05 February 2010

Real Bodies

Driving east on Houston Street the other evening, I caught my first glimpse of the current Calvin Klein ad, with a much larger than life depiction* of a naked man, artfully arranged so the naughty bits are hidden behind a thigh. At least I think it was a man. It distracted me from driving for a moment, but I didn't get a very good look as I really did have to pay attention to the traffic.

It's just one of the more extreme images of barely human representations plastered all over this city on billboards and buses that paint men and women in forms idealized by our culture yet in some way truly grotesque.

All the more refreshing, then, to go to the gym. I joined the Chinatown Y at the beginning of January. A significant proportion, probably a strong majority, of the folks using the facility are Chinese, and I was brought forcefully back to my time living in China back in the late 1980s, when I spent a year teaching English at a university in Shanghai. The culture of bodies is different in China, and in the Chinatown Y. Women in spaces like locker rooms aren't so worried about covering up.

And it brings me back to a lesson I learned a long time ago, but forgot, in my 20-plus years living here in New York and looking at all of those airbrushed photos.

Real bodies aren't perfect. Real bodies have bulges, lumps, spots, asymmetries. When I don't see real bodies, I forget that. I think my body is defective, grotesque, just somehow wrong. But lately, I've been more forgiving of my own physical form.

Next up: forgiving my body for illness and infertility. That's a bigger job.

*I think we're intended to believe it's a photograph, but I'm pretty sure there's a significant amount of painting involved.