Interview with Michelle Mary Lelwica, author of Shameful Bodies: Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement.

What happens when your body doesn't look how it's supposed to look, or feel how it's supposed to feel, or do what it's supposed to do? Who or what defines the ideals behind these expectations? How can we challenge them and live more peacefully in our bodies? Shameful Bodies: Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement explores these questions by examining how traditional religious narratives and modern philosophical assumptions come together in the construction and pursuit of a better body in contemporary western societies. Drawing on examples from popular culture such as self-help books, magazines, and advertisements, Michelle Mary Lelwica shows how these narratives and assumptions encourage us to go to war against our bodies--to fight fat, triumph over disability, conquer chronic pain and illness, and defy aging. Lelwica argues that such shame is not a natural response to being fat, physically impaired, chronically sick, or old. Rather, body shame is a religiously and culturally conditioned reaction to a commercially-fabricated fantasy of physical perfection. Michelle recently sat down with me to discuss the background behind this fascinating book. – Vilmarie Vega, Independent Scholar.

VV:  Could you say your name so I can pronounce it correctly.

MML:  Michelle Le-wi-ca. The second “l” is silent.

VV:  My gosh; I had it so wrong.

MML:  It's okay. You know, they Anglicized it when my Polish ancestors moved to the United States. I’ve been told that in Polish you would say “lelaveetza,” which actually means “the female lion”—an image I gladly claim!

VV:  That's a great name right there. You have a whole story in there.

MML:  I know, I thought about someday doing a meditation on “What does my name mean for me?”

VV:  I do have some specific questions about ideas in your book, but I thought I would start off with what drew you to this particular line of inquiry.

MML:  I talk about this in the “Preface” and then reference it throughout the book. The idea of the book really started with chronic pain I was having in my hip. I was 47 at the time. I’d already been living with increasingly debilitating pain for a few years. But when I was 47, I finally said, “I've had it. I'm going to the doctor.” And the doctor asked me “What did you do to your hip?” When he showed me the x-ray of my pelvic region, I could see immediately there was cartilage floating around the top of my femur, and I could see bone-on-bone. Honestly, I kind of felt vindicated, because the evidence was so clear that the pain wasn't in my head—I think that's a fear that we often have when we experience chronic pain. We doubt our bodily experience and say, “No, it's just in my head.”

VV:  Don't doctors also dismiss it too?

MML:  Especially if you're female. Women are much more likely to get treated with psychological solutions rather than physical remedies because women's pain narratives are not taken as seriously as men’s (the same is true for African Americans, whose reports of pain are not taken as seriously as whites’); there are studies that show these discrepancies. So initially I felt kind of happy to find out that there was a real, anatomical reason why I was feeling so much pain. But then all of a sudden I realized: this is really bad, because you don't grow cartilage back. The doctor said that the only way to get rid of the pain would be to have a total hip replacement. I think I would have been less distraught about having surgery had I been 80—instead of 47. I felt like I was way too young for a prosthetic hip. And I also think I had sort of a philosophical resistance to what some people have referred to as the “Western Medical Industrial Complex.” On top of that, I’m prone to anxiety, and I was really scared to have the biggest bone in my body sawed off. I could easily imagine a thousand things that could go wrong with the procedure, even though the more rational part of me knew that hip surgeries are very routine. Basically, I was so scared that I postponed surgery and lived with the chronic pain for several years. Those years taught me a lot about the way I was relating to my body, and to the bodies of others. 

MML:  For one thing, the constant pain made me so frustrated—and it also gave me this sense of betrayal. I felt that, especially during my adult life, I had been treating my body really well—so why wasn't it doing what I wanted it to do? And then I realized that I was feeling not just a sense of betrayal in relation to my body, but also a sense of shame. I was limping—and people would point out that I was limping—a lot. They would ask, “What did you do?” But sometimes that question also felt like, “What's wrong with you?” I realized from that experience of living with chronic pain that I had a kind of unwitting belief or sense that because my body wasn't doing what I wanted it to do, there was something wrong with me. I felt that how my body was functioning, or mis-functioning, or malfunctioning—I felt like there was something malfunctioning about me. I had the idea that our bodies present something important about who we are inside, almost a moral sense of who we are in the inside. And I felt like I was somehow failing. So, it was exploring those feelings that became the impetus for the book.

MML:  The book builds on my previous work on eating disorders and body image. What's interesting about those several years of living with chronic pain is that the sense of betrayal and shame I felt echoed my experience as an adolescent when I was trapped in the prison of an eating disorder. In both cases—the eating disorder and the chronic pain—I experienced feelings of betrayal and shame when my body wouldn't do what I wanted it to do. As a teenager who was hell-bent on being skinny, I thought that I really should be able to control my body. That belief—coupled with the feelings of shame and betrayal—were echoing in my middle age experience of chronic pain. I was starting to connect-the-dots by reflecting on these different experiences of not being able to control my body, and the shame and frustration these experiences produced. 

MML:  Eventually, the debilitating pain in my hip led me to do some reading, for the first time, in disability studies. I realized that there's this whole world of important perspectives that I had not seriously considered, even though I’d been thinking and writing about bodies for years. My desire to keep learning from disability scholars and activists was another impetus for the book. Essentially, the book is asking the question, “What happens when your body doesn't do what you think it's supposed to do? When it doesn't feel how it you think it's supposed to feel, and when it doesn't look how you think it's supposed to look like?” What happens, for a lot of us, is shame. We feel like our bodies are betraying us, and rather than look for the sources of shame outside of ourselves—the dominant cultural norms and narratives, all of those external forces that are teaching us, sending us messages about our bodies—we tend to think that the problem IS our body, is our individual body. The idea of this book is that we are not born with that sense of body shame; body shame is a learnedexperience and perception—one that we often project on to other bodies.

VV:  I realize that you have an event here [at the AAR Meeting] around your book as well. 

MML:  I feel very grateful and humbled that AAR colleagues are taking the time to engage with these ideas, especially since there’s so much silence around experiences of body shame. It’s painful to feel as though there’s something wrong with your body—whether it's that your body doesn't function the way you want it to function, or look the way you want it to look, or feel how you want it to feel—especially in a culture whose prominent images, ideals, and narratives tell you that you should be able to get on top of your body; that you should be able to be in charge; that you should be able to take control; that you should be able to conquer this unruly territory of your body. These messages are so loud and clear throughout American culture. In fact, I think of the notion that you can control your body as the “bedrock belief” of America’s culture of physical improvement, which is the subtitle of the book.

VV:  Yes, I had some questions about that. It really sparks—and captures it perfectly.

MML:  The subtitle—“Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement”—captures the assumption that “you should be able to control your body”—and the book itself exposes how “improvement” is often code for controlling the body and conforming it to the dominant cultural ideal, which is able-bodied, affluent, lean, cis-gender, disproportionately white, and so on. The “improvement” narrative is not only that you should control your body, but that you can—if you try hard enough. I’m not saying that our choices don’t influence our physical condition; but influence is not the same as control. Control overpromises. Generally speaking, there's that bootstrap mentality that we apply to our bodies. It’s the same thing we do in relation to people who are in economically dire straits. “What's wrong with you? Just work a little harder.” With a similar shaming tone, we tell ourselves, “Oh, if I just ate fewer calories, or ate more kale, or exercised more, or went to bed earlier, or did yoga, or meditated, or took omega-3 supplements, or whatever … then I’d have the body I always wanted. Then I could just relax and enjoy my life.” We have all of these ideas about what we should do with our bodies and how our bodies should respond to our righteous behavior. America’s culture of physical improvement really thrives on those “shoulds.” The problem is that the flip side of those “shoulds” is shame—the feeling of failure and inadequacy that happens when our bodies don’t obey, when they don’t cooperate with our plans for how they’re supposed to look, function, or feel, when they have a mind of their own.

VV:  Oh, definitely. Who can't relate to this? Who can really control their body entirely?

MML:  I know, but if you look around, there are just so many messages telling us that we should and we can. I'm presenting a paper in the Women and Religion session tomorrow that explores wellness culture, and I'm picking on Health magazine, which is, as I call it, one of the “primary texts” of America’s culture of physical improvement. On every cover, you've got these bodies of thin, affluent-looking, able-bodied, cis-gender, mostly blonde, white women—it's so disproportionately white—and that’s the ideal of “health” that we are supposed to improve ourselves towards. It’s not even a subtext. And next to these idealized images of physical perfection, you see all kinds of better-body imperatives—like age-proofing your face, or blasting the belly fat, or conquering inflammation—which, on the surface, sound kind of affirming, as if doing these things will empower you. But beneath that pseudo-empowering you-can-do-it rhetoric, there’s a message that you mustdo this, and if you don't, what's wrong with you? And I think that's the quintessential shaming voice: “What's wrong with you?” We say this to ourselves. I also think that if we're saying it to ourselves we are probably, to some extent, saying it to other people, and that's a big motivation for me. Back when my hip pain was really bad and I realized that I was feeling shame about limping around, I had an epiphany: if I’m looking at my own limping body through the eyes of shame, how is it possible for me to see others whose bodies appear to be “failing” them without a similarly shaming lens? This question woke me up to the connection between the shame we direct at our own bodily eccentricities and the shame we project onto other nonconforming bodies.

MML:  I had a similar realization when, after I’d come home from the doctor who gave me the bad news about my hip, I called my sister-in-law, who is an orthopedic surgeon, to see if she had any suggestions. I asked her, somewhat desperately, “What can I do to avoid having surgery?” She said that eventually I’d have to go through with it if I wanted to live without pain. But in the meanwhile, she said, “you could use a cane, and that could prolong the time before surgery.” My immediate thought was: Absolutely no way! I’m not using a cane! That was my reaction, which I'm not at all proud of. But eventually I realized, reflecting on that reaction, that there was something really inconsistent in my thinking. The inconsistency was: it’s fine if other people use a cane, but I don't want to use one. I was operating with a double standard, you might say. And I felt like I needed to explore—what is that about? Why would I see using a cane as somehow making me less of a person? I don't know how else to put it. It’s as though somehow I felt like I would be viewed as inferior. And if this is how I viewed the prospect of myself using a cane, I must have also been, somehow, however unwittingly, looking at other people who use canes that way.

VV:  That's not a connection many people would make.

MML:  I think there's a real relationship between how we see our own bodies and how we see everybody else’s, and so learning to value the idiosyncrasies of our own bodies is crucial—whether it's a cellulite here, or my nose is big, or I have rosacea on my face, or my thighs are large, or my hair is frizzy. The key is to learn to see the idiosyncrasies of our bodies with affection, or at least acceptance if you can't get to affection, or even interest—curiosity. I really think it's our fear of difference and diversity that fuels body shame; we don't want to be “unlike.” There is something really primal about wanting to belong and wanting to feel like we will be accepted in our visual presentation to others. Our body is our first point of contact for being accepted—or rejected.

VV:  After all of that, how did you connect your inquiry to religion? When did that begin?

MML:  What I realized once I started studying ableism in our culture—and because of my previous work, I’d done a lot of looking at the messages that commercial culture and medical culture and self-help culture send us about our bodies—when I started looking at those messages through the lens of ableism, I started hearing echoes of certain Christian narratives. This is how I analyze the role of religion in relation to America’s culture of physical improvement. I see three particular Christian narratives being resurrected, or recycled, or repurposed in the culture of physical improvement.

MML:  The first is that the body is the pivot of salvation. That's a phrase I'm borrowing from Tertullian (an early church father)—it’s the idea that your body can either save you or damn you, depending on how well you control it. You're virtuous if you can control your body and you're not virtuous if you can't control your body. So your body is the “pivot” of salvation. 

MML:  The second narrative that I see echoing in the culture of physical improvement is the narrative that women are somehow more carnally-oriented than men. I see that symbolized in the story of Eve. It's her unruly appetite that gets everybody into trouble, right? When you think about how sin and shame entered the world, through a woman eating—that narrative has had some long shelf life, hasn't it? Sometimes I’ll ask my students to “raise your hand if you've ever felt a bit guilty or shameful about eating, or if you’ve felt that you shouldn't be eating this or that”—most of us can relate to that feeling, right? Women in particular are constantly exposed to these toxic messages about our appetites being dangerous, so we know that message. The association between female appetite, pleasure, and danger that are rampant in weight-loss culture today, and this is a perfect example of a traditional religious narrative echoing in seemingly “secular” society. Women are closer to the body, this narrative suggests: they're more carnally-oriented, and therefore, they are more in need of supervision, and their bodies are more in need of redemption (or “improvement”). This, in a nutshell, is the second traditional Christian narrative that I trace and tease out throughout my analysis of the culture of physical improvement.

MML:  And then the third narrative is what I call the eschatological narrative. This storyline centers on the Christian idea that—in the Resurrection—our bodies will be not just immortal, but perfect. The incorruptible bodies that Paul (along with other early church leaders) envisions in the Resurrection, our imperishable bodies, will no longer have any defects, disabilities, or afflictions. They will no longer be prone to decay. Augustan imagined that we'd all be 30 years old in heaven. So if you listen to self-help culture on anti-aging, you can hear echoes of that Christian eschatological storyline. There are self-help programs that encourage us to believe that aging is both unfortunate and optional—that with some positive thinking and a few life-style changes, we can stop the aging process. Older women in particular are encouraged to camouflage aging or impersonate youth if they want to be taken seriously. The field of anti-aging medicine seems equally dedicated to eliminating the final enemy—death—for which aging is a kind of proxy. Even the transhumanists, not to mention the biotech industries supporting their quest for immortality, seem to be repurposing this dream of eschatological bodily perfection. Anti-aging now is moving toward anti-dying. So what does this campaign against physical impermanence mean if you're a human being in the flesh? What does the commercial, medical, and self-help aversion to aging say about our attitudes towards the flesh—and toward the flesh of older people in particular? 

MML:  I see these three Christian narratives echoing throughout the culture of physical improvement. And if you listen carefully, you’ll notice there’s a kind of colonial tone in the way that these narratives reverberate in the culture of physical improvement. Just pay attention to the language of self-help, commercial, and even medical discourses. In them, “improvement” is typically code for conquering and converting your body to the fat-free, pain-free, wrinkle-free, predominantly white, cis-gender, nondisabled ideal. The combative, bellicose vocabulary surrounding enticements for physical improvement reveals the colonial paradigm at the heart of the culture of physical improvement. We’re supposed to fight cancer, battle the bulge, conquer chronic pain, triumph over disability, defy aging. We’re encouraged to treat our own body like it’s an enemy that we have to conquer, and colonize, and conform to this fantasy, which is really a white, Western fantasy of the able-bodied. So I am also suggesting that the way that these Christian narratives have operated have resurrected the worst parts of patriarchal religion. But I also think that religion is part of a solution too. I'm not throwing it out.

MML:  In Christianity, which is the tradition I know best, there are alternative narratives for thinking about the pursuit of health and healing. So there are resources within the Christian tradition that can be harnessed to promote a more just and non-perfectionist approach to salvation. That's what I want to say. When you think about how health is often promoted in the culture of physical improvement, it's depicted as the reward of virtuous behavior—health as an individual achievement. In my view, health is a social justice issue. People who don't have access to health care, people who don't have access to enough affluence or education to be able to live in ways and make decisions that are healthy—they are prevented from pursuing health and healing in the ways that people with money or access can. So I see health and healing more as a social justice issue than an individual achievement. It’s interesting that we are taught to think that if you're a good person, then you're healthy—and vice versa. There is an association between virtue and health. And then we link that association to fitness and diet, and so on. We say, “I'm going to be bad and have some cheesecake,” right? That is a very moralizing narrative, and that's another way that I bring in religion. Dominant cultural visions and definitions of the good body are, I think, dripping with residual religious notions of embodied moral conduct. Conversely, when you think about the experience of shame, it’s the experience of feeling bad, but not just “bad,” morally bad. And where does morality come from? I don't know if it comes only from religion, but religion is a big player in the construction of morality—so how can religion not be involved?

VV:  How do you want readers to use the book?

MML:  One way I would love for the book to be used is by faculty who are teaching undergraduates. I think the book can help undergrads and other non-specialists understand that you can study religion a variety of ways—not just in relation to recognizably religious doctrines, practices, and institutions. You can study religion by looking at its “afterlife” in a “secular” culture. And I put quotes around “secular” because one of the things I want the book to do is really blur that line between the religious and the cultural. If students can understand that you can actually study religion by studying issues that are close to your own heart—such as how you feel about your own body—then religion becomes immediately interesting, even for non-religious students. I teach a lot of non-religious students; I have students in my classes who are required to be there to get their religion requirement “out of the way.” So I think one idea would be to use the book as a way of bringing students into the study of religion by helping them to see its relevance for supposedly non-religious-type things.

VV:  What are you working on now? What's your next project?

MML:  I've been thinking a lot about writing a book that's more geared for a popular audience that would be a letter to young women. I don't have a daughter. I have two sons, but I was wondering—if I had a daughter—what would I want to tell her? Based on what I know about longstanding historical attitudes towards female bodies, and the widespread contemporary pressures on female bodies—what would I want to tell my daughter? And so I've thought about writing a book geared for young women, and that would probably be speaking to their mothers as well.

MML:  Something about our system is producing that body shame. We're not born with it. Nobody comes out of the womb wishing their body were different. That's a learned desire; but I think our culture doesn't help us. So my next project, I think, would be a book for a more popular audience, a more-than-academic audience. I'm kind of excited to play around with that.