The Social Body

You may have seen the story about a white couple so disturbed to see a certain kind of body in their neighborhood—what they considered their space—that they challenged his right to be there. And when he wouldn’t answer their demands, they called police, as if his mere presence constituted a crime.

Because the responding officers knew him, he came to no harm, but we know that it could have ended otherwise.

What makes a body’s presence unbearable in such specific ways?

This body’s shape or size. That person’s facial features. The other person’s skin or hair.

People judge which bodies fit the gender designation they’ve been assigned. People moralize about which bodies should be allowed to interact with which, and in what ways.

People note and judge how, and how easily, a body moves through space, aided or unaided.

They create social rules about which bodies belong where; which bodies are acceptable and which we’re meant to fear.

And, most importantly, society selects what the bodies look like that will decide these matters.

Why do some react so fearfully to something as essential and ubiquitous as human bodies?

Bodies surround and ground us. They’re the first sensations we feel. Their scent. The texture of flesh. The sight and sound of the body that holds us. The taste of the nipple in a newborn’s mouth. The intervention of the bodies of others determines whether we survive infancy and childhood.

What happens between that early attachment and acceptance and the fences and walls, between that childhood craving and the later contempt for bodies that deviate from social expectations?

Does it begin with their own bodies? Do people find their own bodies suspect because they intellectually and emotionally confuse, because hormones and other inner and outer stimuli trick us so easily? Does that give rise to people’s first desire to police and discipline them?

Do bodies anger people because they decay? Does fear and the anticipated betrayal of old age engender distrust and cause some to distance themselves from the physical?

We could blame it on strangeness; we could identify fear of the unfamiliar as the culprit.

But children seem as apt to turn toward unfamiliar bodies as they are to turn away. So often parents have to teach their children to avert their gaze in the face of the strange. Children’s natural reactions tend more toward attention and curiosity. They want to engage. They want to explore and ask and understand.

But adults tell children to look away and not interrogate.

“Mommy, why is that man’s skin—?“

“Shhhhh, dear. Not so loud. And don’t stare.”

Our culture tells us that dialogue with and about different bodies is something to fear.

It teaches which bodies belong where, which ones are suspect and which ones safe, and which to respond to with terror and which with disgust.

What’s been done to you, and what have we done to yourself, that the very presence of certain bodies renders them criminal in your eyes? When the presence alone of a body in a public space justifies demeaning, fearing, and even destroying it?

What will it take for people to see every kind of body as equally human to their own?

These questions have to be answered. Those filled with this fear need to understand why they look at bodies—their own and those of others—as they do.

But how can they begin to answer questions that so many of them are still afraid to ask?

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