I’m participating in the Pagan Blog Project. The letter for this week is B. My topic this week: Body Image.
This is going to be a very candid post. I wasn’t ever going to post about this topic, but it came up in a pagan discussion group on Facebook recently, and it made me realise just how often I connect ideas about body image with ideas I have about individual spiritual paths.
As a pagan, what place does outer appearances and bodily modifications for the sake of changing one’s cosmetic appearance have in our spiritual lives?
I’m in many different minds about this topic. In the film The Craft, when the girls realise their powers, one of the first things they immediately use their power for is to change their appearance. There is the memorable scene where Sarah learns how to glamour and change her hair colour. And we have the character arc of Bonnie, who has suffered with scars covering a large part of her skin, and uses her witchcraft to take her scars away. These ideas connect with teens and anyone uncomfortable in their own skin. Unfortunately it also supports derisive views of those who are attracted to witchcraft and even religion in general- that it attracts the weak, the vulnerable and those who want answers and solutions that are simply not being provided anywhere else.
Another thing notable about The Craft and the general resurgance of witchcraft in popular culture in the 1990s and 2000s is the fashionable element of it. The mystique and glamour of witchcraft is what attracted many wannabe wiccans to the magical stage and withccraft and wicca was ‘in’. To be a witch, and acquire all the pretty accoutrements- sexy witch outfit, black cat, pentagrams everywhere… even the hipsters have cottoned on to kraft kool. No longer do we have to suffer with the hag with warts stereotype when we have sexy ladies like Fiona Horne gracing the spotlight with a brand of white witchcraft that can come across as inconsistent at times, but always glamourous.
As we learn more about the craft, of course we realise that there is far more to it than that. It is a path of self-acceptance, but what does this actually mean? We know that robes and ritual jewellery have a place in craft practice. Some seem to enforce that a natural ‘as the Goddess intended’ ascetic lifestyle of no makeup and nudity in circle, arguing that adornments can impact magical practice. Others feel that their clothing, tattoos, piercings, eyeliner etc has personal spiritual significance, and this is reflected in historical cultural paganism where ritual body modification was often used- the ancient Egyptians and their use of kohl and perfumes is one ready example. Just like pagan beliefs differ widely, so to does the attitude to ritual adornment.
There are also the issues of health and weight. One thing that was startling for me when I first began attending public circles and events was the demographic- a majority of attendees were women, which I expected. But I did not expect the majority of those women to be overweight, and some were obese, morbidly so. A disproportionate chunk of pagans seemed to smoke, and there were plenty of heavy drinkers. This fought against many of the (somewhat arrogant) beliefs that I held at the time. If you’re pagan, aren’t you supposed to look after yourself if you practice what you preach? Doesn’t harming none include the harm one does to oneself? I was amazed at the junk food people ate after ritual and the lack of exercise and general self-care people seemed to adopt. What was going on? Did these people simply rely on a whole bunch of crutches to cope with their lives, their alternative spirituality notwithstanding?
Of course, a lot of these observations stemmed from my own insecurities about my own body image. Just about everyone has aspects of their physical selves that they wish to change and I am no exception. I am lucky in many ways- I am of an average weight, perhaps tipping the heavier edge of that irritating BMI scale. I am proportionate and I am lucky enough to have good overall health and that means I am free to eat what I want (having no allergies) and engage in any exercise I choose. I am mentally and emotionally healthy as well so I have been lucky to not deal with overt depression or any mental illness. So it was through this privilged lens that I was viewing these others who walked the path that I thought was the same as my own. What I failed to see is that everyone walks their own path and are dealing with individual struggles. And that I might have been projecting the anxiety that stems from the little voice in my ear that whispers; “You’re not pretty enough. You’re not thin enough. You’re teeth are crooked and your skin is covered in moles. No-one will want to be your friend and you’re too opinionated, anyway. You’re not good enough”. I like to think that I have grown a lot since this time. I have still got some ways to go, and am always growing… I hope.
Of course, a lot of this is rubbish. But with the media, including social media, constantly pelting us with imagery of the unachievable ideal, who can blame us? One meme that has made the rounds recently and has really annoyed me is the ‘Real Woman Have Curves’ trope, and the ‘When did this… become hotter than this?‘ meme. How irritating. Confession time: I’m a feminist. But a feminist’s worst enemy a lot of the time is fellow women. We perpetuate our own mythology about what’s hot, and what’s not. I have heard people say the following: “body hair is disgusting”… “skinny women look horrible”… “I like a bit of meat on women… but not too many rolls”. It’s ludicrous that we have attained a habit of policing eachother, all the while blaming the media for our body image woes. Perhaps it’s okay to have your own opinion and personal tastes, but I think people need to recognise when they’re appropriate to broadcast in a public forum: never. Why? When you are denigrating someone else’s body space, and their right to operate freely in that space, you’re being an asshat, plain and simple.
This assertion gets thrown a curve ball when you put another set of equations into the mix. It’s my belief that the Rede comes into play when addressing body image and body modification, whether it’s a pagan context or not: “An it harm none, do as thou wilt”. (I’ve got a lot to say about the Rede, but that’s another post). But what constitutes as harm? Here is an example that challenges these ideas. In the pagan community I move amongst, at a yearly gathering there a woman who (supposedly) has the cognitive ability of a child. She is in some sort of strange slave/master relationship with this old guy who I can only describe as a self-proclaimed wizard with a beard dyed pink and purple who wears a dead cat as a hat. Being a cat lover and having had limited conversations with this man, I don’t care for him at all- but I digress! Anyway this woman would often be dressed in very skimpy clothing with no underwear. She is a bit of a trainwreck and often a boob would pop out, or she would bend over and reveal her lady garden to all and sundry while we were engaged in innocuous activities like compost workshops or tarot discussions. Being incredibly tolerant folk this was met with a lot of blind eyes cast- and for that I am so proud of my community! But it inevitably got raised by some folk who felt that something needed to be said- which is perfectly reasonable. It could be argued that her inadvertant nudity was offending some and provided unwelcome distractions to the informal gathering. Is what constitutes offence, in fact ‘harm’ to the person that is offended? Does this extend to other aspects of the body- many people find many body parts and modifications ‘offensive’. Dreadlocks, piercings, scarification, hair in usually shaved places, extreme thinness, extreme obesity- is any of this in fact offensive? Who gets to decide what’s appropriate, and what’s not?
Of course this is a loaded issue, and there are so many factors to take into account. For me, I do believe my body is a temple. I’m not a particular fan of reincarnation or the heaven-like ‘Summerland’ as it seems to be understood by many pagans, so I plan on living a long time and getting the most out of my body. I try to eat healthily and exercise. I minimise the amount of crap I eat, including meat that once belonged to a tortured animal. I trim away my split ends, and I don’t use hot tools or too much product on my hair. I shave my arm pits and my legs- but my bush is pretty wild. Often, I put on a fair bit of makeup for some rituals if I am being ‘told’ it is a requirement by a deity. And sometimes I wear none at all.
I hardly expect anyone to conform to the standards that I hold for myself. Everyone is in a different place, walking their own path with their own preferences. This is MY shit- my own! And my burden and/or pleasure to bear. And with that, I’d like to leave with a final crumb of food for thought:
“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” -Anne Lamott