‘Listen to your body’ – capitalism, alienation and embodiment

In a lot left-aligned and liberal spaces discussing the topics of fatphobia, eating disorders, body confidence/postivity there is often some sage advice about ‘listening to your body’ as in, paying attention to what your body seems to be telling you and trying to respond to that in some way. There is an idea that paying attention to our body’s signals is something that has been moved away from in our modern world and that we are often ignoring our body’s needs in some way – be that by not eating enough, not eating what we want or not exercising in the ways we’d prefer to.

What I believe this analysis lacks, at times, is the nuance and understanding that unless we frame this within a class based or Marxist analysis, we are ignoring why people are led to ignore their body the majority of the time. There have historically been many other reasons for doing this and it isn’t something that’s necessarily unique to capitalism but it certainly plays a large part in determining the ways in which we chose to ignore or cannot tend to our body’s needs.

What is actually being described here is a form of alienation. The feeling of being exploited as a worker carries over into an intense form of estrangement from one’s sense of self and sense of autonomy. It is interesting to carry this concept over from a more metaphysical question to one of actual embodiment. A sense of selfhood is often sought via attempts to control one’s body or image yet is also a symptom of the very alienation it seeks to avoid. In this sense, ignoring your body’s natural cues is often seen as empowering in some way yet, of course, it is an entirely false form of empowerment.

This separation and sense of dominion over body is almost always in the interests of capital. In order to work, especially those of us with more physical jobs, is it often a necessity to ignore your bodily cues in favour of completing the tasks of your employment. If I was ‘listening to my body’ I certainly wouldn’t wake up at 5.30am to cycle to work in the dark and cold, ignoring my tiredness, how my muscles ached as cycled. Often we find that we have to overcome things like tiredness, soreness, hunger, temperature regulation and so on in order to complete our waged labour. Even in an office environment there are certain structures which would alter one’s natural rhythm of eating, drinking and resting.

Of course, we will also ignore some of these cues in order to do the things that we’d actually like to do. We may still be tired but want to get up so we can catch a train to see a friend, or we may eat early because we need to do an activity we enjoy uninterrupted. The difference here is that we tend not to relentlessly discipline our body in order to do this for what is largely someone else’s benefit (our boss). We can also have some element of choice around this.

The question of social reproductive tasks (e.g. cooking, cleaning, care work) falls somewhere along this spectrum, too. We live in an atomised society much of the time and therefore our own social reproduction often falls exclusively to us. Somehow, we must find the time to cook, clean and care for others whilst also working for a wage or relying on meagre state benefits. In order to be able to do this there are also time when we are unable to listen to our own tiredness, eat as we would wish due to time constraints, or tend to any aches and pains in our body. I believe that were we able to spread these tasks more evenly, in a more communal society, there would be less of a need to push ourselves through this intense discomfort.

This would also apply in terms of waged labour – without the wage and exploitative elements the labour necessary for the functioning of society could begin in earnest, all superfluous bullshit labour to the wayside. I truly believe that it could be possible to organise a society in which we were more able to respond to our body’s needs.

In this sense, then, I think the advice of listening to your body can feel somewhat hollow at this current historical moment when we are less and less able to do so. I’ve thought so much about what ‘normal’ eating, drinking and resting are like over the past few months after experiencing an extreme version of ignoring all of these needs. I realised that much of it is defined by our circumstances, what we have access to and who is caring for us. There are many for whom eating when hungry is physically impossible because they don’t have enough food, for whom resting is difficult because they are living in such terrible housing or don’t have a home at all, for whom pain is a constant companion that they are simply told to live with.

When I was very unwell I felt a profound sense of alienation from my body. I was afraid of it. I couldn’t listen to it, even for a moment. I shut it out entirely. Everything was about punishing my body, everything was about external standards that I imposed on it. I was an exacting boss, forcing it to labour every second, feeding it scraps, working it to the bone. It fought so hard. Our bodies will always fight for us, even when we don’t want them to. It resisted the conditions I put it in.

So what does it mean to listen again? I find more and more that the listening can only ever be partial. Yet, it can still be there. I am fortunate to afford a wide variety of food, have people to help with some of the social reproductive tasks of my life, lovers and friends to rub my aching muscles. Letting my body back in to make peace with my mind has meant understanding, also, that all of the messages telling me to ignore it were never in my best interest and always in the interest of capital and profit.

Diets don’t work but they make a shit load of money – selling people the idea of a perfect body at the cost of destroying their relationship with it entirely. Helping food and exercise to consume their every waking thought, leaving no room for anything else. Indeed, for any troublesome thoughts that their lives could be better, that they could live in a world where they were not required to do this in order to be deemed acceptable.

One critique I often hear about listening to the body is people snorting with derision and declaring that they’d ‘never do anything’ if they just listening to what their body said, that the body is inherently lazy in some way. I find this particularly interesting because it automatically posits a need to rest your body ‘in excess’ as a bad thing. I think this is more about values than any sort of truth about the body. It also has parallels in the conservative argument that if we were not motivated by wage labour then nobody would be motivated to do any work; a serious lack of imagination and insight into why people may want to do things and how often people already do things for the benefit of others with no immediate rewards or simply just to keep themselves and those around them alive.

Fundamentally, our body is always working to try and optimise function in some way even when there is something preventing that such as disease, illness or autoimmune conditions. There may be reasons that we don’t want to respond to some needs, such as a need for movement, due to external factors like it’s raining outside, it’s cold, I’d rather focus on a different task etc but I think a lot of the time it’s because we are actually way more tired than we want to admit and need considerably more rest than we feel is acceptable. I’ve written before about the obsession with exercise, the way it’s framed to us as a purely fat burning endeavour designed to punish us. This too is a functionalist, capitalistic approach to movement which relies on efficiency and fatphobia to fuel it.

Yet how are we to enjoy it with our options so limited? When there’s so much pressure to look a certain way, do things a certain way and everyone else seems to be able to enjoy it so why can’t you? How to listen to your body when movement has always felt like a chore or the movement becomes compulsive? How to use your limited time, energy and motivation to listen in on what your body wants or needs?

To understand this I think we need to come back to the question of class. How your body looks and feels may be a question of genetics, of biology but it is also a question of your class. Access to food and, not just any food, but decent nutritious food is a question of class as well as the time one has to prepare that food, to eat it, to enjoy it. Studies show that we actually absorb more nutrients from food that we enjoy and feel relaxed when eating. This has huge implications for health when we consider that working class people are often rushed, stressed and unable to enjoy their food in the same ways that wealthy people are. Having a space to prepare meals is a huge barrier for the hundreds of people living in hostels, shelters and hotels due to the current housing crisis. So-called ‘supported’ housing will often not provide workable kitchen spaces, pots, pans and other cooking equipment. The food that people have access to via food banks is almost never fresh or nutritious enough for a consistently healthy diet. Disgusting when we consider how much fresh produce goes to waste every single day in the UK.

In terms of access to other health promoting behaviours such as exercise we know that being time rich is helpful but also having access to things like personal trainers, private gym spaces, pools etc and also the quality of all those spaces (cramped local gym vs roomy private gym). There is also the issue of affording equipment to be able to train at home and even simply having the space in your home to be able to exercise comfortably – a cramped little flat vs a larger house with a spare room, perhaps, or even an exercise room or personal gym. Those who live in cities find it is difficult to feel safe walking and cycling around outside or may be limited by other factors such as having the commute a long way for work each day. Women will often feel less able to be outdoors when it gets dark and thus have less opportunity to exercise outside (the question of women’s access to exercise spaces is a whole other topic, this is only the one of many ways women, especially working class and racialised women, are excluded).

With all of this in mind consider, also, the large amount of stress that working class people suffer on a regular basis due to things like financial instability, working conditions, the bureaucracy of the benefits system, poor living conditions, food and fuel poverty and many other issues. This has a direct impact on ability to look after their health. A body that is stressed, exhausted and overwhelmed will not immediate intuit towards cooking and chopping vegetables, going for a run, stopping smoking. Our body seeks short term solutions first – energy is its number one priority and we get a quick energy fix far more easily from sugar and carbs. Although exercise will give us endorphins in the medium term, short term the body yearns to rest due to the cortisol rushing through it’s nervous system. Being stressed is exhausting.

Body shaming is never okay, regardless of whom it is aimed at, but it feels especially unconscionable for our government to talk of things like an ‘obesity epidemic’ in spite of all the issues raised above. To be clear – being fat or in a larger body does not mean that you are not healthy. There is no direct correlation between being fat and being unhealthy and it is a mistake to suggest so. What the government is doing here is trying to cast blame on individuals for what they see as a failure to ‘look after’ their health. In doing so, they manage to avoid confronting the fact that they have done absolutely nothing to improve the health of this country, the quality of the food we eat, our access to movement and exercise and right to leisure and enjoyment of life outside of the workplace, as well as better conditions within the workplace. Discussing ‘obesity’ is a red herring and part of the culture of shame around bodies which prevents us from understanding them in relation to our societal conditions. It further alienates the body from the self.

We should listen to our bodies, we should listen to the bodies of those around us, understand them as bodies that are like our own with needs, wants, desires. Othering our body makes it easier to Other the bodies of those around us. Dehumanising fat people, racialised people, women, trans people, queer people, disabled people. All of these bodies that we are told are Not Us. That we are told should be altered and changed and should look a certain way. That are disciplined for not being correct. Should we, then, discipline ourselves, too? We already do – through dieting, exercising to punish ourselves, refusing to rest, trying to change our bodies to fit into a societal ideal.

What if we chose not to discipline ourselves or those around us? To me, this is what a fat liberation or, indeed, any liberation movement should be promoting. Understanding that simply listening to our bodies is not enough and can only ever be partial and yet, within the context of choosing to fight with and humanise the bodies around us, it can be liberatory.

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