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16 July 2011

The Benefits of Becoming Re-embodied

A recent piece in the New York Times claimed that, while the number of women cyclists was growing, there were two factors keeping more women off of their bikes in the city. First, cycling in a congested urban setting is seen as being unsafe. (I've posted before about gender and risk.) Second, women don't want to arrive at their destinations sweaty. My own wife recently told me about how she didn't like walking the half mile from our apartment to campus because she invariably ended up a hot, sweaty mess. I think this is a good place to think about culture. We can ultimately understand this as a legacy of Greek thought that left us with a mind/body dichotomy in the West. Most cultures that were contemporary to the Ancient Greeks and indeed many non-Western cultures today do not draw a definitive line between the mind and body the way we do. (My favorite example is the Ancient Hebrews who were radically materialistic. They did not believe in the idea of a soul. When they died, they simply returned to the dust from which they had been created.) Industrialization further entrenched this binary by relating it to class location. Capitalists were those with capable minds for reasoning, while the workers were those with capable bodies for labor. The Victorians elevated women above their bodies, disconnecting them from sexual pleasure, insisting on the pain of childbirth, adding shame to menses, and insisting that women did not sweat but "glowed."

The ironic consequences are that, in trying to distance ourselves from our bodies, we've literally taken on more body. Our sedentary lifestyles that are part of our increasing dependence on our minds at the expense of our bodies has contributed to the fattening of America. For example, I drove my car the half mile from our apartment to campus yesterday because, like my wife, I didn't care to show up to my office drenched in sweat from exerting myself in the 100+ degree heat of Middle Georgia. I typically do walk, but many do not. Think of all the benefits that an embodied experience can give us. More physical activity means being healthier. Less driving means that we are safer and contribute less to global warming. And all of this because we insist on being minds ashamed of our base bodies. Thanks, Plato!

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