Liberation from Body Shame

In her poem “homage to my hips,” Lucille Clifton says:

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

That’s the poem. No apologies. No shame. No sense that her hips (or any other body part for that matter) are making her unworthy.

The message rises to theological height. These hips are big hips, these hips need space to move around in, these hips don’t like to be held back: the suggestion is that it does not matter so much what bodies look like or whether they conform to some externally or internally imposed standard but, rather, where does your body take you, what is it showing you in your life, what is it enabling you to put a spell on and spin like a top?

The body is not an end-in-itself but a way to live out a larger purpose.

In this sense, everybody’s hips are big and want to be proudly claimed as big.

I call this “body electric theology” after the famous Walt Whitman line, “I sing the body electric.” Lucille Clifton sings and sings, and maybe we sing too.

Or maybe we don’t.

Listen to Alexandra Marshall, writing for W Magazine in 2012: “When injectables took over the world in the early aughts, having facial wrinkles became more of a choice than an inevitability. But at the same time, armies of women of a certain age started to look like the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and I began to believe that there was something honest and rock ’n’ roll about being able to move my face. I actually like my crow’s-feet, and I can live with the lines between my eyebrows.”

“But—and there is always a but—no one warned me about my neck. As noble as a few frown lines may look in post-Botox America, there is no air of refusenik coolness to a wattle. Every woman I know who has reached her early 40s and woken up with a falling chin or a wavering jawline agrees. (No wonder the late Nora Ephron’s 2006 book I Feel Bad About My Neck was a best-seller.) ‘This neck thing just makes me feel old,’ my friend Gillian, a 43-year-old interior designer in Los Angeles, told me while wrapping her ever present cotton scarf tightly around her throat. I know exactly what she means. I’m 42 and have become conscious of an area that I’ve named ‘the drop zone’: the increasingly declining curve between my neck and jaw, which used to be a taut right angle.”

That’s Alexandra Marshall, and from here the article goes on to consider “what can be done about it,” and of course it does.

Lucille Clifton might be singing the body electric but how do you do that with wattles or turkey neck or whatever the heck it’s called?

Really? A turkey neck is going to enable you to put a spell on someone and spin them like a top? Really?

From here it’s open season on our bodies. Those of you with actual big hips might never have bought into what Lucille Clifton said to begin with. And don’t get me started on what it’s like to be a short guy, or have a big nose. If I get started and if you get started about all the things that bug us about our bodies, well, this is going to be one LONG LOUD communal sermon and everyone’s talking nonstop and it’s just miserable.

Body electric theology can simply fall apart in the fingers of our body anxieties and body shame….

That’s what I want to talk about today—the shame and what anchors it, and then the things we can think and the things we can do to help us rise to Lucille Clifton’s theological delight in her big hips. We want to rise to that height, too.

Because “Your body is a flower that life let bloom.” (Ilchi Lee)

Because “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” (Anthony Bourdain)

Care for the flower life has let bloom. Enjoy the ride.

But easier said than done, because shame poisons the flower and poisons the fun.

Says writer Toni Morrison, “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ‘em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!”

But there’s always the THEY that works against this love—that’s the poignancy of this passage from Toni Morrison. Always the THEY.

Today it’s no longer slaveowners and a society that affirms the brutal institution of slavery, but what about the idea within communities of color (especially among Black women) that the closer one’s hair is to European texture (straight and smooth) the “better” it is? THEY is racism, internalized and externalized.

THEY do not love your flesh.

THEY is also sexism. The way women’s bodies in particular are monitored and policed for propriety. Two examples come to mind: One is professional model Tess Munster who is 5 feet 5 inches and a size 22. Now the average model is 5 feet 10 inches and a size 4—which is why Tess Munster holds the distinction of being the very first “model of her size” to be signed to an agency. She’s got big hips and she wants everyone to know it and the camera loves her—and for this, she gets hate mail like you can’t believe. Death threats. As body advocate Gabi Gregg says, ”If there is a fat person on television trying super hard to lose weight, crying about how hard life is, and talking about how they eat to cope etc, then everyone is at home crying and cheering them on. Put that same person in a crop top while they smile, and the pitchforks come out.”

An equally fascinating portrait of sexism comes from Aidan McCormack, a transgender man who has always been very hairy. Mustache hairs sprouting out of his face when he was a 10-year-old girl. Talk about enduring a barrage of constant public comment and ridicule. “Why people find hairy women to be threatening,” he says, “continues to bewilder me, and why people believe they have some ownership or right to comment on the state of a female body bewilders and infuriates me even more.” But all of this became crystal clear for Aidan McCormack when he transitioned from female to male. “Suddenly,” he says, “my body and facial hair was a prized possession. […] I also began noticing that people didn’t comment on my body anymore. I mean, every so often somebody on the street will point out how short I am, but by and large the constant companion of unwanted attention and commentary ceased to exist.”

Aiden McCormack goes on to say something that is just as much body electric theology as Lucille Clifton’s poem. He says, “The thing that I’ve come to is that all bodies are strange bodies, all bodies are queer. To be embodied is to be queerly embodied because there’s all sorts of hairs growing, and teeth showing up in brains, and trick knees, and runny noses. There’s asthma and allergies, dwarfism and diabetes. We are all kinds of shapes and sizes and we have all kinds of desires and worries. No one’s bodies fit our expectations. There is something ‘wrong’ with all of our bodies. In fact there’s so much wrong with human bodies that you could say that abnormality is what’s normal, what’s human and, ultimately, what’s powerful and beautiful.”

Yes! All bodies are queer. You minister is saying that today. We are all queer and we all have big hips,

they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.

That sounds like Unitarian Universalism to me, people!

But. THEY won’t have any of that. THEY do not love your flesh.

THEY is business. As Jennifer Weiner, New York Times writer, says in a recent article about a particular body part that is the “new” focus of anxiety but which I cannot, in all good taste, describe to you in church, “Show me a body part, I’ll show you someone who’s making money by telling women that theirs looks wrong and they need to fix it. Tone it, work it out, tan it, bleach it, tattoo it, lipo it, remove all the hair, lose every bit of jiggle.”

But business is also becoming wise to the increasing awareness in men that women like to look just as much as men. Women ogle too—at Ryan Gosling’s abs, for example—and men, well, we’re getting the message that we’re not measuring up. Liposuction is one the fastest-growing plastic surgery procedures being performed on men; eating disorders and body dysmorphia are on the rise in guys. So business comes swooping right in…

THEY is racism, THEY is sexism, THEY is business, so many forces of THEY beyond these three. We feel shamed by them, we internalize that shame, and we ourselves become agents of that shame. THEY don’t even have to lift a finger. We can’t help but find something wrong with ourselves. We criticize another’s appearance in front of them. We criticize them behind their backs.

A special case of this is fat shaming, which, really, is one of the few forms of discrimination that people still think is ok. Says my colleague the Rev. Cyndi Landrum, “People shame fat people all the time, and they seem to feel good and virtuous about it. The argument is that ‘Fat is unhealthy. My shaming them will help them to stop this unhealthy behavior.’” And then she says, “Without even addressing the ‘fat is unhealthy’ statement, this is wrong on two other levels: shaming does not help people. And even if shaming someone did change that person’s behavior, that does not justify the shaming. The shaming is still wrong. Your fat jokes are not justified by your ‘concern’ for my health. Period.”

Can I hear an amen?

Literally, shaming does not help. A recent long-term study out of UCLA found that young girls who were called fat by someone close to them were more likely to be obese in later life.

I don’t have time now to address the ‘“fat is unhealthy” issue in any depth, so all I will say is this. If you see a fat person and you think any of the following: “Huh, he must eat fast food all day and never exercise,” OR, “Huh, she must be so unhealthy,” OR, “Huh, that’s a person with absolutely no willpower,” OR, “Huh, no one must bug them about being fat so I need to be the one to fill that void,” OR, “Huh, they must feel bad about themselves and want to be skinny”—if you catch yourself thinking any of these things, stop the thought, don’t indulge it, don’t allow yourself to go down that little rabbit hole. Question it. Challenge it. Go online and google “fat stereotypes” and see how fat is actually a complex issue, there’s way more here than meets the eye.…

And already we are on the path towards liberation from body shame. Just breaking the silence is big. Silence solidifies shame, but opening up heals…

I asked a member of this Beloved Community, Melissa Mack, to share her personal thoughts about liberation from body shame, and here is what she said: “Here’s what I most want people to know. For me, liberation from body shame hinges on 2 key points: the airplane metaphor and the idea that it’s a journey, not a destination.”

“So when you get onto an airplane and they’re doing the safety demonstration, they mention the bit about if the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, you have to put yours on first and then assist others. You can’t assist others if you can’t breathe, obviously. I have found that learning to love my body and myself have tremendously increased my capability to love others and to love this world. For me, it’s a way to live our UU principles. Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person includes myself! And if we’re all part of an interconnected web, knowing that I’m a fabulous piece of that web makes the whole web a little bit better and a little bit stronger.”

“That said, it ain’t easy. I still have days where I feel like my body is betraying me. Everyone does, even folks who are 100% liberated from body shame. And when that happens, when we have bad days, that doesn’t mean that we’re slipping or that we have succumbed to the shame. It means we’re human. It happens to everyone, and It’s okay. But it means that loving our bodies is a process that we have to keep working at constantly. And it is work! It is hard, intense, tedious work. But I have found that putting in the work is totally worth the effort. So I keep plugging on, even on days when I wish I didn’t have such a big belly or that my thighs were smaller. Because loving my body makes me a hell of a lot happier than hating my body. I choose to be happy.”

My body—short as it is, with the big nose that comes from my father—is, all things considered, the only true home on this earth I will know. It’s the only place I have to live. Same thing is true about your body, for you.

Whatever it is that might be causing you shame—your queerness, and you feel the constant disapproval of the THEY—it’s your truly big hips, or your too-small hips, or your saggy neck wattles, or you don’t have abs like Ryan Gosling—well, love your home anyway. Love it despite what THEY say. Love it hard. Sing the body electric!

Because our amusement park bodies are just waiting to be enjoyed.

Because life has let the flower of our body bloom.

Choose to be happy.