One evening this week, while driving home from work, I passed a shirtless man who was jogging down the sidewalk. He was a bit flabby, and his pallid flesh jiggled sloppily as he ran. I found myself thinking rather harshly, “Ugh! That man should NOT be running around like that in public. That doesn’t look good at ALL.” A split second later, I realized with a small chill of horror what I had done. I’d passed the sort of judgment that I absolutely loathe upon this unsuspecting man, out jogging on a summer evening. The assumption I had made, of course, is that this man ought not to be exposing his bare chest because I, a complete stranger, don’t find the sight aesthetically pleasing. And really, what is the harm in seeing a fairly unattractive man running about shirtless? Is it really likely to ruin my day? No, and seeing him didn’t spoil my appreciation of the urban landscape, put me in a bad mood, or spoil the dinner I would be having upon my return home. So what does it matter? Why do we as a people feel the need to dictate who has the right to expose portions of their bodies: legs, chests, arms, thighs, based on how attractive we find them to be? I mean, clearly this man was hardly parading around shirtless in a misplaced effort at seduction. He neither knew me nor cared what I thought of his body. He wasn’t baring his chest for my enjoyment, but because he happened to be feeling a bit warm! My appreciation of the sight, or lack thereof, was completely irrelevant either way. How rude it was for me to immediately feel that he had no right to expose a portion of his body that I found unappealing.
In the recent past, I spent several years dwelling within the Neopagan paradigm. I no longer truly belong to this subculture, though I haven’t severed all of my ties. I still embrace certain aspects of the lifestyle, while rejecting others in which I no longer believe. One thing which I adored about the Neopagan community was the strong emphasis on loving oneself, and in perceiving oneself as a spiritual being. In this view, there is no separation between the heavens and the earth, or the physical and the spiritual. The physical IS spiritual, I had been taught. And so it is that most Neopagans are quite comfortable in their own skins. I’ll never forget the experience of my first big Pagan gathering down in southern Ohio. It was a week- long camping trip on the grounds of a commune in what happened to be a reclaimed strip mine. It was hot, and the facilities were quite primitive. The gathering had a “clothing optional” policy, which means that quite a few of the attendees chose to go about scantily clad, or even completely nude. Telling others outside the community of this experience always evokes looks of horror or disdain, and comments about the lack of sophistication and the degenerate nature of this experience. And yet, to me, it was truly an awakening of sorts. Never before had I seen such a diverse array of people traipsing about naked, or partially clad (generally topless). Prior to this experience, I’d primarily known only two types of female bodies: the bony, sinuous forms offered up by Hollywood, and my own (which was therefore always a source of shame and concern). At this gathering, I was able to view a plethora of different shapes and sizes of human forms, and I was amazed. There are things I learned about the tendencies of the human form which would take me pages of writing to explain. In short, it truly was an awakening. And very few of these people were striding about in the buff to elicit sexual interest. They were merely doing it because it was comfortable, because they wanted to, and because they felt that there was nothing wrong with showing their skin and in seeing the skins of others. Many of the women were possessed of tremendous bulk, being “Goddess sized”, as they are called in that community. And no one thought to say to them, “you know, you REALLY shouldn’t be walking around like that.” In this setting, they absolutely had the right, which is what made the experience so liberating for them and for all of us.
Having been divorced from the Neopagan community for some time now, it seems the judgmental nature of our society has crept into my consciousness yet again, influencing my perceptions of the human body. I feel disturbed by how quickly this attitude has asserted itself over the awareness I’d developed to the contrary. In my opinion, judging others on the basis of their appearance and behaving as though the “ugly” have no right to bare themselves as they choose is a negative attitude in general, as well as harmful to one’s own self. For most of us are, of course, our worst critics. Now I can see why I’ve stopped wearing sleeveless shirts and shorts… because subconsciously, I have been passing the same sort of judgment upon myself once more!
And so I open the floor to discussion. What are your thoughts on the subject? Are you for habitual judgment of the bodies of strangers as a form of recreation, or nay?
Soahki is a contributing writer for projectgroupthink.wordpress.com. Get instant updates for this blog via Twitter: PGTblog.