It’s important to understand the difference between what I call your Real Body and your Cosmetic Body. If your motivation for wanting to change your relationship to food, and to yourself, arises from your Cosmetic Body, then nothing you do will work. It won’t change how it feels to be you. It won’t change how it feels to be alive. It won’t change anything.
What is your Cosmetic Body? The word cosmetic means, “affecting only the appearance of something rather than its substance.”
Your cosmetic body is your superficial body, your external body, your artifice/artificial body, your appearance body. It’s the body you show to the world. It’s the body you try to make look good when you look into the mirror.
The fact is most of us, to varying degrees, are vain. Vain. Why not look that word up! A vanity is a dressing table, because you use it to make your Appearance Body look good. But vain also means futile. And preoccupation with your Appearance Body is exactly that, futile. So working on what you look like can never make a substantive change in your interior life, which is what needs to happen if you are to change something so woven into who you are, as eating.
My grandfather once told me not to look at myself more than once a day. He said once in the morning is okay, but even then only for a short time. Good advice, but I would consider taking it one step further and, when feasible, try not looking in a mirror at all for a few days. When I’m camping, days go by without my seeing myself. And it’s interesting, but don’t believe me. Try it and see what happens.
Vanity also means “excessive admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements.” Now when I really think about this one, it makes me a bit sad. Admiring myself for my looks or my achievements is somehow off. When my children were babies, and when my parents were really, old and incapable of functioning well, did I love my children and parents because of what they looked liked, or because of their achievements? No. Definitely not. I loved them because I loved them. I loved them for no reason, because love doesn’t have anything to do with reason.
Okay, back to the question – What is your Cosmetic Body? It is a lot bigger than you think. It can be your yard and your house, if you identify yourself with your yard and your house. Once I had a big yard and a beautiful house that I identified with and often I would think to myself, Look at my grounds, at my house! It was as if I was saying, Look at me. Aren’t I beautiful, and valuable, and exceptional? Or it could be your car. It can be your clothes and jewelry. If you identify yourself with these things, and that is what they are, things, then they are part of your Cosmetic Body, the body you present to the world.
Do you remember the film, Far From Heaven? If you never saw it, I suggest you get it and watch it. Julianne Moore starts out as a woman in the 1950’s dressed in a skirt, under which are layers of petticoats. As the story progresses, and she comes into touch with her deeper values, with her real self, layer-by-layer the petticoats come off. Little by little you begin to see the real shape of her body, until at the very end of the film she is standing in the pouring rain and there are no more petticoats, just a thin dress, soaked. You see her real body, her real self. And there the movie ends, and her real life begins.
James Baldwin said it this way,
Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.
You can’t say it any better than that.
The Cosmetic Body has even more layers. It doesn’t stop with your clothes and jewelry. For some of us there is make up and perfume. Now I am not saying a yard, a house, a car, clothes, jewelry, make up, and perfume are bad. No, they’re great. I’m happy to see people have these things. But they are things, and not your Real Body. They are like prostheses, artificial body parts, if they become part of your identity.
Let’s go further. There is your skin. Now, skin is an amazing part of your real body. It’s an organ. It a protective covering for your body, but it also keeps your body at the right temperature, and it does this for you, out of the kindness of nature. You couldn’t live without it. But most people don’t perceive their skin functionally; they perceive it cosmetically. We look for wrinkles. We see age marks and for some reason we decide they are unattractive.
Some of us are concerned about the color of our skin, as if pigment were important. I’ve been part of an interracial, adoptive family for 30 years. This one is nearly incomprehensible to me.
Stop for a second and think about how much money people spend, and how much big business is tied into the buying of houses, cars, (gasoline), clothes, jewelry, make up, perfume, skin products, and plastic surgery, and you begin to get a big hint as to why we are preoccupied with our Cosmetic Bodies. Our culture encourages vanity. That’s putting it politely.
But let’s keep going. There is more. There is hair. Now hair also is part of your real body. Mostly it helps keep you warm. But we don’t think about hair functionally, we think about it cosmetically. Many of us like to have a lot of it on the top of our heads, for example, and many of us don’t, like me. And we often like to change our hair color, or our hair style. Young boys sometimes want to grow it on their faces, but they can’t, which can be mortifying. Some women and men don’t like hair on particular parts of their bodies, and do all they can to get rid of it. Hair is big business too.
There’s fat, a vital part of our real bodies. I don’t even have to go into fat, and how people feel about fat, and what a multi-billion dollar business fat is.
Going in further, we have four layers of muscles. They are totally miraculous, as is every part of our Real Bodies. But many of us become quite concerned with our most superficial layer of muscles, and primarily with the large contractors – like the biceps, or the pecs, or the lats, or the abdominals, or the quads to name a few. So we have a lot of machines and exercise systems designed to sculpt these muscle groups to look a particular way that our culture deems beautiful.
I’m out of breath. Cosmetic bodies don’t breathe. They are too busy holding their stomachs in. Okay, now some air is entering my Real Body.
Now you know what makes up your Cosmetic Body. It is huge, and costly. The Cosmetic Body is concerned with its appearance, with how other people see it, and think about it. Rather than thinking about what our Real Bodies give us, we become obsessed with what our Cosmetic bodies can get for us, like a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a husband, a wife, children, happiness, love, status, money, power, approval, friends. And of course more stuff. I am not saying anything here that everybody doesn’t already know is true. All you have to do is watch a few commercials designed to appeal to our Cosmetic Bodies and you know that advertisers have figured all this out long ago.
When my kids were still pre-teens and wanted to watch a lot of TV, I limited it of course, but I made sure they stayed put when the commercials came on. Commercials about fast food were always full of dancing and people in great shape. The guys in the Truck commercials were as tough as nails. Commercials about women’s cosmetics and perfumes usually had very handsome men looking in their direction with only one thing on their minds. My kids could “deconstruct” these commercials at the speed of light. They understood about symbolism early on – objects that represent something other than themselves. Cosmetic Bodies love representing who they aren’t.
We need our Real Bodies. When you make friends, and get to know your Real Body, intimately, when you begin asking it what it wants, and what it needs, you begin to realize that your Real Body and your Cosmetic Body are essentially like two different people with different desires, and different values. Two bodies are trying to occupy the same space, at the same time, and we learned in school that that was not possible. It would seem that, for humans, it is possible, but not easy.
What does all this have to do with eating? Well, pretty much everything. When you feed a newborn baby, or a person who is sick or dying, you are feeding their Real Bodies, and you are thinking about these real people. Real bodies and real people have a lot in common. Realness.
As you come to realize whom you are really feeding, and why, the act of eating, of consuming food, turns into the act of feeding, the act of receiving food. Learning how not to consume food, but how to receive food. Leaning how to feed ourselves in every way.
Make this slight shift, from eating to feeding and your life will change forever. For real.