What a body can do

In the past three decades, my body has changed its size and shape and look many times. There was my baseball body, my weight lifting body, my 10-year rock climbing body. There is my meditative running body. I have been blessed to always have a beautiful, lean body, regardless of exact size or shape. Above all, I have been blessed by movement, by the edifying nature of a body functioning properly.

I want to examine what a body can do in order to transform our understanding of “beautiful body.” My thesis will be that a body engaged in virtuous (i.e., excellent) activity, where this activity is self-sustaining, just is a beautiful body. This thesis should strike us as counterintuitive but should nonetheless have considerable appeal.

Let’s consider our intuition. Our misguided starting point is to look at the body as if to say that the beautiful body can be regarded by the camera. The woman who poses nude give us our first intimation of this regard; the model who stands rail thin before the accommodating camera gives us our second. From this understanding of the beautiful body as a Still Frame, we then ask how our body can conform to this external standard, how it can approximate itself to this model.

When, on this misguided understanding, a body does not look attractive or appealing, it is said to be distended, overweight, disgusting, vastly underweight, unappealing, shameful, gross, and so on. It is usually at this point that medical terminology makes the rounds: at the point when we start talking of “normal” or “abnormal,” “healthy” and “unhealthy.” Even a more moderate standard measurement or norm makes the same mistake by allowing a more elastic Still Frame to be the guide. To the degree that the Still Frame is the standard unit of measurement, to that degree men and women will continue to strive to approximate the Still Frame. And then we will hear more railing about ‘beauty’ and even more nauseating talk of ‘health’ and ‘illness.’

The grand edifice of ‘nutrition science,’ ‘dieting,’ stomach surgery, ‘body image,’ ‘patriarchy,’ and whatever now comes into view. Perhaps the whole thing has gone off course, yes?

Let’s try again. Let’s ask not what a body looks like but rather what a body can do when it does something well. I am inviting us to think of a body not as a static object but as a moving being, a being moving in a certain kind of way, a being moving toward an immanent end, an end intrinsic to an activity. My body cooks, cleans, runs, sings, dances, jumps, loves.

In this connection, we might observe how different an excellent runner’s body is from an excellent swimmer’s body and that would be a fine thing to do. But, while observing them, we would not want to say that a runner’s body is beautiful whereas a swimmer’s body is ugly. Nor would we want to compare a runner’s body at rest with a swimmer’s body at rest. What good would that be? (Who cares what a runner’s body looks like while it reclines in a chair?) Instead, we would want to attend to the evolution of a runner’s body as he went from being a novice to a trainee to an adept. We would notice, if the runner is running long distances, that his chest and back appear to hollow inward, that his arms grow thin, his legs grow thin–in fact, his body seems to get smaller, more intact, more compact until it reaches a form where it can work properly, maximally. Of course, one runner’s body may look considerably different (albeit falling within some kind of range set by “being human”) than another runner’s body. There would doubtless be room for variety. And that would be fine and intelligible and nice.

What goes for a runner’s body also goes for a swimmer’s, a sport climber’s, a pole vaulter’s, a builder’s, and so on. Our attention, recall, is focused on the transformation of each person’s body in and through virtuous activity to the extent that the body is slowly reshaped in order to actualize its capacities to the fullest. The conclusion is that the ‘look’ of the body is the product of the ongoing activities that fundamentally shape and reshape that body. If a body looks a certain way, it is because the body has made its way toward maximal functioning. Yet our eyes, once again, should fall largely on how the body performs when it is in motion, when it is at its best, neither overworked nor underworked but moving swimmingly, effortlessly along like water.

So far, I have said nothing about the nature or kind of activity, but now I want to add a further thought that some activities will, just in virtue of being the kinds of activities they are, degrade the active nature of the body. I think cage fighting too brutal and vicious, a few moments of walking too precious. I think most people do not know how to walk properly. Furthermore, if an activity makes other regular activities difficult to perform, then this activity can also be ruled out. I think body building is one such on the grounds that one cannot walk or sleep with ease or elegance. I do not believe that these activities can possibly qualify as being self-sustaining where the latter means at least “capable of carrying one on perpetually into the future.”

(My speculative claim, which I leave aside for now, is that only certain activities that accord with the Way (Dao) can count as being self-sustaining. Only activities, say, that flow like water.)

Let’s attend to the best swimmer’s body we know of. Michael Phelps’ body, it seems to me, would count as a beautiful swimmer’s body because it functions at its utmost. Phelps is showing us one beautiful thing the body can do. I do not see why we couldn’t call his body beautiful in virtue of its functioning at its utmost.

What is interesting about my story of what a body can do is that it gives us some direction concerning how we might better understand ourselves. The argument against being too fat or too skin, by my reckoning, is not narrowly moral or medical but uniquely aesthetic: the very thin man and the very fat woman are both missing out on learning what their bodies could do were these bodies to be put to good use. The very fat woman cannot walk properly, let alone jump and dance properly. Perhaps the proper emotion to feel for her is pity. Perhaps these are best comprehended as aesthetic cautionary tales.

On this understanding of learning what a body can do when it does something well, we now have license to try to act excellently in the way a dancer, a walker, a runner, a kite flyer does and, so long as we ongoingly act excellently, we will notice how our body changes its shape and size so as to perform what it performs best with greater finesse, agility, and strength. My body has been like the seasons of life. My love is the love of unfolding. It seems to me that we have every reason in the world to call our properly moving bodies exquisite, beautiful, and graceful. I watch the woman walking well and I am thereby enchanted.