A different view of bodies

I just started reading Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene tonight.  It's considered a science writing classic, yet I still hadn't read the book.  It was either checked out of the library, or I forgot to look for it, or I could only find the super-duper deluxe anniversary edition at the bookstore.  But I stumbled across it at the library a week or two ago, and so I eagerly checked it out.

The idea of the book (if I can boil it down to a sentence or two after reading the first three chapters) is that plants and animals and microbes are really just genes' way of making more genes.  I haven't read enough of the book to know whether or not I totally believe it, but the book's thesis isn't really the point.  One of Dawkins' comments was that

A body is the genes' way of preserving genes unaltered.

Or, in non-Oxford University PhD speak, a body is the genes' way of making more genes.

As part of my eating disorder treatment, I learned a lot about how people viewed women's bodies over time.  They were objects or trophies.  Something to be subdued.  Something to be ignored.  Something to be feared.  And we discussed how we viewed our own bodies.  In my case, it was something to be conquered and tamed. Literally mind over matter.  I wanted to not need sleep or food or water or any of that.

It is one view of the body.  A skewed and not all that healthy one, granted, but it's a view.  Many of my therapists in treatment told me that I should think about what my body does rather than how it looks.  That my body should be my temple.  That I should love my body.

Mostly, I'm ambivalent about my body.  It does most of what it needs to.  It is what it is and I generally don't think about it too much.  No, I don't like how I look but whatever.

This quote struck me because it was such a different way of looking at a body.  Not wondering whether it was larger or smaller than me.  Or exercised more.  Or whatever.  Just that a body was what our genes used to make more genes.

The simple practicality of that statement--whether you agree with it or not, and as I said, I haven't finished the book, so I'm not going to say--was really eye-opening for me.  A body is functional.  Maybe the key to body acceptance is to stop making it so damn complicated.

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Anonymous said...

Oooh! Oooh! I have this book waiting for me to read on my bookshelf... It's behind HeLa: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot), which I'm borrowing from a friend for a limited time, and Molecules of Emotion (Candace Pert, PhD).

If you haven't read Molecules of Emotion, check it out!! It's got a bunch of science-neurosci and biochem, and then goes into the mind-body connection, which I'm just getting to in the book. Great story thus far, though!

But Selfish Gene... The memes concept is something I'm really looking forward to reading and thinking about. It's supposedly introduced in that book. From what I've learned and heard from knowledgeable people so far, it has me wanting to bust out the crayons and draw some pictures and schemes.

Wish we could book club or something! Happy Reading!

hm said...

One of my favorite friends says this about her body: "As long as it eats, shits, and sleeps, it's doing its job and I'm ok w/it."

Whether we see it as a storage unit for genes or a machine in which the spirit exists, the simple fact is this- The body is utilitarian.

It serves a function. Multiple functions, actually. (Eating, shitting, and sleeping being just three of them- how about walking, talking, touching, hearing...)

It is when we try to attach our worth to it that we abuse it. It isn't fair. The body is just trying to do its job. It's not supposed to carry our worth, our self-esteem, on its shoulders. It's just supposed to function.

Wouldn't it be cool to learn to take care of it as if it is a separate, living thing- to feed it, give it rest, tend to it, as you would a child or a pet or even a plant- and maybe even extend it some gratitude for putting up w/us and continuing to haul our sorry ass spirit around in it after what we've put it through.

Really, anorexia is a form of transference- we transfer the struggles and frustrations towards our spirit, our self, onto our bodies. This must be why therapy is such a powerful tool in recovery- b/c we learn to put our stress and frustration back where they belong, and then finally DO something about them- via making changes in our person, our spirit, rather than abusing the machine in which our person resides.

And I do believe my pronoun usage was atrocious here. But it's past 2 a.m. so I'm not editing.

Katie said...

See, this is where I feel that my ED differed from that of many other people I know - it was all about my mind rather than being all about my body. I didn't recover for so long simply because I was terrified that if I wasn't restricting to numb my anxiety, I would go mad. So I am quite used to seeing my body as a helpful machine that carries me about rather than attaching my self worth and judgments to it. I don't intend to use it to replicate my genes because I don't think they are worth passing on to another potential person :P but otherwise I am totally on board with the idea of bodies being functional rather than some sort of mystical subject of therapy!

I've not gotten around to reading anything by Dawkins :/ I'm such a bad nerd. Thanks for the reminder!

Anonymous said...

This is intriguing to me and I could relate a lot to what you said about how I've manipulated my body. From a personal level I've had to ask why. It seems to me that I KNOW that there is this bigness in my heart and in my soul and it scares me. Girls/ women aren't supposed to (in this society or many others) be powerful but the weirdest twist of that is that WE are the ones bearing the children. I think this may be the most arduous thing you can do to a body. I can remember the moment I knew I was powerful. I was 12 years old. I probably innately knew that before then but didn't really understand. Being small has proven to the world that I'm taking the back seat. I can be powerful but by God don't even consider being strong, too. I know, this isn't scientific at all, more sociological and psych oriented but I've talked to A LOT of women who can relate to this.

Thanks for always having such great stuff to read and for your honesty. It's refreshing. :)

with love and care

Carrie Arnold said...


Read the HeLa book first. It is simply amazing. I know I've read molecules of emotion, but I was pretty sick at the time and don't remember much. :(

Do you have Skype? Maybe we could do a Skype nerd book club. I think that would be all kinds of fun.

xxx said...

Concerning views of one's body, I've been exploring (& will continue to explore more in-depth) the relationship between one's perception of their bodies & the choice (& justifications for this choice) to opt for plastic surgery - surged by my own experience after having severe facial trauma caused by a near-fatal car accident. All at my blog, Jenny Teacups.

Briony said...

Oooh, The Selfish Gene is brilliant! It's a while since I've read it, but I remember that I enjoyed the bit on social insects especially. Oooh, and his explaination of the origin of life. I've been meaning to get hold of some of his other books ever since (the genetics-y ones, not the atheist ones).

I'm very envious of people who can simply recognise and accept their bodies needs. I know people who can simply say 'I need food, I'm going to eat now' and do so without a second thought. I guess a big part of recovery is learning to trust the body again- accepting that the body wants food because it needs food to function (and not for some other, bizarre, ulterior motive).

Cammy said...

Huge Dawkins fan here, love that book. And I think one reason I love biology so much is that it somehow lets you see big picture from the small scale, if that makes sense. It can be really helpful to be reminded of the more utilitarian reasons to take care of our bodies, understand why they are the way they are and how they got that way, etc.

I'm going to dissolve into bionerd rambling here so I'll cut myself off, but you make a great point here about defining our bodies for what they do, not how they look.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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