The criticism starts at the surface, where we judge our appearance against ‘perfect’ humans displayed by the media. It’s as if, in renaissance Italy, ordinary citizens compared their own bodies with Michelangelo’s David. It seems unlikely that the populace did any such thing. There weren’t that many sculptures around; people weren’t confronted dozens of times a day with how their bodies didn’t look like the marble image of a legendary hero. But we see youthful, conditioned bodies (enhanced with cosmetics, ideal lighting, and retouching) not as inspiring icons, but as cultural expectations. Since godly looks are impossible for most of us, we criticize our appearance.
The negativity goes deeper: pain and illness, which are almost inevitable, are viewed as betrayals; desires, no matter how normal and biological, unsettle us; mortality—the most inescapable fact of life—scares us so much entire religious have been built to insist it isn’t real.
Is there a cost to such hostile attitudes? I believe so. It seems to me that constant criticism undermines both individual and collective health. Here are a few examples:
During my years of practice as a reconstructive surgeon, I worked at a large HMO, which at the time did not offer esthetic procedures. Yet I was involved in cosmetic surgery anyway, because when patients suffered complications, it fell to me to address the damage. This gave me a skewed but important perspective on the business. I saw much misery from bad outcomes after scalpels were used in service of body-criticism.
Or think of the aggressive medical care that is now routine. We undergo more surgeries for more problems than ever before. While some of these operations are life-saving (e.g., after major trauma), and others (like joint replacements) reverse limitations caused by disease, many are performed needlessly and cause more harm than good. The roots of overly invasive medicine are many, but one is our critical, fearful attitude toward the human body.
Notice how much we criticize desire. We struggle with overeating and hate hunger; we feel potent sexual urges and demonize lust; even the yearning for love earns our scorn, since we are raised to be ‘independent.’ We feel loathing for these basic needs despite the fact that hunger keeps us alive, lust perpetuates the species, and dependency is inherent to the functioning of the biosphere.
Remember the harm done by religious institutions that compel young men to negate their reproductive drives. Countless people have been sexually traumatized by Catholic priests who—indoctrinated to view all genital expression as shameful—targeted children they expected to keep quiet. Churches that allow priests to marry and don’t treat normal desires so critically are not such hotbeds of pedophilia.
Or consider how fear of dying enables suicide bombings. If death was accepted as biological and appropriate—necessary to the cycle of life—people wouldn’t need tales of an elaborate afterlife to make it seem more bearable. Young men wouldn’t be indoctrinated with stories of awaiting virgins. How many would blow themselves up without such enticement?
The worst danger of body-criticism, however, is that it alienates us from our biological natures. We end up feeling trapped in bodies we don’t like and don’t trust. It seems to me that much personal and global disarray can be traced to such alienation. For instance, how can humans care for the biosphere that gives their bodies life, when they don’t care for those bodies in the first place?
In my next post, I will offer some suggestions for reversing our rampant and corrosive criticism of the human body.