I Am NOT My Body – Free Ebook

A characteristic emotion on seeing a favourite
novel turned into a film is puzzlement. We

may not hate the actor playing a particular
role, we might even find them rather beautiful,

it’s just that they tend not to be as we
imagined they should be. We never thought

that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Ishiguro’s
Stevens or Jane Austen’s Marianne Dashwood

or Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby would look
like quite… like that!

When we originally read the novel, we didn’t
necessarily even imagine what they would look

like. Their identity was free of the tyrannical
requirement for a face. We were liberated

to ‘see’ them in their unbounded entirety,
because we did not have to visualise them

concretely. Their appearances were fluid and,
where necessary, hazy, so as better to allow

their multiplicity to take form. By not having
to look a certain way, they could be far more

than just one thing.
The discomfort we feel at the cinema reflects,

on a small scale, the pain we are likely to
experience with far greater force closer to

home: in the bathroom mirror, in relation
to ourselves. Here too we are prone to looking

at the face in front of us and thinking – even
if we do not hate how we look, though we probably

do – that our features are in multiple ways
extremely unfaithful to how it feels to be

us. As with a character in a novel, we know
ourselves in the comforting darkness of the

inner mind where we don’t place strict boundaries
or blunt conclusions on who we might be. We

give ourselves latitude. We know we have a
thousand moods, that we are a bewildering

mixture of the kind and the selfish, the immoral
and the good, the confused and the clear-eyed.

We know that we harbour infinite possibilities;
that we are at once artists, ploughmen, accountants,

babies, presidents, lunatics, men, boys, girls,
women, dolphins, okapis, jellyfish and ballerinas.

Pretty much any life form that has ever bubbled
up and breathed on the earth has some echo

inside us. How perplexing, therefore, to have
to look in the mirror and be obtusely presented

with just one particular person, with one
predominant expression, one rather serious

nose, one set of sensible ears and one pair
of cautious lips.

This perplexing feeling first descends in
adolescence. If we are frequently to be found

dazed on the sofa at that age, or snappy towards
our parents or melancholic in a shapeless

black tunic, it is hardly a surprise given
that we have recently – and probably for

the first time – become properly aware of
how our bodies must look to others – and

what a cage we are condemned to inhabit, having
once blithely assumed that we might be as

free of definition as a cloud or an ellipsis.
Our face in the mirror may come as no less

of a surprise for us than would, for a reader,
the arrival of a random Hollywood star in

the space of a fictional persona. Someone
is playing us – and we’re really not sure

we like who has been cast.

We’re sometimes given advice on how to cope at this point. We must
learn to love what has happened to us and

who, equipped with this new body, we have
turned out to be. We should consider ourselves

with enthusiasm and gratitude – and to interpret
our bodies as a gift of nature. We are, whatever

we feel, beautiful. We should give ourselves
a hug.

The advice is well-meaning and in its place
apt. But there might be another, starker philosophy

to try out too.

We might look at the face in the mirror and pull an incensed mutinous
smile as if to say: that really is not me

and never will be. Rather than attempting
to overcome our initial discomfiture, we might

hold on to it and make a cult of it, founding
a major part of our identity on a gutsy and

insolent refusal to take on board the so-called
‘gift of nature’ we can’t stand. Following

Kingsley Amis in his truculent description
of his body as an ‘idiot’ to whom he was

chained, we might consider our appearance
as a banal and ridiculous actor to whom a

malevolent casting agent had mysterious decided
to shackle us – and to whom we owe no particular

favours or loyalty. We might think of our
body as a taxi the universe has rudely shoved

us into, not a vehicle we have carefully had
the opportunity to choose – and to deserve.

Out of such insubordination can come a liberating
lightness. No longer do we have to worry whether

or not we are our own faces; we’ll know
for sure we absolutely aren’t. We’ll hint

to the world that there are armies of people,
beings funnier and sadder, cleverer and simpler,

more masculine and more feminine, struggling
to get out. At the same time, we’ll be able

to bring our knowledge of the radical disconnection
between outer form and inner character to

bear on our views of others. We’ll cease
taking their appearance as any sort of truth.

We’ll know that they are likely to feel
as let down by their bodies as we do. We’ll

come to ‘see’ beauty where no one else
has learnt to spot it, because we’ll be

looking with new, and more penetrating sorts
of eyes. And most importantly, we’ll feel

compassion, for ourselves and others, for
the blatant injustice of the facial lottery

that we have all been compelled to play.

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