In the flesh: Treating your body well

Sport, play and sex are areas in which we often mistreat or ignore our bodies. John Webb suggests how to treat your body differently.

How can you go about changing your relationship with your body? There are new ways in which you can deal with your body, to discover, alter or refresh your sense of your body.

Exploration, not exploitation

Don't accept uncritically any view of the body put forward by the media or pornography. There are occasions when we feel a comfortable congruence between the bodies in action on a screen in a cinema, a television screen or in a pornographic magazine, and our own bodies. But if we consider carefully what we are being made to feel, it is generally a distant admiration of the bodies we are looking at as a dense incarnation of our worst image of ourselves. In addition, pornography usually deals with genital contact only; it has the puerile focus of the adolescently curious, and there is little or no attempt to deal with the totality of the experience. As John Stoltenberg puts it in Refusing to be a Man, "the pornography gets in the way, like a mental obstacle, like a barrier preventing the full experience of what's happening between [a user of pornography] and their partner." Time spent with a trusted partner in the exploration of your body's erotic and sexual potential is worth far more than the barren wastes of exploitation.

Play, not punishment

In dealing with youth sport I have noticed that the young athlete is generally encouraged to specialise in the sport at which he or she are best. This is all very well, but it ignores how a man may discover that the sport that used to be his mainstay in youth no longer gives him the same satisfaction; he feels burned out, listless, and lacking in motivation or application. What then? If, as Graham Gooch said of retirement from cricket for England, "there is only so much petrol in the tank", how can you put more fuel in the tank, and higher octane fuel at that?

One way might be to move away from focusing on sport as something done as well as possible, to sport as something done for the sheer bodily fun of it. There is a need for playfulness to return to our practise of sport. Have you ever noticed how children can play at very high energy output levels for hours at a time? This is because they are not focussed on outcome; for them the joy is in the process.

In addition, try doing something unusual in your work-outs. You may need to overcome some initial hesitancy at looking foolish, but if you run, try running backwards. If you swim, try ending or beginning your swim with a lap or two in the slow lane in which you merely reach as far as you can during each stroke. Or simply go to the middle of an oval, blindfold yourself and try walking. All of these simple exercises will refresh your awareness of yourself and your body, and allow you to enjoy the activity you engage in as you are doing it, not only as a goal-oriented sequence of movement. Similarly, after a session, stop and enjoy the way your body feels; even something as simple as the shower you take before you get dressed can become an experience of peace and gratitude for having a body you can tune into and appreciate. So don't punish your body; allow it the joy of play.

Cooperation, not conflict

It seems that team sports get more and more difficult as we get older, not because of the sport, but because of the men playing beside us. I recently had the experience of skiing with someone whose main means of communication was insult; "Downhill skiing? Downhill's for faggots. You don't want to ski on that black diamond run? Ah, y' weanie" (a cocktail frankfurter; that is, a small penis). I didn't enjoy my skiing, and so changed to skiing with another friend who was more helpful about my skiing and much more relaxing company. What I am suggesting here is that who we play with matters as much as what we play, because it determines how we play. Too often we accept competition with other team members as the price we have to pay for playing sport with other men. The result - competition in the locker room as well as on the field or court - is depressing and distracting, and subtracts from the joy we should derive from the game.

Change your partner/s or team; pick people with whom you are in sympathy, and let the energy go where it can be enjoyed, into the game itself. Organise a workplace-based team to play in a lunchtime competition, or a brunch with friends to play in a grade or game where aims are likely to be shared. Avoid unnecessary conflict, and seek the company of those who enjoy cooperation.

Posture, not pose

We all know what our little stress signals are; a clenched fist behind the back, interlaced fingers, a thumb tightly grasped in the palm. Make a conscious effort to undo these, and relax that part of the body. Sooner or later, you'll notice that the face you turn to the world is also a more relaxed face.

Make an effort to check your posture during the day. Is there some part of your body that is registering stress in an effort to project a pose or impression to others about you? What about the crossed arms, the puffed chest, the frown, the manly laugh? While you're in the car, train or bus on your way to work, can you feel another face steal over your own like a mask? Maintaining that pose is an enormous effort and it is well worthwhile trying to achieve a more relaxed posture in dealing with the world, perhaps even trying some body-based alternative therapies such as the Alexander technique for feedback on how your body is aligned.

Re-invention, not repetition

By the time we achieve manhood there is a good chance that the pattern of our sporting life has been set. While you may feel that your skills are natural, or that you have always been able to play tennis, golf or whatever sport it is that you play, you can rediscover your body quite simply by taking up a new sport.

I had thought that because I play the sports I play competently any other sports would come naturally. Powder skiing convinced me that this was an illusion; I had merely been playing sports which I knew. Powder skiing forced me to listen to instructions, to make a conscious effort to elicit a whole new set of shapes and movements from my body, in order to achieve a new kind of joy in a different kind of movement. It took me back to square one, and I was surprised at the level of frustration I experienced. When we use our bodies again as for the first time, we re-invent our sense of them; I was once again a bumbling child, experiencing ridiculous joy when I managed a turn, ecstatic at the sheer exhilaration of the motion.

Once again, children can be our guides; if you have very young children, say under two years, get down on the floor, or wherever they are, with them, and do exactly what they do. This can be a wonderful restorative to a jaded sense of the physical self.

Pleasure, not pattern

I suspect that too many of us are too deeply invested in a pattern of exercise which is itself a cycle of pain and punishment. We are not exercising in order to be in our bodies and enjoy them, but to gain a goal elsewhere; a time on a stop watch, winning the set comprehensively or a personal best round. If we put the sheer pleasure of the activity first, by any of the above means, then we will find that our sense of our bodies changes as well of the amount of joy we derive from the activity. To return to Graham Gooch's metaphor, we could be topping up the tank with enjoyment as we go, rather than nervously watching the needle on the gauge of age and enthusiasm wavering perilously closer and closer to empty.

Listen, not lash

I suspect that many men's attitudes to their bodies will have been formed by adolescent experiences; the fear and horror of school physical education classes, the lingering nausea at the necessity of facing public tests out of school, all watched by our harshest critics, our male peers. The result of this was perhaps that we tended to become regimented and patterned in our approach to physical exercise, and we learnt goal-oriented sports. In short, when we were adolescents sport was bound up with our furious efforts to achieve manhood; in sport, as in masculinity, we practised determinedly in order to achieve competence, or better still some prowess, and thus avoid humiliation.

How many times have you ever stopped running in the middle of a session and walked because you felt stressed by the pace of your running? Have you ever stopped mid-point in a squash game and said to your partner; "Hang on, I'm feeling the pace a bit, can we take a minute's break?" Not doing such things probably means that you are lashing your body rather than listening to it, and if you feel that your training partner or the person you play with can't accept such behaviour, then it's probably time you found one who did.

Robert de Castella, when asked how it felt to be fit in connection with the "Drugs No Way" Campaign, replied; "I don't really know; I'm always training hard, and so I'm too tired to stop and enjoy the feeling of overall well-being." And this is what I would suggest; Take time out to appreciate how your body feels, rather than valuing it for what it can do; run 20 kilometres an hour, swim 50 metres in 30 seconds, or beat old so-and-so 6-0, 6-0. If we were able to do so, we might begin to undo the patterns of behaviour that have been subtly forced onto us, or suggested to us as being patterns worthy of emulation, and then we will be able to posses our bodies on our own terms and in our own words.


First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 2(4), Summer 1992-93. XY, PO Box 2406, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995