What Feminist Study is Teaching Me About My Body

When I first got to Oxford, I texted one of my friends quite enthusiastically: “I’m living in a city of models. Holy crap, everyone is so damn pretty.”

As I’ve gotten to know the city more, this initial assessment hasn’t changed all that much. There’s a lot of diversity in amongst the people here in Oxford and a lot of beautiful people of all shapes and sizes. The vast majority of people are well dressed, wearing collared shirts and blazers and tights and skirts on an everyday basis. It’s become a running, self-deprecating joke that I don’t know how to dress myself because I’ve been self-employed for the past three years and never have to wear anything but pajamas to “go to work.” Nonetheless, I try – I wear my nice wool sweaters when it’s cold enough to justify them and I got myself a nice winter vest that doesn’t look slobbish. I wear decent shoes, and I’ve got my hands on good formal wear so I clean up nice.

But somehow, my body image has never been worse, which is both enraging and depressing. In the UK, I’m a size 20, which is a full 2-3 sizes larger than what I wear in the US. Despite all the walking I do, I’m still sporting a decent sized pair of love handles and there are some stores I can’t go to simply because they don’t carry above a UK size 16. I feel like the chubby American, the stereotype of the consumerist in love with food.

This is my own internalized fatphobia. And I’m fighting to tamp it down with every shopping trip, with each new night out, with positive self-talk.

But the only thing that seems to be helping so far is my own study. In my feminist theory classes and my tutorial, we’ve been discussing phenomenology, which is, essentially, theories about the body and soul and mind and our interaction with the world as embodied beings. This is a quick and dirty summary, but the thrust of the theory – and theology, as I’m taking it in my research – is that the objective “I” is impossible, that we are shaped by our bodily experience and interaction with the world, which has direct implications for our politics concerning our bodies.

We are our bodies.

And if we are our bodies, our physical presence in the world, then the relentless poor body image that plagues much of the feminine world – though it certainly impacts visions of masculinity as well – is a grievous sin against the creator. Having poor body image itself isn’t a sin – that sort of feeling is impossible to control and beating ourselves up over such thoughts only makes things worse.

But the patriarchal construct that separates our self from our embodied existence, that demands that women are not women unless they fit a particular image of Woman, that creates and demands impossible standards? That is sin.

Learning to love yourself, then, is a revolutionary act. Learning to love and embrace your body, with all its belly fat and skinny ankles and mottled skin, is at the heart of a phenomenological revolution. Patriarchy demands that I compare myself to the model-good-looks of the people around me, that I judge myself through what I see as I ride the bus and pass people who could be stunt doubles for Brad Pitt’s ass in a movie. Refusing the play that game altogether is at the heart of the feminist exercise – and, I’d argue, the heart of the theological exercise of faith.

Much of 21st century theology – particularly in America – has been bent on separating your Selfhood from your Bodily existence. CS Lewis’s Platonic and butchered ideas of a body-soul divide become the reassuring platitudes about life. And when you’re in pain, when you’re engaged in the practice of self-hatred, such platitudes can be comforting – they can bring you comfort that your bodily existence is not all there is, that you somehow will carry on even if your body is mangled or not to “your” liking.

But what this theological dualism creates is a world in which we are merely meatsuits for carrying eternal souls. It is a sack carrying around the far more important Soul Person.

But such divides, while comforting in the moment, fail to deal with the whole of creation – fail to understand what it means to be uniquely created by God, to be a creature interacting with the physical world. It’s a bandage, not a fix, to our complicated relationships with body image and visions of our selves.

We must begin to live, love, and understand our bodies. We are not objects for manipulation, not alien inhabitants in a strange country, nor are we merely machines for getting the work of our mind done. We are our bodies. And loving our bodies and loving all those things the patriarchy calls our flaws is a revolution that cannot be dismissed or quelled or made weak. It is us and that is the revolution.