of stairs! Check out the health of your partners, if you've got them. Why make an ethical/philosophical discussion out of this?

I don't know. Maybe it's just that time of year. Or maybe because I'm a female with a foot in two societies: one that thinks and talks waaaaaaay too much about the physical, and one that perhaps should think and talk a little more.

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