I wish I could separate souls from bodies. That guy with the scrunched face and hot whitefish salad breath who stands way too close to me, exhaling into my nose, sharing some anecdote I can’t follow because I’m repulsed by the cool sprinkle he emits when he speaks? I’d see through his body and beyond it. A mystical telescope would cut through the physical, revealing a clear, glorious light: the particular light of his unique self. I’d read the glow and see the story behind the story he tells me—the trail of his life’s signatures: who he has touched with small, electric acts; who has perceived his truths and felt moved to care about him; why, exactly, he felt compelled to stop me and discuss his day even though he barely knows me.
But no such thing is possible for me. I go to spiritual retreats and see the instructor’s nose hairs while everyone else intuits God and mystical bananas (I kid you not). In theory, I am all about the soul, but I can rarely get past the body.
I pride myself on openness to all kinds: beliefs, personalities, political persuasions, preferences, backgrounds… and bodies. In some ways, I live and feel my desire to avoid appearance-based judgment. I love when social groups are racially mixed, and I can’t understand why Caucasian markers—hair texture, skin tone, and facial structure—are prized. From a social history perspective it makes perfect sense, but aesthetically, standard white features can seem sadly drab next to, I don’t know, a glorious head of super-curly hair.
Needless to say, appearance goes far beyond race. Here, too, I try not to favor those who typically enjoy an advantage. I don’t feel unduly impressed by chic, ultra-attractive types. Someone I’m close to often disparages obese people, and I’m quick to argue with him, often heatedly, and I mean every word I say with an exhilarating intensity.
When I was in graduate school, a professor of mine was notorious for favoring pretty, often blonde women who gave off a certain combination of sexual energy, ambition, and ostensible intelligence. I bristled at the unfairness, losing all respect for him (though I honestly can’t say whether I would have had the strength to react that way if I had been one of the anointed).
This appearance issue is a thing with me: it arouses my passions and my sense of deep inequity running throughout our social world. But, at the same time, I’m a huge hypocrite. Some bodies distress me to the point where I can’t hide my anxiety. During a high school volunteer job, I fainted when I was introduced to a limbless child. That the body in front of me should encase the white light of a mind making its way though life overwhelmed my sense of justice, control, and wellbeing.
At times, I am unable to focus on perfectly good people’s thoughts and emotions because their bodies jar me. Me: the one who supposedly doesn’t even notice bodies because they don’t much matter in the face of larger truths. I’m not proud of that, but I’m not doing pride in this essay. I’m doing honesty.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the responses bodies elicit because racism has become a hot topic. We live in a world where some loathe others solely because of race. Usually, race is immediately apparent: a question of looks. One human being sees another, perceives certain features, and feels rage, hatred, disrespect, or disgust. Or, for that matter, the reverse: the qualities in question lead to a sense of comfort, of “my own kind, more or less.”
Most of us who try to lead positive lives from a broad, global perspective try to examine this tendency and overcome any race-related fears or prejudices that may linger within us despite our best efforts. Race is a fairly well-defined concept (though definitions become very hazy at the margins). The overwhelming majority of us know about race and think about it. Races have names and histories behind those names. Race is part of our active consciousness.
If racial identity didn’t exist, we might just have a better world; we’d simply have an awesome range of physical characteristics among people, any of whom could get together with anyone else, for friendship, marriage, or whatever. But since that’s not how it is for most of us, it’s good that at least we can talk about race, analyze it, express our feelings about it.
I’m more than pleased to meet and develop friendships with people of any possible race we can define, but I am no body transcender. My issues don’t stem from race or ethnicity, but they’re just as real as that kind of bigotry. Please don’t get the wrong idea. The overwhelming majority of people seem physically pleasant to me, and I am every bit as open to, say, the gawky, odd-looking woman in unstylish clothes as I am to the exquisite, elegantly dressed woman next to her (who might not want to give me a chance, given my stark inferiority to her on most dimensions appearance-centered people find important).
There’s a kind of line, and some who go beyond it make me extremely anxious. I’m thinking: “Please don’t strike up a conversation with me; I might not be able to concentrate and respond” and not: “Wow: here is a human being who might be fun to get to know.” It’s horrible, but it’s the truth. And though I’m sure I’m far from the only one who shies away from social contact with some because of physical appearance, I rarely hear discussion about this issue. It’s beyond the pale of acceptable topics.
The people who encounter the most discrimination along these lines rarely band together and create political waves like other groups who have encountered bigotry. There’s too much shame attached to the predicament. Few want to face that their own bodies provoke negative reactions, and few admit, even to themselves, that their reactions to others veer very frequently into negative judgments based on appearance.
Some particular traits have inspired camaraderie and political organization: disability and weight come to mind. But the general question of appearance-driven social and professional problems rarely comes up in my experience. One inspiring exception is a woman named Lizzie Velasquez, who was bullied horribly for her appearance as a teenager and has since become a motivational speaker. But her situation is rare.
It’s a deeply uncomfortable topic to put into specific words, but what’s the alternative? Ignoring the subject because few want to face it, allowing a deep form of prejudice to fester?
Members of racial or ethnic groups that have encountered discrimination typically have no problem identifying themselves (though, of course, some have always tried to “pass” as a member of the dominant culture). I have no problem with saying: “I am a Jew” even though I know some would hate me for that reason alone. Under no circumstance would I want to announce: “Many people are uncomfortable when they see my body” in a public forum, even if I were sure my appearance was stopping me from success on many levels.
Parents can teach their kids that they are both black and beautiful—there’s no inherent contradiction there. Can your looks upset many well-meaning observers of all backgrounds and still be beautiful? Of course, if you can perceive things with the right mindset. But it’s a much more challenging concept to embrace, and I think it’s much harder to break in socially and professionally with a body many would find shockingly unsymmetrical or incomplete than it is to succeed as, say, a racial minority with fine features and looks many would find attractive.
I don’t view this as an either/or issue affecting a few unlucky souls and sparing the rest (though it would be deeply important even then, since every life is filled with meaning and feeling). In many key ways, this is a continuum. Studies have strongly suggested that, if all other factors are equal, professors who are seen as homely (even in a typical way that doesn’t jar or create distress) receive measurably lower teaching evaluations than those most find physically pleasant or, better yet, “hot.” And we all know that academia tends to get a lower proportion of super-beautiful types than, say, investment banking, management consulting, corporate law, and the arts. The tendency to judge based on appearance is even stronger in those fields, with visually promotable artists receiving huge advantages, and pretty business people sealing deals based on charm.
I often walk around saying I want to go “home”: in quotation marks because I have no idea where that place might be, or how I might find it. A piece of me thinks “home” is a realm with no bodies, where non-physical souls somehow learn, relate, and grow in incorporeal ways. In this “home,” souls perceive each other directly; there are no bodies that skew our vision away from the essence of the consciousness before us. We are pure self, pure soul, and our thoughts, our feelings, and our drive to connect to other consciousnesses impel our existence.
Amazingly, I am in line with renowned medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides on this one. He suggested that the resurrection of deceased human bodies during the Messianic era would be temporary. Eventually, in his view, people in Messianic times would die permanently, exit the earth realm, and reach their true home, “The World to Come”: a spiritual existence undiluted by physicality.
I love this idea… sort of. Our relationships would be fair; we’d see other souls at the level of true essence, not as distracting and sometimes distressing bodies. All the annoyances that come with the physical world would vanish—we’d never have to find our way anywhere, figure out a piece of equipment, or suffer through a day in uncomfortable shoes. We’d move beyond all that in ways I can’t begin to capture in words. Our language would be soul language, created not by jabbering tongues but by thoughts that beam from one being to another, like our current concept of ESP but much smoother and more seamless. Or something. I really don’t know; all I can do is guess.
When I consider this possibility long enough, something strange happens. I feel sad. Wouldn’t the best possible world include a way to savor food and to laugh—real laughter, with feeling in the chest—with our closest companions?
Despite all my reservations about physicality, I’m not so sure about this incorporeal World to Come. Most Orthodox Jews I’ve spoken with in fact disagree with Maimonides on that particular point. They believe our final, everlasting state is a physical one, on earth, combining spiritual insight, holiness, and embodied existence as part of the Messianic age. On their side is another profoundly respected medieval Jewish scholar: Nahmanides. (We can’t expect Jews, even ones who are brilliant historical figures, to agree with each other, can we?)
If someone gave me a choice right now, I’d pick bodily eternity over a disembodied “World to Come.” There’s something so right about having a body… when it all goes well and we can walk and enjoy the breeze and feel healthy—maybe while savoring a butterscotch sundae.
But sometimes it doesn’t go well. Sometimes (most of the time, actually) we judge people partly based on their external casing. If something like a Messianic era actually happened, I imagine we’d move beyond bodily illness and imperfections. Perhaps we’d each be beautiful in a gloriously idiosyncratic way that would help others see our internal gifts.
Let’s be real, though—we’re here, in 2015, and there’s no Messiah. There are all kinds of bodies roaming around, some of which provoke unease or distress in their owners and/or observers. And the souls within the least fortunate bodies are passion-filled, thinking human beings. Those bodies could be ours. They may be ours. For me, the scariest aspect of all this is the possibility that illness, accident, violence, or some other factor could turn my body into something I’d find horrifying. Chas v’shalom (God forbid). But whatever God might be out there did not forbid it for others; the potential always lurks.
So what can we do in this world of ours, with bodies, sans Messiah, if we want to be fair and perceive others as souls, regardless of their shells? I’m not sure. It’s not like we can have affirmative action for unattractive people when unattractiveness is impossible to define or pin down. And no legislation can force people to overcome deep-seated discomfort. This goes beyond the law and reaches into ungovernable emotion and gut-level response.
It’s a personal thing, of course, and those whose looks disturb some may well strike others as being uniquely gorgeous. Still, it’s clear that some appearances tend to inspire unease and negative feelings in a large percentage of people. So when souls with those sorts of bodies go forth in the world, they’re slapped with difficult reactions far more often than others.
What we can do is consider this issue. If you know you usually ignore the guy whose face scares you, try to get past that. If you’re in a position to select people for jobs or schools, be very aware that you’re likely to favor the beautiful ones and shun those whose appearance disturbs you, overlooking qualities like talent and drive.
Bodies seem here to stay, in all their current diversity. If they carry some kind of spiritual lesson, I fear I haven’t been imbibing it. I can try harder. Most of us can, I’m guessing.