It’s important to understand the difference between what I call our Real Body and our Cosmetic Body. If our motivation for wanting to change our relationship to food, and to ourselves, arises from our Cosmetic Body, then nothing we do will likely work. It won’t change how it feels to be you. It won’t change how it feels to be me. It won’t change how it feels to be alive.
What is a Cosmetic Body? The word cosmetic means, “affecting only the appearance of something rather than its substance.”
Our cosmetic body is our superficial body, our external body, our artifice/artificial body, our appearance body. It’s the body we show to the world. It’s the body we try to make look good when we look into the mirror.
The fact is most of us, to varying degrees, are vain. A vanity is a dressing table used expressly for the purpose of making our Appearance Body look good. But vain also means futile. And preoccupation with our Appearance Body is futile. So working on what we look like can never make a substantive change in our interior life, which is what needs to happen if we are to change something so woven into who we 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. When feasible, try not looking in a mirror at all for a few days. When I am living alone and writing, sometimes I choose not to look at myself for three days. It’s interesting, Something happens, something good. But don’t believe me. Try it and see what happens.
Vanity also means “excessive admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements.” 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 has little to do with reason.
Back to the question – What is our Cosmetic Body? The Cosmetic Body is a lot bigger than we think. It can be our yard and our house, that is if we identify ourselves with your yard and 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 our car. It can be our clothes and jewelry. If we identify ourselves with these things, then they are part of our Cosmetic Body, the body we present to the world.
Do you remember the film, Far From Heaven? 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 we begin to see the real shape of her body until, at the very end of the film, she is standing in the pouring rain wearing a thin dress, soaked. We see her real body, her real self. And there the movie ends, and her real life begins.
James Baldwin says 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 our 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 not our Real Body, what I sometimes call our Mammal Body.
Let’s go further. There is our skin. Now, skin is an amazing part of our real body. It’s an organ. It a protective covering for our body, but it also keeps our body at the right temperature, and it does this for us, I believe, out of the kindness of nature. We couldn’t live without it. But often, we don’t perceive our skin functionally; we 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 40 years. This issue 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 we 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 our real body. Mostly it helps keep us 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 we 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.
Now you know what makes up our Cosmetic Body. It is huge, and costly, financially, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. 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 we have to do is watch a few commercials designed to appeal to our Cosmetic Bodies and we 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 we make friends with and get to know our Real Body, intimately, when we begin asking it what it wants and what it needs, we begin to realize that our Real Body and our Cosmetic Body are essentially like two different people with different desires, and different values. It is as if we have an Inner Body and an Outer Body. Two bodies are trying to occupy the same space at the same time. We learned in school that that was not possible. It would seem that, for humans, it is possible.
What does all this have to do with eating? Well, pretty much everything. When we feed a newborn baby, or a person who is sick, or dying, we are feeding their Real Bodies and we are thinking about these real people. Real bodies and real people have a lot in common. Realness.
As we come to realize whom we are feeding, weather it be us or someone else, the act of eating, of consuming food, transforms itself into the act of feeding, the act of receiving food. Learning how not to consume food but how to receive food. Learning how to be fed. Being fed.
Note: the photo is of Midori Shinkai with her students in Kyoto during a workshop we were giving together, one where we ate together and practiced transforming our eating into feeding.