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Essay: Why Don’t We Like The Human Body?

6 minute read
Barbara Ehrenreich

There’s something wrong when a $7 movie in the mall can leave you with post- traumatic stress syndrome. In the old days killers merely stalked and slashed and strangled. Today they flay their victims and stash the rotting, skinless corpses. Or they eat them filleted, with a glass of wine, or live and with the skin still on when there’s no time to cook. It’s not even the body count that matters anymore. What counts is the number of ways to trash the body: decapitation, dismemberment, impalings and (ranging into the realm of the printed word) eye gougings, power drillings and the application of hungry rodents to some poor victim’s innards.

All right, terrible things do happen. Real life is filled with serial killers, mass murderers and sickos of all degrees. Much of the 20th century, it could be argued, has been devoted to ingenious production and disposal of human corpses. But the scary thing is not that eye gougings and vivisections and meals of human flesh may, occasionally, happen. The scary thing, the thing that ought to make the heart pound and the skin go cold and tingly, is that somehow we find this fun to watch.

There are some theories, of course. In what might be called the testosterone theory, a congenital error in the wiring of the male brain leads to a confusion between violence and sex. Men get off on hideous mayhem, and women, supposedly, cover their eyes. Then there’s the raging puritan theory, which is based on the statistical fact that those who get slashed or eaten on the screen are usually guilty of a little fooling around themselves. It’s only a tingle of rectitude we feel, according to this, when the bad girl finally gets hers. There’s even an invidious comparison theory: we enjoy seeing other people get sauteed or chain-sawed because at least it’s not happening to us.

The truth could be so much simpler that it’s staring us in the face. There’s always been a market for scary stories and vicarious acts of violence. But true horror can be bloodless, as in Henry James’ matchless tale, The Turn of the Screw. Even reckless violence, as in the old-time western, need not debauch the human form. No, if offerings like American Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs have anything to tell us about ourselves, it must be that at this particular historical moment, we have come to hate the body.

Think about it. Only a couple of decades ago, we could conceive of better uses for the body than as a source of meat or leather. Sex, for example. Sex was considered a valid source of thrills even if both parties were alive and remained so throughout the act. Therapists urged us to “get in touch with our bodies”; feminists celebrated “our bodies, ourselves.” Minimally, the body was a cuddly personal habitat that could be shared with special loved ones. Maximally, it was a powerhouse offering multiple orgasms and glowing mind-body epiphanies. Skin was something to massage or gently stroke.

Then, for good reasons or bad, we lost sex. It turned out to spread deadly viruses. It offended the born-again puritans. It led to messy entanglements that interfered with networking and power lunching. Since there was no way to undress for success, we switched in the mid-’80s to food. When we weren’t eating, we were watching food-porn starring Julia Child or working off calories on the Stairmaster. The body wasn’t perfect, but it could, with effort and willpower, be turned into a lean, mean eating machine.

And then we lost food. First they took the red meat, the white bread and the Chocolate Decadence desserts. Then they came for the pink meat, the cheese, the butter, the tropical oils and, of course, the whipped cream. Finally, they wanted all protein abolished, all fat and uncomplex carbohydrates, leaving us with broccoli and Metamucil. Everything else, as we know, is transformed by our treacherous bodies into insidious, slow-acting toxins.

So no wonder we enjoy seeing the human body being shredded, quartered, flayed, filleted and dissolved in vats of acid. It let us down. No wonder we love heroes and mega-villians like RoboCop and the Terminator, in whom all soft, unreliable tissue has been replaced by metal alloys. Or that we like reading (even in articles deeply critical of the violence they manage to summarize) about diabolical new uses for human flesh. It’s been, let’s face it, a big disappointment. May as well feed it to the rats or to any cannibalistically inclined killer still reckless enough to indulge in red meat.

No, it’s time for a truce with the soft and wayward flesh. Maybe violent imagery feeds the obsessions of real-life sickos. Or maybe, as some argue, it drains their sickness off into harmless fantasy. But surely it cheapens our sense of ourselves to think that others, even fictional others, could see us as little more than meat. And it’s hard to believe all this carnage doesn’t dull our response to the global wastage of human flesh in famine, flood and war.

We could start by admitting that our ’70s-era expectations were absurdly high. The body is not a reliable source of ecstasy or transcendental insight. For most of our lives, it’s a shambling, jury-rigged affair, filled with innate tensions, contradictions, broken springs. Hollywood could help by promoting better uses for the body, like real sex, by which I mean sex between people who are often wrinkled and overweight and sometimes even fond of each other. The health meanies could relax and acknowledge that one of the most marvelous functions of the body is, in fact, to absorb small doses of whipped cream and other illicit substances.

Then maybe we can start making friends with our bodies again. They need nurture and care, but they should also be good for a romp now and then, by which I mean something involving dancing or petting as opposed to dicing and flaying. But even “friends” is another weirdly alienated image. The truth, which we have almost forgotten, is that Bodies “R” Us.

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