Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly—better to leave it as it is....
Of course, what we see as 'the same eyebrows over the same eyes' may not correspond to what other people see. Body image, as Merleau-Ponty famously pointed out, is a separate thing from the body as 'fact', but contributes to our embodied experience just as much.
Last week, The New Scientist reported that, for the first time, scientists have measured the perceived shape of a phantom limb (the sensation that a limb which is not there is present; this phenomenon sometimes occurs after amputation). Researchers at Birkbeck University worked with a 38 year old woman born without a left arm who periodically believes she has a phantom hand. Fascinatingly, the image of a phantom hand was found to be wider than a real hand with shorter fingers. The research implies that the somatosensory cortex does not necessarily need visual or sensory input to represent a body structure.
This started me thinking about the way we represent bodies in our imagination: how do we assemble the bodies described through poetry, for example? Are they like the real body at all? What do we 'see' when we read the description of Coleridge's ancient mariner, or consider the shadowy, liminal figures in a John Burnside poem? I thought of Elaine Scarry's fascinating 'Dreaming by the Book' and the way she compares imagination to perception: the shadowy or distorted images we see when we try to imagine someone's face compared with the sight of the real thing. Writers, Scarry believes, give us sets of instructions for imagining things, but the bodily pictures we create as a result may not really resemble real bodies.They might be bigger smaller, luminous or dark...
The research into perceptions of phantom limbs also has implications for the study of body dysmorphia, where a person may believe they look very different from the way they really do look (a typical example might be an anorexic who believes they are fat). As the New Scientist article says: "there are a few studies showing that people with eating disorders may inaccurately judge the size of their body from tactile feedback. Those results suggest there may be some relation between somatosensory representations of the body and our conscious feelings of what our body is like."
I tentatively tried to explore some of these issues in a poem called 'Thinspiration Shots', published in the Oxfam anthology 'Lung Jazz', recently edited by Todd Swift and Kim Lockwood. The poem considers websites which publish images of emaciated women as 'inspiration' for other anorexics, but it was motivated by an interest in the gap between how we see ourselves and how other people see us; the concept of the mirror as 'magnifying glass'. I'll leave you with that poem.
Beneath the site’s italics – if you eat
you’ll never dance again – a close up
of a ballerina, veins like wires,
balancing on a single satin shoe.
You dreamt of being small enough
to fit inside your grandma’s jewellery box:
the dancer spinning on her gold left leg,
a mirror doubling her, the tinny music playing
on and on until the lid was shut at last,
and she was tiny, locked in with the dark.
You’ve seen this photograph before: the pout,
the offered playing card, top hat that weighs
as much as her, the plume of hair curled
round her neck, her wrists like slender wands.
You think about the things she’s hiding
up her sleeve: the queen, the ace,
or last night’s dinner in a paper bag.
And yes, you know her tricks by heart:
the one with all the handkerchiefs, the one
where she clicks her fingers, disappears.
One model has a waist just like a snake.
The other is all whippet ribs, her legs
as slender as a deer’s. The way she
rests one hand against the fence
hummingbird-light, as if she’s never still
reminds you of those hours of press ups
when the lights were out,
the dizzy sit ups before dawn
the miles you ran away from home,
near fainting, trying to give yourself the slip.
Scroll down. A brunette in a mermaid pose,
too light to break the surface of the lake.
You would have drunk its contents if you could,
those days they put you on the scales,
your bladder swollen taut.
When they were sure they had
enough of you, you’d go upstairs
and lock the bathroom door,
you’d crouch above the cool white bowl
and piss it all away.
Across this picture of a convex stomach,
someone’s added ‘Intake’, text in bold:
B – glass of water. L – a slice of bread.
D – nothing. Guys, my willpower sucks.
You think about the friends who slimmed
to paperbacks, so thin they’d slip
between your shelves, the condensed
chapters of their limbs, the narrative
of barely-hidden bones. The ending
promised from the start.
Once, you might have taken them for wings:
the shoulder blades jutting from the blonde
who stands on a hill, her naked back
to the camera. The shape of her
is surely made for flight, but these days
now your mirror’s not a magnifying glass,
you see the ground waiting beneath the sky,
the skull waiting beneath the skin,
a girl no stronger than a flightless bird,
a wind that wouldn’t lift her if it could.