Sunday, January 29, 2012


This culture has a very strange attitude toward the human body. We're simultaneously obsessed with the illusion of health, and the fulfillment (or denial) of physical desires. A vivid illustration of this mass of contradictions is the simultaneous existence of 1) television ads for almost-magical diet and "health" products...juxtaposed with ads for junk foods, alcohol, and of course, the omnipresent "sex appeal;" 2) the high prevalence of obesity...alongside eating disorders. 

While the last few decades may have marked a new depth of dysfunction in our relationships with our bodies, the origins of the dysfunction go way, way back - actually, as far back as Ancient Greece. There, we find the first attempts to divorce body from mind and spirit - the first expositions on the ideal of a mind unencumbered by the body's inconvenient needs. I suspect that ideal may have contributed to something else we find in Ancient Greece - hedonism, the excessive pursuit of desires for food, drink, and sex.

(Wait, we're starting to sound a lot like those Ancient Greeks, just with more fancy gizmos, and less respect for philosophy)

It turns out that it's really no coincidence that the ideal of physical denial occurs alongside diametrically opposite behavior. Scientists have studied the impact of various degrees of denial (e.g., dieting) on animals and humans, and have found that denial produces a biological impulse to binge on whatever has been denied. It's like the body says, "wait, I'm not sure when I'm going to get this again, so I better take as much as I can get right now!" And, here's the kicker - the body continues to want to overcompensate for past denial for significantly longer than the denial itself lasted. 

That's where dieting often fails - asking your body to function on significantly fewer calories than it needs prompts a biological impulse to binge. 

So, what's the answer? What's the message here? Well, we all - clients and therapists alike - need to recognize that, at least for as long as we're here on earth, we are embodied. There's nothing we can do about that. Instead of shooting ourselves in the (metaphorical) foot by trying to outsmart our bodies' basic needs, what if we try listening to our bodies, and giving them what they need? Our bodies are a lot smarter than we are, and tend to tell us when we need to rest, when we need more protein, iron, or vegetables, when we need more exercise. But we have to be listening - we have to be mindfully aware of our bodies to hear the signals they're sending us. And that takes some practice, and courage. 

It's worth it, though. Take a leap of faith, and embrace embodiment.

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