Bodies are God

What can quarantine can teach us about body positivity?

ABOVE: [photo credit to Amryn Shae]

It’s weird to think back to March of 2020, when most of us were naive of what the rest of the year would look like.

When I went home at the end of the month, I expected to be there for two, maybe three weeks, at most. Travelling through London Liverpool Street, I gave no second thought to the people around me. I was blissfully uninterested in their health status, or in the number of centimetres between us as we collectively shuffled through train carriages. Now, it is second nature to swerve away from fellow runners or dog-walkers as they enter my peripheral vision.

My family became quickly accustomed to these Groundhog days, fashioning our own weekly schedule, which started to feel oddly normal— it is human nature, I think, to adjust to your surroundings, and wholeheartedly assume that your current situation is your permanent situation.

Once a week, I would miss dinner to sit in my room, my legs pulled up onto my desk chair, my chin resting on the top of my knee, to patiently wait to be accepted onto a Zoom call with ten of my friends. Fridays became movie nights. Sundays were a reminder to take an enforced break from writing my dissertation. On Wednesday mornings, you could find Mum hopping around the living room, with the rest of her Zumba class; no longer gathered in a sweaty church, gasping and laughing together; instead they glitch awkwardly at each other via livestream. 

All of that is to say that it wasn’t unpleasant. We’ve always gotten along: the four of us welded together by queasy, mosquito-bitten road trips around Europe (usually lasting the entire month of August), visiting family and friends in France, Germany, and Switzerland, which my parents optimistically called a holiday. Being wedged in the car together for eight to sixteen hours at a time was routine for the first seventeen years of my life.

Plus, Dad’s work means he is often commuting to London for weeks of rehearsals, or staying in strange hotels in different countries altogether. My family had not had this much extended time together since 2016. We love each other, and so, of course, there were moments of quarantine that were warm, but even these felt wrong— how can we be enjoying this time, when the rest of the world feels so unfamiliar and terrifying?

A few weeks into lockdown, my dad was noticeably exhausted. His face was long and pale, and he looked as if he’d travelled sleeplessly for hours, just to get from his makeshift office in his bedroom to the kitchen. He had been on Zoom calls all day, chatting to fellow artists and actors about the various projects they were all working on.

Since the age of twenty, his greatest love affair (followed closely by the ongoing one he has with Mum) has been theatre. Within the handful of memories I have from my early childhood, the ones that shine through the strongest are all nestled in dark, body-heat-warm auditoriums. The form of theatre that the company, Spymonkey, do is called clowning, and this word— ‘clown’— is the second thing I ever paid someone to ink onto my body.

Clowning is very physical, but it is also about finding what is funny in any given situation, and identifying the thing that makes you funny to other people. Everybody’s clown is a different breed of absurdity. Though it is a theatre practice, the ideology of it is something I have always held close. To see my father so worn down, where his life’s work is laughter, and devising usually brings him a barb-wire excitement, was very unsettling.

I asked him what was so starkly different about this way of working. After all, the people and the conversations are all, fundamentally, identical. He thought for a moment before replying. “It’s just not quite the same when we can’t beat each other up in a rehearsal room.”

Unsurprisingly, endless studies have been conducted into the nature of touch. I think everyone understands that touch is important. The commonly used term ‘touch-starved’ is especially noteworthy because this phrase relates touch directly to hunger— specifically, it implies that touch is as vital and nourishing as food but psychological studies on touch reveal the true complexities of the language.

Touch is also, technically, a huge part of the other senses; sound waves cause vibrations that are felt by the ear drums, and taste comes from the contact of food to the tongue. Tiffany Field, author of Touch (2014), notes that out of all five senses, touch is the only sense that suggests a social aspect. Smelling, seeing, hearing, and tasting can all be fully achieved in private, but touch has immediate connotations to the company of other humans. We place experiences that involve the closeness of other bodies on pedestals, like theatres, gigs, and festivals.

A study by Hertenstein et al. put participants in pairs and, using a curtain, shielded them from each other almost completely: only the forearms of the individuals broke through this divide. One person was then asked to communicate various emotions to the other solely through physical touch. Emotion prompts included ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘surprised’, ‘disgusted’, ‘angry’, ‘envious’, and ‘love’. The study found that receivers identified the emotions accurately between 48% and 83% of the time, which, as Field puts it: “is similar to the accuracy of reading emotions from faces and voices.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

The accuracy of these participants reading the emotions of people’s touch is on par with their accuracy of their reading of facial expressions.

Patricia Berendsen, while explaining that the amount of touch we get as infants is vastly different to the amount we experience in adulthood, says that “this reduction in touch occurs despite the fact that our ‘touch hunger’ does not diminish over time. From this perspective, most of us could be suffering from ‘skin starvation’.”

In 1976, a study showed that students who were lightly touched by librarians as they handed in their library cards rated the library, and the staff, more favourably in comparison to students who hadn’t been touched. The difference was noticeable even when students weren’t aware that they’d received physical contact. Even un-noticeable touches from strangers have a positive effect on our mood and outlook, let alone friendly, conscious ones.

The joy of consensually touching strangers is most clear in heavy metal communities. The entire genre of music wants the strangers in the audience kick the ever loving shit out of each other, and they do, and it is joyous.

I’ve always been optimistic about the innate positive nature of humans. This optimism is tested about as often as it is reinforced, like when yet another sour-faced bigot with all of the charm of a wet sock is voted into power; when I walk past the words ‘CORONA IS A HOAX’ sprayed messily onto the side of a building; when The Sun still sells papers.

Even so, I can’t help but hold onto the hope that we could learn from these weeks of physical isolation, even if it is in a way so tiny that it could go completely unnoticed. I am, by no means, a technology grinch, but it is undeniable that our communications are on an exponential path to being completely digitised.

And yet, one of the most unifying emotions of the pandemic is “oh my god I am so tired of fucking Zoom calls,” paired directly with the even stronger “oh my god I just want to go to the fucking pub.” The frequency of laughter will always be warped by a tinny laptop speaker.

Maybe, we can quietly internalise this biological need for kind, loving, consensual touch. We can start to recognise that your body does not understand why you would want to skip meals. It does not speak the language of diets, fasts, and restriction, and it has no desire to attain the standards that Instagram has taught you to aim for. Your body, as we have been shown, just wants to be near other bodies.

When you get a coffee with your best friend, and you sit across from them, both of your arms resting on the wooden table, and they tell you about their latest boy troubles, and their body pulses ever so slightly with the beating of their heart, your body immediately recognises that rhythm as something utterly familiar.

When you stand amongst a crowd of other festival goers, the sweat and heat of you rising into the cold night air above, your feet aching and your throat sweet from the overpriced alcohol, and the big lights dim out, and everyone breathes in at the same time, and The Band finally walks onto the stage, everyone lets out a triumphant scream, and the sound that booms from their lungs bounces around deep within your skull, your body understands that you are, in this very second, a small part of a big thing.

When you walk around a gallery in quiet wonder, maybe with a close friend, or with someone you met on Tinder, and there’s that stale museum-y smell of dust, and someone coughs from the other end of a dimly lit hallway, and your feet feel the vibrations of the steps of the people walking around you, your body knows that each individual pair of eyes that looks at one painting will see something slightly different.

Technology can offer us easier, more streamlined ways to shop, flirt, read, stalk, show off, masturbate, watch, and be watched. But when the WiFi towers burn down and the satellites are shot out of the sky, we’ll stand, hand-holding, around the charred, smoking wreckage of our former deity. We’ll be alright. Bodies are God.

Sources used include Touch by Tiffany Field (2014), Touch in the Helping Professions: Research, Practice and Ethics by Patricia Berendsen (2017), and Psychology Today.

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2 thoughts on “Bodies are God”

  1. Good stuff Maya. Very enjoyable read – I liked diving in to this personal piece, but it was nice to be surprised with some facts and data, which really bring something to what you’re saying. Keep going!

    Liked by 1 person

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