Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

Electronic Technologies & Consciousness (Guest author: Julie J. Nichols)

Vitruvius with cell phone

Our society’s growing engagement with electronic technologies leaves its mark on our neurological and musculoskeletal systems. If our bodies and our consciousness are inextricably connected, then our obsession with technology also impacts that mysterious part of ourselves that makes us who we are, as individuals and as a species. The question is not so much whether technology affects human consciousness as how we want to co-create the reality our electronic tools are making possible.

Every new technology we humans have invented has subtly changed our experience of our physical structure.
The wheel greatly expanded humans’ limited movement on foot, modifying forever our ancestors’ dependence on the lower limbs. Similarly, writing by stylus, pen, type, and now electronic keyboard has altered our ability to communicate face to face. Each expansion transfigures our existing sense of space and time.

More recently, the Great Depression, the development of the atom bomb, and the Cold War gave rise to postures and facial sets very different from the body language of most Americans under 30 today. Baby Boomers remember in their bones the formal, controlled — even judgmental — expressions and professional presentation of parents who came to adulthood during the Depression and World War II, marking their need to maintain the appearance of order in times of great hardship. Such outward expressions make for a big contrast with the informal, even sloppy appearance, easy smiles, and indifferent hand and facial gestures of Millennials, who no longer perceive their bodies — or their lives — as having the same limitations their elders experienced. In just a couple of generations, we’re already seeing major changes in adaptation to technology, in the role of the physical body in daily life, and in the very consciousness of our culture.

Any use of technology, electronic or not, changes brain structure, whether practicing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano or shooting baskets on a court. These changes are discernible on scanning instruments and in muscle aches and pains. In both brain and muscles, new structures are created, new connections forged, by real-time, four-dimensional, bodily interaction with the technology of the piano and the ball court.

Pushing buttons on a keyboard synthesizer causes synaptic changes that are going to have their own structure. Say an amateur player uses her reading eye and brain to decode a set of instructions and to select color-coded or word-inscribed buttons to push. It’s the machine making the music. The amateur player is not interpreting with her own fingers and mind the complex phrasings and voicings that express the intentions of the composer’s and musician’s hearts. And, although some argue that this mechanical music has its own virtues, playing a synthesizer involves less nuance, less subtlety of hand and finger coordination, and much less complexity. On a piano, such interpretation expands the neural connections, the consciousness, of the player, whether amateur or professional.

In the same way, playing Wii games as virtual sports does get our muscles moving. But a player serious about basketball proficiency requires the feel of the ball in the hands, the actual swish of the ball through the net. Through interaction between the body and the technology of ball and basket, neurons make necessary new connections among brain, eyes, ears, muscles, and nerves. These connections expand consciousness in ways dimensionally different from the effects of pushing buttons and focusing on screens. To stare at a screen and pretend to throw a ball is quite different from doing so in reality, where constant minute distractions in space and time and inconsistencies in balance, weight and mass require that the human player must negotiate continuous infinite adjustments. It’s this negotiation that results in real-time proficiency. Remember that line about “10,000 hours of practice” being the baseline of proficiency in any endeavor? Ten thousand hours of Wii games will give you proficiency in — Wii games.

It’s clear that some of the current obesity epidemic is the direct result of increasing technology use. If we always sit in front of a computer monitor, television set, or movie screen because the infrastructure of our society encourages it — because doing so is built into the very architecture of our lives — well, the results are clear. Our increasingly fat-ridden anatomies reflect our belief that passively receiving and storing energy is the desirable norm. We forget that physical health depends on a lively reciprocity between energy input (food and drink, vitamins, and light) and output (movement, work, rest). Perhaps we actually begin (want) to believe that it doesn’t matter. We lose sight of the ineffable truth that the body is designed to evolve with our consciousness, and vice versa, that we might co-create reality through free intelligent choice — that our body’s health and capacities matter for the good of the world we inhabit.


Becky Stern's laptop sweater for privacy, warmth, and concentration in public spaces.

Becky Stern's laptop sweater for privacy, warmth, and concentration in public spaces.


Digital natives, born into the world of electronics technologies, take for granted the so-called need to “plug in”; to multi-task through several different media simultaneously; to access information far more rapidly than their parents ever could; and to stay connected to “friends” far and near throughout the day without interruption. For the current generation of American youth, anxiety comes not (as it did for their grandparents) from the notion that physical, bodily, worldwide real destruction could descend without warning from the button-pushing of a faraway madman. Instead, it comes from the thought of being without cell phone, Internet connection, or multitudinous apps on a handheld screen. Where their elders feared for their bodily safety — for their lives — Millennials fear the body’s virtual loss, no longer sensing that it is its strength, capacity, and independence that matter for survival. Millennials’ dependence on electronics to keep them connected to friends, family, and information — their sense that safety, survival, pleasure, and pain aren’t bodily issues but electronically-regulated ones — may be the characteristic that most distinguishes them from the generations that came before.

Futurists wax enthusiastic about the potential of robotics, nanotechnologies, and genetic engineering to alter our very idea of what is human. However, the addictive call to stay “plugged in”; the prioritizing of the game on the cell phone over the fellow traveler on the bus, ski lift, or hiking trail (as pictured in many TV ads); and the inability to arise and attend to embodied actuality find their beginning in curiosity and exploration, develop into habit, and then curtail the ability to choose. It behooves us to remember that human physical structure, human consciousness, and technology evolve together.

Alone, Together.

Devaluing the needs and capacities of the first for the siren call of the last inevitably damages the sacred entity in the center.

What “bounces back” quickly in your sensory reality during those rare moments — perhaps on a vacation — that you “unplug”? And what in your body feels disturbingly unfamiliar or missing?

October 15, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

Blending in, Busting Out: Choices in Social Costuming


Paparrazzi sculpture in Bratislava, Slovakia.


As many a miserable celebrity has wondered, is there any escaping your body in public life? How unintelligible or indecipherable can you really make it?

Aside from being a too-famous actor or singer, say you’re a criminal wanting to escape detection, a stalker trying to keep an eye on your prey, or an undercover operator trying to pass unnoticed. You have two tasks before you: first, to try to diminish the physical markers that make you seem distinctively to be you — the way of dressing, the body shape, the hair style and color. These things can be changed within a day.

Some things don’t submit as readily to alteration. Changing one’s height is not so easy, but the early 19th-century French detective widely acknowledged as the father of modern undercover detective work, Eugène-François Vidocq, demonstrated an aptitude for this. As one observer of Vidocq’s day described, “He is a remarkably well-built man, of extraordinary muscular power, and exceedingly active. He stands, when perfectly erect, 5 feet 10 inches in height, but by some strange process connected with his physical formation he has the faculty of contracting his height several inches, and in this diminished state to walk about, jump, etc.”


Eugene-Francois Vidocq, "father" of undercover work and master disguise artist.


It’s something to aspire (down) to. Those who can change the so-called “unalterables” have the greatest chance of passing unrecognized.

Second, once you’ve removed the things that make your everyday body stand out, you want to add in those physical and social things that will help it blend in into the given environment — whether it be the swagger of a biker gang, the stillness from the seemingly invisible back of an uninspiring high school classroom, or an unobtrusive street stride where you intend mischief on an as-yet-to-be-determined pedestrian. The Russian spies recently apprehended in Long Island did what their neighbors did: “infiltrated” the PTA and cocktail parties. A neighbor saw them as entirely of her world, telling The New York Times, “But they couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas!”

Some people who abandon their identities in order to enter a second world — federally protected witnesses, for example — end up believing in the person they have costumed themselves, outside and in, to be. Literature and film are rife with tales of undercover operators who “go bad” — who, that is, are convinced by the social world they have entered, at first as outsiders, that they actually are who they pass themselves off as being. The alterations to their customary appearance contribute to the sense of a changed identity.

How do self-costuming adults use these techniques? Costumes prepared for the elaborate masquerade balls of the 17th and 18th centuries, extravagant as they were, attempted both to make the dancing partygoer personally unrecognizable and to be equally outrageous as all the othercostumes at the dance — whether the dancer was playing a character from the Italian theatre or a count, a shepherdess, or a gondolier. They both subtracted the telltale signs of the everyday person and added signs of fitting in, even through extravagance. They werealso designed as vehicles of seduction for both the ball and afterward, their memory magnifying the wearer’sallure once she or he was back in conventional clothing.

Costuming for contemporary Halloween celebrations works a bit differently from this. For at these, far from being concealed, one’s own “best” distinguishing features may be on display in ways they are not the rest of the year — a pair of legs in a nurse’s (?!) fishnet stockings; a pair of usually concealed breasts pushed up for display in a strangely bustiered witch’s costume; a man’s surprisingly luscious lips filled in in lipstick for a drag costume. They are designed for recognition and to elevate the qualities of the existing body rather than disguise them.

And because of scanty social conventions that govern just how original or extravagant any individual’s costume is expected to be, blending into a group can be quite limited.

Perhaps, as with 18th-century masquerade costumes, part of the desire behind the distinctively sexual displays adults may make at Halloween time is not only to draw an evening’s attention but also to change others’ perception of one’s body during the rest of the year: that demure girlfriend of a sort-of friend of yours is actually a wildcat underneath; the socially orthodox lawyer in the office four down retains an air of sensuality throughout the year. As everyday bodies blend visibly back into the social scenery, pesky memories return of that freer behavior on that one day a year many of us rebel simultaneously against our usual social structure, using our bodies as our parade grounds.

Comment from Jan Edwards: All your issues are thought provoking, but I have a particular interest in clothing and what people say about themselves by how they dress. My years as a costumer taught me that my job was basically to stereotype people. Especially when I was doing commercials because the 15 or 30 second spot required that the clothes say a lot at a glance.

October 14, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

Who’s the Who of the Body? Adventures in Bodily Misrecognition

You’re in a conference room, wondering why all these seemingly intelligent people around the table can’t seem to remember what this “follow-up” meeting is a follow-up to. You all remember there was a “launch” meeting two weeks ago, but from among the nine (occasionally prodigious) brains around the table, there doesn’t seem to be a whole one to be assembled from all the pieces that has a hope of reconstructing what decisions you all made.

And then there’s that young fellow you’re pretty sure is the lover of the long-lived VP sitting two seats down. The innocent keeps offering ideas that sound suspiciously like his man-friend’s. Why are they beaming at each other as each thinks he’s thinking his own thoughts?

Many of the world’s mystical traditions tell us that the apparent separateness of bodies covers over a deeper reality: that there is a seamless continuity between you and all those who are apparent “others”: Not only is your neighbor as yourself, your neighbor is yourself. So is everybody (and — guess what? — everything) else.

Aside from our religious or spiritual perspectives, in our everyday rounds we live out what could be considered a very rough but down-to-earth, social counterpart of the idea that bodies do not house distinct selves. Identity can be intersubjective. We think the thoughts others have shared with us as if they were our own, as in the rapid volleying of the same idea between the lovers at the conference table. We carry forward our parents’ judgments while not recognizing their source (probably far before even them). We catch the mood of the testy traveler verbally assaulting the airline employee at the ticket counter.

That intersubjectivity can extend from the phenomenon of more than one person thinking the same thoughts or experiencing each other’s moods to the sharing of identity through physical likeness — think of identical twins’ potential for experiencing themselves as a collective being, perhaps in response to other people’s confusion of one twin for the other.

I find that I think of the sharing of selves across bodies in connection with the frequency with which I am taken to be someone else in public places. Here’s what happens:

I’ve made a special trip to a suburban mall, and am striding swiftly toward the “anchor” store that carries the cosmetics brand I’m seeking. Echo! I hear a woman call out from where she is sitting. I keep walking: that’s not me anyway. Echo! she exclaims again, her voice edging toward me this time with lightning bolt edges. Why the urgency? I wonder. And, people name their children that?

The woman’s no longer sitting, she too is striding, with energy and toward me, a smile tinged with anxiety on her face. Though she’s not holding her arms open to me, she walks in an open-hearted way.

She thinks I’m Echo. Hesitantly, I think I should be kind: this woman will be disappointed, her tender heart tumbled a bit, when it turns out I am not her long-lost friend (relative?). It’s only as we get within about eight feet from each other, that her expression of joy, as at a surprise reunion, turns. Yet it’s not disappointment I’m reading on her face, but apparent confusion. I’m not her younger sister’s best friend from home; there’s something about me that clues her in. Yet, because I remind her so much of  Echo, in a sense I’m also not not her.

The woman stays glued to me after asking me my name. The woman, who without apparent embarrassment introduces herself to me as Pamela, seems fond of me — like longtime fond. Why does she hang on, as if she’s hoping that through gentle persistence I will be Echo after all? We chat a bit. She tells me about her sister’s friend and how long it’s been since she’s seen her, about the time Teresa and Echo carried the regional debate team. She wants to hang on. Soon it seems she’s talking to me as if I were Echo.

And what’s happening to me? From the very point at which I recognize that she has mistaken me for someone else, I have been somewhat willing to play the part, to give the woman the experience of recognition and reunion. In some sense, if I look that much like her, aren‘t I Echo (whoever she is)? At a certain point, I’m not just humoring Pamela: I’m entertaining the idea that, on some plane, in some respect, I am Echo.

Obama opposite his Indonesian lookalike Ilham Anas in Reuters photo

Over and over again this happens: something like the same self appearing in different bodies. The Indonesian Obama lookalike is a local celebrity peppered with questions about American politics. Your new girlfriend looks an awful lot like your last one, and for some reason you think you’ve already told her the things you only told the beforehand woman. The teacher at your kids’ school routinely punishes both of the twins when it’s only Natalia who goads the other girls at recess. An auditorium full of (probably) heterosexual men raise their hands, indicating they believe Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are gay because they played cowboys in love in Brokeback Mountain (and they still look rather a lot like themselves).

The Hindu dictum Thou Art That has been interpreted to mean that the self we take ourselves to be is none other than the universal self present in all. Personality can be taken on and shed at will; indeed, it has always been only a put-on. Thou Art That suggests that the fact of having different bodies or shells should not be taken to represent genuinely distinct selves. Add to that the phenomenon of mistaken identity, and, in a sense, neither the self nor the body can be said truly to “belong” to any one. They are both slippery surfaces — which is why, in literature, meeting one’s doppelgänger, or physical double, is tantamount to coming face to face with one’s own death — the death, that is, of one’s ego. Save a lot of money on your Halloween costume and check the mirror; a character is ready for the playing, no special accoutrements needed.

Sarah Snazell, artist
“Doppelgaenger” oil painting by Sarah Snazell.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

Practice on “Having an Offline” While Online

Have something to eat while working at your computer. This may be nothing new for you.(I certainly can’t pretend I don’t do this. That delicious coffee- house Hot Peppermint Mocha three computers ago? Well, it had a solidifying effect under the keys of that laptop. An expensive wintertime treat!)

Variation: Have a meal over Skype with a distant relative or friend. What can you tell about how the food tastes to them?

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Insight Practices | 1 Comment

Body Swapping (Thanks, Technology!)

The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.
~ John Naisbitt
The reason nobody likes you driving while you’re talking on your cell phone is that, in the speaking and even the planning to speak, you’re readily beset by “inattention blindness,” and the physical world, including the rush of oncoming cars and fixed objects, just feels less real than your virtual conversation. It’s not that safe. While many of us may tune out just as readily during a leaden conversation with someone we’re with, inattention blindness just doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem when your interlocutor is the passenger sitting right next to you. All but the least sensitive passengers see and mention the road, can take the lead in conversations, and pause when an especially demanding driving decision-point turns up. They also fall asleep next to you and let you drive in peace.

Setting aside for a moment your commitment to public safety, it’s possible for technology use to worsen yet your sense of what’s real, driving beyond where you think “real” is, to where you think “you” are. Recently, researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute figured out how to apply virtual reality technology to convince participants to perceive someone else’s body as being where their sense of “I” resided.

This is all it takes for to create a “body-transfer illusion”: A participant gets herself decked out with a camera, a pair of virtual reality goggles and a few electrodes, while her human (or mannequin) partner mounts a companion camera on his head. Through the manipulations of what they see through the goggles, participants actually begin to feel what they see and to “body swap.” Through various camera manipulations,

Andrew Ketterer Body Swapping with a Mannequin.
Andrew Ketterer Body Swapping with a  Mannequin

they may experience their partner moving to shake their hand as if they themselves were doing it, or see a stick touch their partner’s abdomen and believe it’s their own stomach that’s being touched. Lead Karolinska researcher Henrik Ehrsoon commented that the experiment “shows how easy it is to change the brain’s perception of the physical self. By manipulating sensory impressions, it’s possible to fool the self not only out of its body but into other bodies, too.” This technology application is so sophisticated in its ability to make us lose sense of our own bodily reality that seeing actually becomes (false) sensing.

Perceiving another's  body to be one's ownNot just Fun With Computers to take us farther and farther out of our bodily reality, these technologies may also help restore us to a sense of self within a living body. Karolinska health professors envision the opportunity to help limb amputees or stroke victims integrate their use of prosthetics through practice with virtual limbs. Another promising application may lie in the treatment of people who suffer with body-image disorders to use their perception of someone else’s body (where there is no problem) to correct their own distorted body image: others’ bodies seem more real in these cases even before the goggles are strapped on. (See “This is Not the Body I Ordered.”)

Technology may have the capacity to bring us back to our essential humanness as well as drive us out of it. It could even enhance our capacity for meaningful contact with others. What if urban kids experienced a rival group member’s body as if it were their own? Could this experience help re-sensitize kids overexposed to violence in their communities and the media, helping them feel — and through this, recognize — that any pain that happens to another happens to themselves as well?

In what ways have the technologies to which you’re currently attached enhanced your experience of being in a (your) body?

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

Maurice, the Klutz

Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack. We give it orders which make no sense.
~ Henry Miller

Why should a man’s mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his body?

~ Thomas Hardy

When Maurice was in his 80s, he would recount at family celebrations the story of his parents’ failed attempt to make a social dancer of him. As his wife, my adopted grandmother, Ella, seized her lips together in a low underscore, this proudly unschooled self-made man would tell how, in the earliest years of the twentieth century, his parents took him to dancing school to put the finishing touches on his preparation for adulthood.

He stood opposite the young ladies in his class; he accepted the aggravated partnering of his teacher. After the second lesson, she called his parents in for a talk. “Mr. and Mrs. Labovitz, there’s no point. Your son will never be able to tell his right foot from his left. To continue would be a waste of your money and my time.”

As a retired retail magnate in his 80s, perhaps Maurice could afford to admit to a failing, especially in such a feminizing sphere of activity as dancing. Indeed, being a poor dancer could arguably raise his masculine status. He had no sense of rhythm, he boasted, then or now. No ability to differentiate his feet. The steps would just not sink from his head down into his body. Everyone should know: Maurice Labovitz was a klutz! (Ella’s chagrin during this inelegant display of her husband’s ineptitude was palpable.)

Henri Bergson — a French philosopher writing before and after Maurice’s curt dancing days — said, we laugh when a someone appears to be a something, when there is a “mechanical incrustation” that seems to have taken hold of living things. What’s funny is when the fall arrives just after the pride. It’s the smug Rob Petrie of the early Dick Van Dyke Show, tripping over his own living room rug after, as the man of the house, having made some decree to his submissive wife, Laura. Gerald Ford’s periodic walking into other people or his tripping down the stairs of Air Force One. Rhianna’s onstage falls.

Scenes like the one Maurice painted of his dance lessons tickle us to imagine. We spend so much time trying to look like we have it all together, when someone messes up — especially when he seems to hold an intention to move quickly, surely, or unobtrusively — it amuses us. It’s such a classic strategy for cultivating laughter — perhaps best known in slapstick comedy — that Toastmasters in Honolulu advises budding public speakers with solid bone mass to pretend at clumsiness to enhance the humor of their presentations.

An advice column on the Internet addresses nurses who habitually break things and have begun to question whether they can succeed anyhow in their chosen profession. An inherently clumsy nurse admonishes: Just be sure to hold thermometers quite firmly. Keep your presence of mind and pay attention to where you are, where you’re going, and what’s happening now: avoid thinking into the future. Practice complex motions in advance so that you’re not quite so anxious when it comes time to really do them.

While clumsiness is usually cute or endearing when we see it in other people — I’ve even heard it described as sexy in men — being clumsy often feels mortifying or frustrating when it happens to us. It is as though we’re trucking along, expecting the body to be right there with us, when it’s secretly holding a “V” sign up behind our head. Or, the brain, driving the front car, leads a caravan of friends behind us to a restaurant they’ve never been to before. Without thinking to see if any of our group is behind us, we hang a right. Something, and a bunch of someones, are missing.

Where was the body when we thought it was with us? Why is it spilling, breaking, tripping over things and misjudging how far away things are — and doing these things so much more often when we’re pregnant, pre-menstrual, or male? (Boys are four times more likely than girls to be labeled as seriously clumsy.)

Blogger Tara Whitney writes, “I was born with the clumsy gene. My body grew faster than my brain could catch up. And so growing up I was all long lean spidermonkey limbs flailing about poking people in the eyeball. I can’t tell you how many times I have
broken/sprained my pinky toes. Or how many times I have tripped over something invisible in public. Embarrassed myself in front of huge crowds. Or stepped off of curbs/stairs just at the right angle to tweak my ankle. There was even a family I babysat for in high school, who eventually bought me my own special plastic cup to use at their house, because no joke–every time I sat for them, one of their glasses would go slipping from my butterfingers and crash onto the tile floor. Even if I tried not to USE one, if I did the dishes or cleaned up? CRASH ONTO THE TILE. It’s a huge family joke that I’m this big ditz when it comes to paying attention to my body vs. its surroundings. Or at least it used to be, thankfully I have grown out of a LOT of this stuff. And guess who inherited this from me? Drew. My poor, gangly, long-leanspidermonkey-limbed child. Who just doesn’t know where his body ends and where the pavement begins.”

Other than a few bruises and breakages, all this is only a “problem” if we assume the body is supposed to be the slave of the master brain, intended to be the submissive Laura to the traditionally manly Rob. It may be that the body gets the message, but refuses to treat it as important. The underclass rehearses the revolution.

What would happen to clumsiness if we didn’t believe in the body as willing servant to the mind’s orders? (One strong possibility: we’d have to find a lot of other things to laugh at, and disturb the rest of both Maurice Labovitz and Henri Bergson.)

What if mind and body were roommates rather than master and slave? Who or what is it that would serve as landlord to them

What metaphor do you like for the relationship between your mind and your body when you move in relation to other people and to the objects of the world?

A Practice on Making Missteps

Here’s a chance to look at your assumptions about how your body is supposed to execute your intentions out in the world. Pick up something from your kitchen that’s not easy to hold: a can opener that doesn’t fit well in your hand, a metal tray that would do better in two hands than one, a coffee thermos that never felt quite right when full.

Caveat: Don’t pick something that’s sharp.
Advanced practice: Use something that’s breakable.

Walk out of rhythm (think Steve Martin in The Jerk), passing the object from hand to hand. (If that’s too easy, toss it from hand to hand.) And, as the Toastmasters suggest, if you don’t have strong bones, take the difficulty level down a bit.

Where was your mind when your body was doing its thing — When was it “there,” following or staying with your body? When was it “gone”? What, if anything, could be considered “right” about the awkwardness, the spilling, the dropping, the tripping, and even the breaking? Was your mind or your body the “boss,” or does a more apt metaphor come to you for how mind and body co-existed in this practice?

How did it go?

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Insight Practices | Leave a comment

This is Not the Body I Ordered

There’s a reason people like me don’t have children. When I learned in college there was a psychological condition in which
people grappled with distorted body images — perceiving their bodies as being heftier than they actually are — I got excited. How interesting it would be to induce yet a different perceptual distortion through mindful child-rearing!

Perhaps I had Lewis Carroll’s tale Through the Looking Glass on the brain, with Alice’s continual changes of size in relation to her environment. You could have a child, I figured, then keep getting new furniture that kept enlarging in proportion with him as he grew. You could arrange it so that he only came into contact with environments that maintained the same proportional relationships with him as when he was an infant. As the child grew, so would the trees, storefronts, restaurants, home interiors. With all this carefully controlled, he might never feel “bigger” than he once had been — at least not in relation to the objects the world is filled with.

John Tenniel drawing for Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass

Of course, there was always the people problem: what if a new baby came into the family, one observably smaller than the existing child? The child’s perception of his new brother or sister’s size would be difficult to control without a lot of prosthetics. What if the child noticed his own limbs were getting longer in relation to his torso over time? And — just working this through — wouldn’t you, as the parent, have to be careful to growexactly in proportion with your child? How much could you really manipulate that?

Clearly, the whole thing was feasible, if expensive and time-consuming, all for the sake of controlling children’s perceptions — that is, all except for the people part, which was where the whole experiment in child-rearing breaks down. If what psychologists say is true, that we get a sense of self in relation to other people, the experiment was doomed to failure from the start.

In “body dysmorphic disorder,” the mind-body distortion that so fascinated me in Abnormal Psych, sufferers hold an image of
their bodies as being grossly defective in some way. Probably the most common form BDD takes is in those with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, in which sufferers’ image of their size and shape is out of keeping with the observable reality. We think of the girl who squeezes off her food intake, or who binges and then forcibly purges, in a terrible spiral that, unchecked, can be fatal.

Photo by Ross Brown.

The girl looks in the mirror, flanked by a friend. What her nearby companion sees, both in the mirror and beside her, is a thinning or vanishing figure, while what an anorexic sees in her reflection is grotesquely fleshy. As someone with BDD complained on website Experience Project, “It makes me feel angry to know that the world sees a different person when they look at me than I do. … Ridiculous, I know, but when someone calls me beautiful, how can I possibly believe them when my reflection shows a monster?” Treatment would tear her uncomfortably away from her compulsion, as it “would mean losing the ability to see my flaws.”

People who see their bodies as detestable can focus on other things besides weight. A high school senior may spend more than an hour per day checking the size and shape of his nose in various reflections, hoping for an impossible reassurance that it has changed. Humanistic neurologist Oliver Sacks described asomatognosia, a condition in which sufferers, not recognizing one of their limbs as their own, may long to have the disowned appendage amputated.

While men may also unrealistically perceive themselves to be overweight, another variation of BDD has been noted in some men, called muscle dysmorphia or body dysphoria. Ever dissatisfied with the size of their muscles, they may dive into body-building and train beyond any rational point. Some Japanese men believe their body odor to be so socially unacceptable that they have made themselves recluses rather than offend others or draw attention to themselves.

BDD may be a disorder not about the body at all but rather about a distorted, unrealistic compulsion toward perfectionism. Some researchers paint it as a disorder of overuse of the left brain — when sufferers look at what others would see as “big pictures,” they see only the details, treating all visual information as if it were “high-frequency” information. Instead of seeing their bodies as wholes, those with BDD may see it as a dumping ground for defective parts.

If you’re in an experiential mood tonight and want to put yourself into a state of more conscious body dysmorphia, check yourself out on the “Human Aesthetics Calculator” on If you really want to put yourself through this, you can measure your wrist and then compare the resultant calculations the site will perform for your ideal chest, neck, waist, hip, thigh, calf, bicep, and forearm measurements, depending on whether you want to emulate Michelangelo’s David, Mattel’s Barbie, an American body-builder, or a Polynesian Islander (listed as a now-vanished ideal). Just see if your body stretches the 7 head-lengths favored by Rembrandt, the 7.5 head-lengths Dürer preferred, or the 8 of the perfect body of classical times.

The Human Aesthetic Calculator graphically shows how the disparities between the images we hold of our bodies and the bodies themselves are mediated by cultural ideals. In our weight- and image-conscious media culture, most of us experience some dissonance among how we’d prefer to look, how we think we look, and how we actually look. Whereas those with eating disorders associated with body dysmorphic disorder see themselves as conforming less to the cultural ideal than they really do, our everyday dysmorphia may make us seem (and feel) better than the real. It’s well documented that women tend to underrate their attractiveness, while men overrate theirs. My style seems to be more like a man’s in some respects. For example, I only realized quite recently that it’s not a mistake every time I catch sight of myself in a yoga studio mirror or shop window and see that my legs have not gotten any longer in all these decades of delusion.

Familiar Norman Rockwell image.

There are many other ways in which our idealized images of our bodies fail us. We pass by a shop window and suck in our bellies because the image doesn’t correspond to the one we prefer to hold — we may walk off clinging to the hollowed-out image, writing off the we just saw as a mistake. And is it not a form of dissonance when, as we age, we keep scanning the mirror for signs that yesterday’s sunken face will have been an accident of the last two and half years?

How odd and yet how common not to recognize our bodies –especially our changing bodies — as our own. What would it feel like to recognize ourselves in the mirror, or in our bodily experience, as someone other than someone else — as ourselves?

What has been your experience of the visual fact of your body?

September 25, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

Frances Kuffel’s Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self

Passing for Thin is the story of the gradual adaptation of a woman’s psyche to losing 188 pounds in midlife. One might think that falling more into line with cultural norms of beauty and desirability would occasion only
pleasure, but even good things can be big.

Frances Kuffel's Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self

For Kuffel, food had beenFor Kuffel, food had been “animate, a completely mutual and unfailingly loyal friend.” It was the only thing she longed for that she believed she really could have, yet she knew that her fat had “infantilized my body, with its pillowy curvelessness and the pudge that made my face ageless.” Enrolling in a 12-step program for overeaters after more than 40 years of being overweight, Kuffel had to re-engineer not only her self-image and her approach to dating, but also her relationships with her family and the built universe. And, as she slimmed down to a healthy weight, Kuffel became visible in new ways to her family members, to men, and to herself.

Not everyone enthusiastically supported the changes in her: Kuffel’s weight had been the basis of her brothers’ lifelong teasing. Her mother founded aspects of her own identity on Kuffel’s being larger than she, responding to news of her daughter’s progress on her diet, “Gee, I better get busy. You’re almost as thin as I am.” A friend in her 12-step program advised her from experience, “Don’t talk about your size with people who’ve known you a long time.”

Kuffel had new challenges to face with the sudden desirability of a face and body that both she and others had previously written off. With her weight down significantly, she also had to learn to walk differently: “My ankles were bruised because I kept knocking my heels against them, not yet adjusted to the new center of gravity in my body.” And, thin for the first time, at a restaurant, she saw the seating options anew: “I adored booths, a cheap trophy of the thin. I fit. Not only that, I could lounge, intimately. My breasts didn’t push at the table, I didn’t have to inch in and sit at odd angles. I could-this was cool-lean across the chasm between the seat and table and cross my legs.”

Most of all, Kuffel’s sense of self had to be reinvented in line with the social reality her body now represented. There had been stereotypical roles to choose from among the American archetypes of the overweight: the Zaftig, the Perfectionist, the Best Friend and Confidante, the Orphan, the Drab, the Queen Bee, the Careerist, the Fag Hag. As a thin woman, she wanted
to be post-archetypal.

Passing for Thin is about the unexpected demand to craft a fresh identity even as one conforms increasingly to cultural ideals, about the need to bring into some coordination who one has been and who one appears to be now.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Books | 1 Comment

Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Although not a new book, Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997) classically highlights a life-and-death crisis that devolves from Western medical professionals’ living out an ethnocentric self-assurance and a hermetic professional worldview. Fadiman became intrigued by what she’d heard about the clash between the Western medical establishment of Merced, California and the concentrated group of Hmong refugees from Laos who had begun settling there in the 1970s, escaping persecution by the Vietnamese after their little-known contribution as guerrillas to the American cause.

The Hmong were involuntary migrants, not given to adopting American ways any more than necessary to survive. Some feared going to doctors whom they thought might rather study them than help them. To the Hmong, Western doctors engaged in hazardous practices. They extracted large volumes of blood from their patients. They opened the body in surgery and in autopsies, and inevitably and irreparably damaged the integrity of the person, not only for this lifetime but for future incarnations. They announced the probability of death. The Hmong mistrusted Western medications and took fractions of what had been prescribed, putting the physicians in the untenable position of trying to “game” how much they might have to prescribe to end up with a Hmong patient’s actually ending up taking the desired dose.

Fadiman began fieldwork with a particular Hmong family, whose six-year-old daughter Lia had been in and out of the Western medical machine since she was a baby because of her epileptic seizures. She inquired equally into the perspectives of the entourage of doctors who treated her and who attempted, to varying degrees, to communicate effectively with her parents.

Lia’s parents fundamentally disagreed with the doctors about the origin of Lia’s problem and about the impact of the medications that had been prescribed for her. To Lia’s parents, the troubles began when her soul was frightened out of her body when her sister slammed a door, and her seizures would be instigated by a spirit “catching” her. The cure would be perhaps a very short course of medicines, but ultimately would be carried by Hmong shamanism, animal sacrifices, and herbs.

Fadiman’s book sides neither with the native medical cosmology of the Hmong nor with the self-justifying medical culture of the West, situating Lia’s tragic decline in the very gaps between the two. If there was any fault, it lay in the failure of the Western physicians to give credence to the Hmong worldview or to incorporate it into a realistic treatment plan. Fadiman writes of the caricature–just an extreme of the actual–of the M.D., who is an “all-head-no-heart formalist who, when presented with a problem, would rather medicate it, scan it, suture it, splint it, excise it, anesthetize it, or autopsy it than communicate with it.”

While Fadiman concludes that “American medicine had both preserved [Lia’s] life and compromised it,” she wonders whether saving the body, as much of Western medicine is geared to do, or preserving the soul, as was part of the Hmong concern, could not both be considered.

Reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I am reminded of the lyrics of “Walking in Space” from the rock musical Hair. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War–which the Hmong referred to as the American War–the song extols the visions possible under hallucinogenics:

In this dive
We rediscover sensation
In this dive
We rediscover sensation

Walking in space
We find the purpose of peace
The beauty of life
You can no longer hide

Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Wide wide wide!

It’s not that the singers saw nothing taking the hallucinogenics. The irony of the song is that they thought they saw everything–while only seeing some thing.

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April 30, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Books, Health, Medical Practice, and Healing | Leave a comment

A Practice on Cleaning Before Guests Come

What is the difference between maintaining privacy and harboring secrets? Often we think about this question with regard to our verbal behavior, but what if we consider it with respect to our physical behavior, in our “outer bodies,” our homes?

Consider, why do we clean our homes before we have even our closest friends over? With our cultural prohibitions about sharing our financial information, we put away checking account statements, with our protection of our personal searches we put away our self-help books, with reluctance to have to engage in conversation about our unfinished novels, we store their leaves in a desk drawer.

But why do we scour our kitchens and bathrooms, spray and wipe the bookshelves of the living room, beat our rugs when, un-companied, we may live with them unscoured, undusted, unbeaten?

Try this:

Observe your cleaning behaviors prior to having guests over to your home. Periodically cease your cleaning and consider what would happen if you stopped entirely, if you had your company over to see the house you actually live in, rather than the house you’d like them to believe you live in? What is the dominant thought, emotion, or gut-level sense that propels you to pick up the dust rag again?

What did you find out?

Comment from Mary Ann Murray:  Most of my life, I’ve been so into keeping things picked up and having the house I live in be fairly neat that it’s been hard to do much more when company came. This is probably where a trait of mine meshed well with being a minister’s wife. Over the years people in the congregations have been in and out of our house, and I got used to wanting to have our secrets hidden.

Still there have been times when this wasn’t so. When we were living in a farming community called Galatia, the people were so good to Charley and me. I still remember a visit from a member of the congregation when I was in the midst of getting a roll of toilet tissue from the commode where our young son Ed had deposited it and then gotten terribly upset when it wouldn’t flush. The kind soul who came for a visit, held Ed and comforted him and got me a plumber before she left.

I’m just not comfortable with mess, though. I honestly think my thoughts go this way, “If I can get some external order in my life perhaps internal calm and order will follow.”

Comment from Shana Steinberg: I don’t think I clean for guests to present them with a house I want them to think I live in, guests motivate me to get the cleaning done that is long overdue so that I can live in the house I want to live in.

March 30, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Insight Practices | Leave a comment