How often do you marvel at your body? How often do you acknowledge how incredible it is?
It’s OK if the answer is “Ummm, never!” or “Hmmm…about a month ago, I thought it was pretty cool that…but mostly, no, not really.”
Because if our bodies don’t look the way we want them to, the way we think they “should,” then we do more berating and bashing than anything else. Why marvel at something that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to (i.e., lose weight; conform to societal standards, even if those standards are ridiculous and profit-driven)?
You might spend many minutes studying your body in the mirror but this has nothing to do with marveling. No. Instead, you pick apart your skin; wonder why you have cellulite; sigh at your blemish-filled face; stare at the lines in your forehead, which seem to be getting deeper and deeper; and grimace at your post-pregnancy pouch, curtesy of an unexpected c-section.
But here’s the thing: Your body is incredible. It is a marvel. It is a mysterious, magnificent, intricate, exquisitely run machine. It is even a work of art. And realizing that, even just a bit, can help you with building respect for your body. Maybe it can help you look at your body through a different, perhaps kinder, lens.
For instance, Diane Ackerman writes in her gorgeous and fascinating book A Natural History of the Senses. “We can detect over ten thousand different odors, so many, in fact, that our memories would fail us if we tried to jot down everything they represent.” According to Ackerman, we have about 10,000 taste buds, which are “grouped by theme (salt, sour, sweet, bitter), at various sites in the mouth. Inside each one, about fifty taste cells busily relay information to a neuron, which will alert the brain.”
In the chapter on touch, Ackerman writes, “When we touch something on purpose—our lover, the fender of a new car, the tongue of a penguin—we set in motion our complex web of touch receptors, making them fire by exposing them to a sensation, changing it, exposing them to another. The brain reads the firings and stop-firings like Morse code and registers smooth, raspy, cold. …When we put on a heavy sweater, we’re acutely aware of its texture, weight, and feel against our skin, but after a while we completely ignore it. A constant consistent pressure registers at first, activating the touch receptors; then the receptors stop working. So wearing wool or a wristwatch or a necklace doesn’t bother us much, unless the day heats up or the necklace breaks. When any change occurs, the receptors fire and we become suddenly aware.”
Think about the many different scenarios and sensations our touch receptors must detect: plunging into a cool pool; sweat trickling down your spine; rain soaking your skin; the pain of something too hot or too cold (so we swiftly remove our hands); the textures of thousands upon thousands of objects, such as paper, dough, sand (in all its various varieties), the keys on a laptop versus the keys of a piano, grass (also in all its various varieties), silk sheets and cotton sheets and flannel sheets.
Our retinas, Ackerman writes, consist of rods and cones: “a hundred and twenty-five million thin, straight rods construe the dimness, and report in black and white. Seven million plump cones examine the bright, color-packed day. There are three kinds of cones, specializing in blue, red and green. Mixed together, the rods and cones allow the eye to respond quickly to a changing scene.”
In the chapter on sound, Ackerman notes, “…Waves of sound roll like tides to our ears, where they make the eardrum vibrate; this in turn moves three colorfully named bones (the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup), the tiniest bones in the body. Although the cavity they sit in is only about a third of an inch wide and a sixth of an inch deep, the air trapped there by blocked Eustachian tubes is what gives scuba divers and airplane passengers such grief when the air pressure changes. The three bones press fluid in the inner ear against membranes, which brush tiny hairs that trigger nearby nerve cells, which telegraph messages to the brain: We hear. It may not seem like a particularly complicated route, but in practice it follows an elaborate pathway that looks something like a maniacal miniature golf course, with curlicues, branches, roundabouts, relays, levers, hydraulics, and feedback loops.”
How incredible that your fingerprint looks nothing like mine, or anyone else’s. How incredible that your heart beats without you having to do anything to start it. How incredible that you have such sensitive, keenly aware senses that help you navigate the world.
I know that marveling at your body might be the last thing on your mind. But try it. Try to find one sincere thing to be in awe about. And if awe feels too strong and too Pollyannaish, then aim for “appreciation.” Find one thing that you genuinely appreciate about what your body does and how it works. Maybe do your own research.
Ultimately, the body is a marvel, a miracle, which is a fact we forget when we’re fixated on appearance. Reminding yourself of your body’s magnificence can help you embrace it—or at least bash it less.
Can you marvel at your body, even a bit? What happens when you do?