Bodily Disciplines

Comment to Usenet group soc.feminism

David Mertz
August, 1994

Asad B. Sayeed wrote previously:

Don't forget that body-building has, at least nowadays, a trend towards totally minimizing body fat--to appear "ripped". I heard a report on the radio, recently, stating that most pro builders (most of them, in this category, male) have well below normal body fat percentages. Some of them even start blacking out due to this starving, it is so unhealthy. And I don't think that most women find them desirable, judging by the romance-novel cover men +), who, while muscular, are not generally "shredded" in that way; so the idea that anorexic women may have grossly misjudged what men really want may work in the same way for these men as well.

Sayeed poses an interesting quandry for me; perhaps inadvertantly. The first thing to note is that male body-builders do not undergo extraordinary manipulation of their bodies primarily, nor even significantly, because they imagine that their achieved form is most desirable to women. Some women DO, in fact, find the rippled body-builder appearance attractive, many others do not. But the goal of body-builders is a much more abstract aesthetic. They try to achieve a certain form as an "exercise in the possible" which allows them to utilize effort and dedication to attain a bodily goal. My belief is that most body-builders are fairly conscious in their articulation of a goal and an aesthetic.

One could claim that achieving the kind of muscle definition that body-builders seek is "trivial", or that it is not the most healthful manipulation of their bodies, or that the pursuit is "not intellectual". But if one wants to claim this of body-builders, one better be prepared to make the same claim of participants in nearly ANY sport. Sprinters, or swimmers, or marathonists, for example do not try to cross distances with maximum speed for any reasons escaping the above criticisms. An Olympic sprinter doesn't train significantly in order to be the most sexual attractive. S/he does not manipulate and hone her/his body because that would be maximally healthful (it's not overall bad, although there are many injury risks which could be avoided with a less frevent regime which would have the same cardiovascular benefits). Running a distance in the shortest time is not an achievement of the intellect. Exactly as with body-builders, a sprinter wishes to run a distance in a short time, BECAUSE S/HE CAN! IMO, this is enough reason. An aesthetic goal, however arbitrary it is at a certain level, is no less worthy for involving a honing of bodily form than is one involving the honing of an external material, or of a type of comprehension. Chess is a worthwhile human aesthetic pursuit. So, for the same reason, is playing music. So, for the same reason, is understanding transfinite sets. So, for the same reason, is running a distance in the smallest time. And so, for the same reason, is achieving the greatest possible definition of ones musculature.

Here's where the problem comes in to my thinking, at least apparently. Anorexia involves a dedication and bodily discipline not dissimilar to body-building (or other sports). Like body-building, the goal of the discipline is the acheivement of an abstract aesthetic form. So why is IT bad?! The easiest answer seem to be that anorexia is not a consciously chosen and articulable goal, but rather a form of self-deception and compulsive harm to self. As such, I can accept criticisms of anorexia. But is this always what it is? Do models always deceive themselves as to their actual size? Do other women (or men) always so deceive themselves when making themselves "unnaturally" thin? If self-starvation were pursued, after the manner of Kafka's Hunger Artist, as a self-conscious aesthetic, I could simply not accept banalities about its potential harm as criticisms. Artists suffer for their art; and there is even something often enobling about this.

Yours, Lulu...