“Self-acceptance influencer” Alex Light made waves this past week after posting a TikTok lauding actor Channing Tatum for his “body positive” comments on “The Kelly Clarkson Show.” Light thanked Tatum for admitting that maintaining his toned physique for the “Magic Mike” films “is not natural,” and is not something he recommends that other men aspire to.
The emergence of the “body positivity” movement is the latest offshoot of the therapeutic, moralistic mentality that has a hold in bourgeois “front row” society. The discourse that has emerged from this movement — with a ubiquity that has expanded astronomically since my childhood — is tinged with the flavor of the “character education” that I received in public schools in the early 2000s.
According to my elementary and middle school teachers, the elusive boogeyman known as “society” wants us to think that in order to be happy, we need a successful job, nice clothes, an attractive body, lots of friends, and expensive material possessions. But a truly happy person doesn’t need any of those superficial things. All they need is to be themselves, follow their hearts, be kind to others, and embrace their inner beauty.
Despite their insistent moral exhortations, I couldn’t deny my attraction to the glamorous lifestyles of celebrities. As I flipped through the pages of tabloid magazines, I dreamed about ways to boost my popularity. I stared into the mirror, fixating on what I wore and how I could make my body more attractive. As I took selfies, I schemed obsessively about how I could build up my Facebook profile … while the echo of my teachers saying “it’s who you are on the inside that counts” ran through my mind.
I knew all of these pursuits were superficial, but why, I wondered, couldn’t I stop dwelling on them? No matter how many times I told myself that my appearance and Facebook friend count didn’t define my worth, I never was fully convinced that this was true.
As time went on, I started to realize that something was missing. This “moral battle” was not as simplistic as I thought it was. It was made to seem that it all came down to a matter of merely choosing to either believe in your “inner” self-worth or to buy into society’s superficial standards. What was missing from all these moral imperatives was an ontological frame of reference. A way to make sense of my selfhood’s origin and destiny.
Put more simply, what was missing were answers to certain fundamental questions about our desires, our bodies, and human nature more broadly: What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of our bodies? Why do I desire to be loved? Where does desire come from in the first place?
The more I started to ask these questions, the more I was able to delve more deeply into my “superficial” preoccupations, rather than to moralize futilely over them: Why do so many of us want to be rich and live a glamorous lifestyle full of pleasure, possessions, and affirmation from others? What is the origin of aesthetic and bodily beauty and why does it attract us so much? And why, ultimately, is “choosing” to embrace our inner goodness and beauty not enough to fulfill our sense of self-worth?
The Puerto Rican physicist and priest Lorenzo Albacete remembers the time a woman asked him if “the resurrection of the body was a metaphor.”
“My immediate reaction to the question was to think about — and to notice and feel — my own body, which could be diplomatically said to have reached threatening dimensions.” Albacete was rather heavy, to say the least.
“When I try to get up in the morning, I discover parts of my body (because they hurt) that I didn’t even know were there. So in response to this question about resurrection-of-the-body as metaphor, I replied, ‘My experience of the body is not the experience of a metaphor. The day this baby becomes a metaphor, I’ll be better equipped to answer your question.’”
Albacete was never at a loss for witty responses to serious theological questions. He continued by reflecting on his experiences in southern California, where “you see many bodies that make you think of the resurrection as a worthwhile thing, as a metaphor for their beauty and attraction. … What my heart wants, is the real possibility of having a body like those who at that very moment could be seen around the pool during the shooting of an episode of some television series. I have no idea what my risen body might be like, but if such a thing does exist, I want it to be closer to the bodies at the pool than to a metaphor.”
Material objects and the flesh, our impulse to consume things and possess people, are unavoidable realities from which we will never be able to disentangle ourselves. Verbally eschewing vanity, consumerism, and celebrity culture is rooted in a naive miscalculation that will never be able to eliminate our attraction toward those realities, no matter how superficial they may be. The fact of our embodiment means that our existence is implicated in a state of constant tension.
“We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty,” claims cultural critic Camille Paglia, in response to the feminist writer Naomi Wolfe. “Beauty,” continues Paglia, “is an eternal human value. It was not a trick invented by nasty men in a room someplace on Madison Avenue.”
Paglia goes on to critique Wolfe’s proto-body positivity polemic which initially was a reaction to fashion magazines’ imposition of “unrealistic” beauty standards on everyday women as being overly “provincial” and rooted in a narrowly Anglo-Saxon moral and aesthetic ethos.
Further, claims Paglia, “I don’t have to be beautiful. I can love [beauty] in someone else.” Echoing the intuition of Albacete, she insists that, “to be in the presence of beauty…a beautiful object, a beautiful person, a beautiful magazine, a beautiful picture…to me, this is spiritually transformative.”
We will never be able to pursue the moral high ground without first experiencing an ontological conversion, or in other words, without first feeding this craving. Either we will seek to consume vain, temporary forms of beauty, or a form of beauty that both encompasses and surpasses the temporary ones. Until we encounter and enter into communion with (and ultimately, consume) the One who is at the origin of all of our desires and of aesthetic beauty, we will be left to consume the lesser forms of beauty.
Mere attempts to “accept ourselves as we are,” spurred not by an encounter with an external, superior form of beauty but by our own force of will, won’t cut it. We are perpetually condemned to this tension toward something — or someone — outside of ourselves.
While we can continue to post on social media about our body positivity and self-love, nothing will fully convince us that our body is a gift until we look to the origin of this attraction to bodily and aesthetic beauty. We have to consume something. We need to chase after a form of beauty that we don’t already possess. The question is what kind, where, and from Whom will it come?