The Awesome Body

Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body

by Jennifer Ackerman  

New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 272 pp., $25.00, hardcover

Rethinking Thin:

The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting

by Gina Kolata.

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters:

The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

by Courtney E. Martin

Berkley Trade Paperback; 2008, $15.00, paperback

Reviewed by Lori Rotskoff

“I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound…Talk of mysteries,” proclaimed Henry David Thoreau, with a profound sense of wonder. Contemplating his material self, at once familiar and unknown, he felt both curiosity and reverence—mixed with a tinge of trepidation.

Thoreau’s time is long past, but we continue to be obsessed with our bodies: how they feel, how they function, how they look. We ponder the state of our physical selves so often that, like breathing, we scarcely notice we are doing so. The so-called “mind-body problem” has been perplexing philosophers for centuries, but it weighs on us these days as never before. Scientific knowledge about human physiology has come a long way, along with human life expectancy. But enhanced understanding of the body doesn’t seem to have made us any more comfortable in our own skins. Indeed, what we know about our bodies seems to have no effect on how we feel about them. When we take the measure of the “matter to which we’re bound,” we’re more likely to feel awful than awe-struck. We can’t research our way out of despair.

Echoing Thoreau, the journalist Jennifer Ackerman, in Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, writes, “You are your body. It holds you in and holds you up. It constrains you and controls you, delights and disgusts you. And yet its activities are mostly a mystery.” If you seek information about the biological marvel that is your body, Ackerman has done your homework for you, guiding you through a 24-hour tour of a typical healthy body at work and at rest. Her brisk survey of current research doubles as a gracefully written homage to human physiology.

Ackerman’s upbeat tone reflects the appreciation she feels toward her body and its usual good health. In fact, it was a brief but nasty bout of flu that heightened her respect for the well body’s business as usual. After recovering, she could no longer take for granted a restful nap, an invigorating workout, or a well-slaked thirst.

Ackerman eagerly converts facts into a tool box for fine-tuning your daily functioning. If you understand your body’s internal clock, for example, you’ll yield to your hankering for an afternoon nap—and wake up refreshed for a productive evening. If you know how sensory receptors in the tongue and nose work together, you’ll enhance your morning coffee by inhaling the aroma with parted lips. Bad breath? If your toothbrush isn’t handy, try chewing on parsley or sucking on grapefruit. Feeling down? Researchers know why chocoholics reach for their favorite fix: the chemicals in chocolate can improve mood, calm anxiety, and trigger natural painkilling receptors. Reading Ackerman’s book is like having lunch with a pleasant, well-informed friend—an encounter that leaves you feeling more enlightened and a bit rosier than you felt before.

Perhaps too rosy. The back cover promises an “entertaining and practical” read, but with a subject as vexed as the body, the book is weaker for not grappling with psychic angst. Ackerman likens the body to Antarctica, “a continent being opened up, mapped, even transformed.” But for most of us, I’d wager, a battleground is a more apt bodily metaphor.

Many of us want to know how our bodies function so we can apply that knowledge in an endless quest for health and vitality. But more than knowledge, we want control. On occasions when we achieve it, we may feel the “delight” that Ackerman invokes. I’m thinking, for instance, of a former nail-biter admiring freshly lacquered fingernails. Or of a woman whose weight-lifting routine makes it easier to carry groceries—and to carry off wearing a sleeveless summer dress.

Yet when it comes to how we feel about our bodies, disgust is more common, especially for women. If you are one of the countless Americans fueling the $40-billion-per-year diet industry, metabolism isn’t just one of many health-related topics; it is the bane of your existence. No author chronicling a day in the life of a human body can neglect the subject of eating—and Ackerman offers up morsels about appetite-inducing hormones, the mechanics of digestion, and so on. Shedding pounds and keeping them off is difficult, she explains, because over time, our bodies have developed a “sophisticated biochemical mechanism for protecting against weight loss.” The hormones that regulate hunger create a kind of “appetite circuitry” early on, which sets up a preferred weight range that the body strives to maintain throughout life. In other words, dieting is an uphill battle because our bodies have minds of their own.

Books on the topics of weight loss and body image have consumed more paper than I could ever quantify. But our collective hunger for dieting data remains as insatiable as our cravings for calorie-rich treats. Ackerman’s dispassionate dispatch on the weight issue will whet your appetite, but you’ll need to look elsewhere for more substantial fare.

Gina Kolata, a frequent contributor the New York Times, offers more to chew on in Rethinking Thin. Her book is also an extended work of science journalism, but Kolata adds a narrative twist by chronicling the literal ups and downs of dieters who enrolled in a University of Pennsylvania study in 2004. Researchers divided the dieters into two groups: one followed the Atkins low-carbohydrate diet, while the other adhered to a traditional low-calorie regimen. After one year, Kolata reports, participants in both groups lost weight (averaging 10% of their original total), but after the second year, most dieters in both groups gained back most of it. We’re not powerless to control our girth, concludes Kolata, but “those who tend to be fat will have to constantly battle their genetic inheritance if they want to reach and maintain a lower weight.”

If you’ve ever had trouble zipping your favorite jeans, this will come as no surprise. (This is a book that may send you searching for a handful of Toll House chocolate morsels, with their mood-lifting qualities.) For the most part, Kolata tells a familiar tale, and her detailed explication of obesity research isn’t her most valuable contribution. More important, I think, is her effort to situate the scientific enterprise in a broader social context—and to question the unforgiving aesthetic and moral standards to which we hold ourselves, and our fluctuating waistlines, accountable.

Ultimately she poses questions that quantitative studies can’t answer: “the ‘why’ questions, the ones that ask about society and politics and people’s hopes and dreams.” Scientists can’t solve the quandary of why “the dream weights of most overweight people” are so difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. In fact, the researchers themselves seem to have fallen for the delusion that slimness is just another diet plan away. But, “[w]hen health data have not supported the alarmist cries of a medical disaster in the making,” Kolata says, “could society perhaps let up on the beleaguered fat people?” Her foray into cultural terrain is provocative, but ultimately, she comes back to science. “I believe that research by scientists who have open minds about obesity…is starting to open doors.” If we can’t think ourselves thin, she concludes, maybe we can intellectualize our way toward accepting our bodies the way they are.

Fat chance. Kolata’s grim tale ends on a positive note, but it’s hard to feel hopeful when the next book on your nightstand is titled Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. Courtney E. Martin, a writer, teacher, and feminist activist in her twenties, takes a different approach to the mind-body dilemma. In a book that combines journalistic narrative, cultural criticism, and psychological insight, Martin contends that the national obsession with thinness has reached epidemic proportions. While Kolata focuses on people technically classified as overweight, Martin examines a huge cohort of young, college-bound and college-educated women of all weights—and argues that a pernicious culture of perfectionism and eating disorders affects virtually all of them.

You don’t need to have full-blown anorexia, Martin says, to experience “a screwed-up approach to food and fitness.” More than half of American women between the ages of 18 and 25 would prefer to be “run over by a truck or die young” than to be fat. More than two-thirds, says Martin, “would rather be mean or stupid” than flabby. In an unintended consequence of the “you-can-do-anything” feminism that infused their childhoods, today’s young women strive relentlessly to be “perfect girls”: to succeed in school, in sports, and in their social lives. But deep inside, Martin argues, they are spiritually hungry—“starving daughters” exhausted by their never-ending efforts to please parents, teachers, friends, boyfriends, and especially, themselves. The struggle to stay thin epitomizes their quest for perfection.

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters offers an updated, edgy take on a topic that has long interested feminist critics. Weaving personal, often heartrending stories of individual women into an incisive cultural analysis, Martin laments the psychological toll—and ultimately, the political costs—of endless navel-gazing and calorie counting. Body obsessions drain people of energy that they could otherwise direct toward solving bigger problems in the world. Martin combines genuine empathy for women with targeted outrage toward the institutions—the media, the fashion industry, the high-pressure culture of youth sports—that fuel their misery.

Does Martin offer any fresh solutions to the mind-body dilemma? In a chapter epigraph, she quotes Susan Sontag’s remark that “the only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions.” Ultimately, we can’t solve a conundrum using the concepts (metabolism, calories, diet plans) that got us there in the first place. A brilliant biochemist can’t number-crunch her way to self-acceptance if she hates how she looks in her lab coat. Even feminist cultural criticism, as important as it is, can’t do the job. “’Knowledge is power,’ Martin writes, “but cognitive knowledge rarely makes anyone strong and happy on its own.” She confesses:

I have tried numerous times to “think my way” into a healthy relationship with my body and it always backfires. A well-intentioned commitment to eating a balanced diet often leads to guilt and criticism. An innocent fitness schedule can become boring, militaristic workouts. These attempts fail if the heart, the senses, and the soul are missing.

Neither food, nor food for thought, can satisfy one’s deeper spiritual yearnings.

Morphing, at this point, into a self-help writer with a spiritual bent who sounds very much like a twenty-first-century Thoreau, Martin claims that “only wonder will fill you and satiate your spiritual hunger—wonder at your little life…at once mundane and miraculous. At once daily and divine.” Rest assured, Martin is not advocating that we check our rational faculties at the door of an eternal yoga class. While embracing a psychological path to self-acceptance, she also refuses to participate in our nation’s narcissistic, apolitical therapeutic culture.

During a time when right-wing ideologues threaten the vitality of people and the planet by endorsing “junk science” that buttresses their antediluvian worldview, we benefit from writers such as these three, who think critically about what passes for common knowledge, and who question what we think we already know. Science can help us make the best of our bodies—vessels shaped partly by our own hands, yet marked profoundly by heredity and happenstance. Yet sooner or later, everyone’s body will betray her in ways far worse than failing to fit into the latest fashions. In the end, we can’t control our bodies, so we’d better learn to play with the corporeal cards we’ve been dealt.

“Ultimately,” Martin concludes, “You can only see your body for what it is: a miracle of coordination, curves, resiliency, a partner in your life’s journey.” It’s a tall order to replace socially sanctioned disdain with respect and humility toward the bodies that shelter us. It can be summed up in a short word, though: awe.

 

Lori Rotskoff is a cultural historian and author of Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America (2002). She teaches at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and is working on a study of feminism, childrearing, and American culture in the 1970s.

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