Thursday, October 24, 2013

Wendell Berry on Health and Beauty

The Spirituality of Smell, Part 7

The grinding uniformity of synthetic cosmetics is only one of the ways our culture continually depersonalizes both men and women. Another way we do this is through unrealistic notions of beauty. As Wendall Berry observed in his essay ‘The Body and the Earth’:
Wendell Berry argued that we need a holistic
understanding of health that attends to all
aspects of our creaturely embeddedness:
Girls are taught to want to be leggy, slender, large-breasted, curly-haired, unimposingly beautiful. Boys are instructed to be "athletic" in build, tall but not too tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, narrow-hipped, square-jawed, straight-nosed, not bald, unimposingly handsome. Both sexes should look what passes for "sexy" in a bathing suit. Neither, above all, should look old.

Part of the problem, Berry explains, is that we have bought into a wrong paradigm for health. He urges us to return to a holistic understanding of health that attends to all aspects of our creaturely embeddedness:

It is therefore absurd to approach the subject of health piecemeal with a departmentalized band of specialists. A medical doctor uninterested in nutrition, in agriculture, in the wholesomeness of mind and spirit is as absurd as a farmer who is uninterested in health. Our fragmentation of this subject cannot be our cure, because it is our disease. The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil. Intellectually, we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than we ever have before; yet modern social and cultural patterns contradict them and make it difficult or impossible to honor them in practice.

To try to heal the body alone is to collaborate in the destruction of the body. Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation….

The isolation of the body sets it into direct conflict with everything else in Creation. It gives it a value that is destructive of every other value. That this has happened is paradoxical, for the body was set apart from the soul in order that the soul should triumph over the body. . . .
And it is clear to anyone who looks carefully at any crowd that we are wasting our bodies exactly as we are wasting our land. Our bodies are fat, weak, joyless, sickly, ugly, the virtual prey of the manufacturers of medicine and cosmetics….
It is not surprising that this strange disease of the spirit—the self's search for the self—should have its counterpart in an anguish of the body. One of the commonplaces of modern experience is dissatisfaction with the body—not as one has allowed it to become, but as it naturally is. The hardship is perhaps greater here because the body, unlike the self, is substantial and cannot be supposed to be inherently better than it was born to be. It can only be thought inherently worse than it ought to be. For the appropriate standard for the body—that is, health—has been replaced, not even by another standard, but by very exclusive physical models. The concept of "model" here conforms very closely to the model of the scientists and planners: it is an exclusive, narrowly defined ideal which affects destructively whatever it does not include.
Reading Berry makes me wonder if the preference for artificial smells over naturally occurring fragrances is part of a more general trend away from accepting the embeddedness of our creaturely experience.

Further Reading

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