Consider the many things we or others might say if someone wrote a biography about our essence. The category of appearance, to recall a Grade 2 study we did of the panda, might be reduced to the heading we were taught to use for that report: looks. Now, we know that a look is always a cast glance, like a hook on a line from a fishing pole, and we know that it conveys much about the looker. Here enters ideology; we cannot but see ourselves without seeing ourselves through hegemonic bodily norms.
The cuddly panda, subject of primary school studies the world over, is no exception. Pandas simplify, that is to say naturalize, the relativism of bodily norms. They’re black. They’re white. They’re round. You do not even need to see colour to see the essence of a panda’s looks. Much of them cannot even be described; are they chubby or obese and who decides? A fat panda doesn’t represent a state of moral dissolution. Yet, a recent twitter post by a California aquarium came under scrutiny for using slang bodily terms to describe a resident otter as thicc (Solomon, online). This was partly because African American terminology was used but the crucial theme of obesity, of fat-shaming, was clearly in play. Animals can be roly-poly and yet not be held morally accountable for their weight (unless their human owners are implicated) whereas human bodies are a site of perpetual social intervention precisely because they do not appear to us as they are, but instead as social ideology makes them out to be.
The body of New Years’ resolutions, if you will, contains an extra ingredient that remains prescient, dormant, invisible or in remission for the rest of the year: for lack of a better term this ingredient is our soul. The sociologist Judith Butler states that, regardless of conscious belief, we each embody a mental state, a sort of soul, that finds parallel in how we see our corporeal self. Culturally, “the figure of the interior soul” contains “potent invisibility” precisely because we believe that our external body reflects an internal mental state (Butler, 330). The tragic phrase “I feel fat” thus takes on, literally and figuratively, a life of its own. Here the “boundaries of the body as the limits of the socially hegemonic” become clear: reflected in a real mirror or upon the sheen of our minds eye, our body can nowhere hide from dominant cultural norms and values; that is, from unreasonable expectations (Butler, 331). In a sense, the only option is resistance through non-compliance.
Butler concludes incisively that “the soul is precisely what the body lacks; the body presents itself as a signifying lack….In this sense, then, the soul is a surface signification that contests and displaces the inner/outer distinction itself, a figure of interior psychic space inscribed on the body as a social signification that perpetually renounces itself as such” (Butler, 330).
Our socially sanctioned and culturally regulated souls are in effect disguised by being translated into our bodies. Society thus seeks to claim power in the house of me. For Michel Foucault, who spared no toil nor even his own bodily realm to uncover truths of a corporeal nature, “the body is the inscribed surface of events” (Foucault, 327). These sort of events, both voluntary and involuntary, compose acts of attrition if we buy into the norms and values of our social circumstances. We go to great lengths to make ourselves feel at home in our bodies by embarking on diet programs and exercise regimes designed to make us feel that we are bettering our human being by being healthier. This state of altered being contains more than a dollop of low-fat social sour cream, however. An arduous and ongoing process is at work, as Butler attests: “Cultural values emerge as the result of an inscription on the body, understood as a medium, indeed, a blank page; in order for this inscription to signify, however , that medium must itself be destroyed; that is, fully transvalued into a sublimated domain of values” (Butler, 327).
We’re never only ourselves once we’re absorbed into the social vernacular. Butler suggests that we aren’t born to become new individuals by conscious choice so much as we find ourselves consumed by the social sea of beliefs that surround us. This viewpoint brings problems to the concept of beautiful transformations. Metaphors of caterpillars undergoing metamorphosis into butterflies, to say nothing of weight-loss before-and-after selfies on social media, disguise the cold, hard reality of hungry churning guts and confused intestinal entrails as folks try to subsist on kale juice and other exotic smoothie blends. As for exercising in a gym, where else does superficial performativity meet the psychological pathos of suffering in such an intimate space?
Compliant masochism appears the order of the day when it comes to New Years’ resolutions. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way if we comprehend what is really going on. As we push ourselves we are actually being pushed by invisible coercive forces. To this end, Mary Douglas notes that the “boundaries of the body become…the limits of the social” (Douglas, 328). If we choose bodily alterations as a post-New Years catharsis beware: we may be unwittingly embodying deep-seated cultural expectations and reducing ourselves, marionette-like, to the status of a plush hamster on a plastic wheel. If our efforts feel good then great, but it helps to be aware that sometimes we see ourselves in an image our culture trains us to imagine. Biology is not destiny, after all, and this Fly on the Wall would humbly submit that people who emit the most sensual glow do so because they love themselves just as they are. Just sayin’!
Self-love and acceptance of who we are stands as a firm counterweight to the evangelical desire for change. After all, we never alter ourselves without impacting others. New Years’ resolutions and regimes of self-denial with regard to the consumption of actual food translate into a sense that our outer appearance manifests conditions of our inner mental state. Even when speaking in seemingly-objective terms like nutrition and health we simultaneously mouth ideological prescriptions for how we ought to look. Caring for self is thus reduced to an act of caring what others think.
So, what of well-intentioned resolutions pertaining to genuine bodily health? Those may well exist, just as taking a challenging elective exists, but to do our due diligence we might want to ask if our journey of self-improvement is more to impress ourselves or to appease others. After all, the most rigorous and omnipresent other, the most arduous critic that we were born into by virtue of socialization, is the Big Cultural Other. To give ourselves permission to be a more contented self this year is to interrogate intrinsic and intuitive assumptions implanted deep within ourselves.
Butler concludes “that the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler, 331). In other words, we are how we act. So if we act like a a yoga rat, a gym rat or a jogging rat we’ve gone much of the way to embodying that rodent role. It’s a more believable role if we truly want to embody positive aspects of the person it suggests. New Years’ resolutions unanimously position us to adopt roles for a short time knowing full well it’s not going to be for a long time. As AU students, we enacted a new vision for ourselves beginning, in many cases, with just a single course to test the academic waters. This was a good strategy to decide whether distance education was right for us; if not, it’s only one course’s tuition down the tube. A full semester would be quite another matter. To paraphrase a famous phrase: all things in moderation, including moderation. Perhaps this approach can work for all resolutions; if we desire a better or a healthier self then setting reasonable goals beats a drastic alteration. By applying caution to our zealous ambition, we may not only find success but also achieve a more balanced self-image. In her inimitable fashion Butler even wonders if we ought to shine some performative light on the pantomine qualities embodied in daily life. She queries:
“What performance will compel a reconsideration of the place and stability of the masculine and feminine? And what kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire?” (Butler, 332).
What do we want from ourselves and others this year? What would that look like?
Maybe the ultimate New Year’s resolution would simply be to be more ourselves while being open to breaking new grounds of our unique identity. After all, being a student is to not only learn new things but also to put them into action. Theory plus action equals praxis! (Mellinger, online).