America is incredibly successful in a number of ways. I’d say its chief achievement, though, is its ability to preach rugged individualism while simultaneously enforcing a strict set of social codes. During our great country’s great pandemic, and its “great” response, I have been thinking about this a lot.
The regulation of the body is a battle America keeps winning. The body is so personal in Western culture that it’s hard to grasp how other forces may affect it. I don’t believe in God. But I also don’t believe very much in free will. We are a product of our environment, society, family, skin color and socio-economic status. And we are taught from the second we can speak to ignore that fact.
Belief in the American Dream is based on this faith that our life is our own and our choices are our own. We all make choices, of course, but the idea that we can all choose what we do in life ignores the fact that some of us are born with only a handful of options to choose from, while others have buckets to pick through.
As a teenage girl, I am of course a little image-obsessed. It’s funny though, because we’re always told it’s magazines that make little girls want to be thin and have sculpted cheekbones and the perfect smoky eye. But I don’t remember magazines and models having much of an effect on me. Certainly I internalized the need to be thin, as I’d estimate a good 95 percent of women have.
I’ve been back working my summer job at a day camp, with younger kids than I typically supervise. The difference between the little five-year-old boys and five-year-old girls is fascinating. The boys all wear a variation of Nike athletic shorts and shirts; the girls, dresses or flowered leggings. It makes me sad how quickly they adapt to gender norms.
At the pool the other week, one of the girls swam up to me. “You have hair in your armpits,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
“I want you to get rid of it,” she replied.
Man, that made me so sad. Not for myself. It didn’t hurt my feelings. Kids have long had opinions of my coworkers and I who don’t shave body hair. I had to have a long talk with a nine-year-old last summer about why it wasn’t OK for him to say a counselor’s leg hair was gross.
No, it made me sad because even at five, this girl was regulating other women’s bodies, and because as she gets older she’ll start to translate that upon herself. (I was also not this kid’s biggest fan to begin with, so I was a little P-O’d that she would tell me what to do with my body :).)
“You’re right,” I told her. “I should cut it off and glue it onto a beard!”
“Noo!” She giggled.
“Oh my goodness, how rude of me! I should have asked: Do you want a beard?”
“Nooo!!’ She giggled again, and swam away.
It’s interesting that, although individualism is drilled into us, few of us feel a strong connection to our body. I think this is also a uniquely Western thing, a practice that makes it much easier to ignore the needs of our physical form in favor of instant gratification, hunching over screens, and, for Mainers more than most, working back-breaking jobs.
Capitalism has always relied on the regulation and systematic destruction of bodies. We’ve exported much of that destruction to workers in the Global South and Asia, but kept the regulation and some of the destruction. In the Global South and East, people work until their bodies are a husk on the factory floor. In America, it’s less explicit. Here, we break our backs from 40 years of soul-crushing work hunched over a computer, with better compensation.
The lack of attention paid to our bodies in the West allows for the slow destruction of our life forces. And the compensation isn’t actually that much better. Look at Amazon warehouses.
The real world is beginning to look more and more like the dystopian film Sorry To Bother You, in which we all must pay homage to our corporate overlords. While we may not be signing lifetime indentured servitude contracts yet, to some degree we’ve all been agreeing to this since the start. In exchange for food, shelter, and some material comforts, we agree to systematically ignore our physical and mental health, to perform often menial tasks and put resources into the already overfilled coffers of the uber-rich.