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Photography Federico Radaelli

Exploring the mind-body problem and rise of body anxiety

This mental health awareness day, we explore how increased body scrutiny and the pursuit of body perfection manifests psychologically and physically

For centuries, philosophers and psychologists have fought over the mind-body connection and this relationship continues to be just as fraught today. From the ‘obesity crisis’ to gender fluidity, the ways in which our psychological self relates to the physical is complex and contentious.

In the 17th century, René Descartes argued that the mind exists separately from the body and that the body cannot think. Such dualist thinking has been the dominant attitude toward the body ever since encouraging us to attend to the thinking mind and dismiss that which is corporeal. In fact, rather worryingly psychoanalyst Susie Orbach argues we are moving towards a dematerialised existence where everything we understand about living, “will occur in the realm of thought, not in the physical, worldly body.” 

However, having treated a range of clients struggling with their own mind-body relationship, encountering everything from anorexia to the fear of ageing, she believes: “Body anxiety is as fundamental as emotional anxiety,” and there is an increasing need for recognition of this. 

This mental health awareness day, we address one of philosophy’s biggest dilemmas: the mind-body problem, exploring the rise in body anxiety and the ways in which our psychological selves increasingly manifests in the physical.

The mind and the body have always had a complex relationship. Across time and culture, that which exists in the psyche has manifested itself in the physical with different body parts and body shapes imbuing specific symbolic significance. In pre-19th century China, small feet represented femininity and amongst a community in northwestern Niger, fatness in women is deemed beautiful signifying status and wealth. Bodies have always been of symbolic significance and always ascribed meaning – dressed, adorned, and decorated. 

However, today in the west, the body is under increasing scrutiny. New technology, namely smartphones, as well as the proliferation of social media means the physical self is being watched, ‘liked’ and judged 24/7. Our selfhood is increasingly defined through the corporeal as we offer the world an ever-increasing number of our finest self-portraits, flattened yet artfully constructed, eagerly awaiting feedback. 

Given this increased scrutiny, the goalposts for beauty ideals are moving at obscene rates with our bodily aspirations increasingly unrealistic and achievable. While the actual building blocks of the body seem to matter less these days – a waif-like runway model or petite curvaceousness is equally beautiful – what is of recognisable value are the conditions under which bodies are sculpted and crafted. As author Jia Tolentino puts it in her essay Always Be Optimising, embodying order and control, today’s ideal body is avidly self-surveilled and disciplined seeking to be “more appealing, more endlessly presentable”. 

“An hour of surveillance and punishment in a room of mirrors and equipment and routine,” says Tolentino, describing the unprecedented popularity of Barre classes as a disciplinary bodily ritual. She claims the overwhelming success of athleisure brand Lululemon is late-capitalist fetishwear. “To even get into a pair of Lululemons, you have to have a disciplined-looking body,” she says. Today, culture watches over you until you optimise, sculpt and craft as ‘fully perfect’ a body as possible. 

“61 per cent of 11-21 year olds believe they need to look perfect, one in five adults surveyed last year felt shame about their body image and 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds feel anxious because of their body image”

Taken at face value, self-optimisation and the striving for optimal health and fitness is a positive pursuit. “There are, of course, real pleasures to be found in self-improvement,” Tolentino notes. Exercise has a plethora of health benefits from increasing our happiness to making us physically and mentally stronger.

But viewed through a mind-body lens, our incessant obsession with self-optimisation is troubling and could be indicative of deeper psychological yearnings. 61 per cent of 11-21 year olds believe they need to look perfect, one in five adults surveyed last year felt shame about their body image and 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds feel anxious because of their body image. An obsession with self-optimisation fuels body anxiety because it relentlessly communicates that we can be more perfect, inadvertently suggesting that our current selves are not to be accepted because they are not good enough. 

Heather Widdows, author of Perfect Me, argues that beauty ideals have taken on an ethical dimension whereby we (mostly women) attribute, “Implicit moral value to the day-to-day efforts of improving looks”, and failing to do so is framed as a failure of self. The body has taken on such heightened symbolic meaning in recent times because of the mechanisms we are using to relate to one another. 

Digital media encourages the performance of the physical self where sculpted, disciplined and controlled bodies are recognised and rewarded with ‘likes’. However, while research done for Dove shows that it takes 124 likes to feel accepted, most tend to receive just a fifth of this. This is a worrying statistic which indicates the distorted reality we are living where are are constantly setting up our bodies and selves to fail. In a dematerialised, Instagram world, our self-worth is derived externally, where the infamous John Berger quote that: “Women appear and watch themselves being looked at” is increasingly true for all genders and all bodies. 

In our culture of self-surveillance bodies becomes the vehicle of self-hood, the vessel through which our psychological experiences and existential yearnings play out. Whether it is reconstructive jawbone surgery in the pursuit of masculinity or obsessive gym workouts, juice cleanses and waist training in the pursuit of beauty ideals, we increasingly see our bodies not as places to live from, but rather places to perform. With this, our bodies become our own personal fiefdoms which we are supposed to order and control to be deemed socially acceptable. 

Akin to Widdows thesis, failure to discipline the body is construed as a failure of self. Not only will culture-at-large scorn you for your negligence but it is likely you will also introject this experience, turning inwards to be hypervigilant, punishing your body for its imperfection. But as we learn through the mind-body problem, control of the body is not so simple. The self is a complex phenomenon made up of a lifetime of experiences - trauma, pain, love, loss, joy - and it is through our bodies these emotions play out. 

No one articulates the toxicity of this vigilant self-surveillance better than Roxanne Gay. In her memoir Hunger, Gay writes about her own experiences of living in a fat body, recalling the traumatic events which led her to inhabit her current form. The book illuminates the ways in which fatness comes to be the embodiment of pain, a cloak of protection and disguise to ward away the male gaze. The body becomes the manifestation of protection following her experience of rape as a teen. “I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe,” she explains, using food to punish herself and to make herself less attractive avoiding external danger and threat. 

“Whether it is reconstructive jawbone surgery in the pursuit of masculinity or obsessive gym workouts, juice cleanses and waist training in the pursuit of beauty ideals, we increasingly see our bodies not as places to live from, but rather places to perform”

Gay so neatly details the complexities of the mind-body relationship, exploring the vicious cycle of self-destruction and the painful challenges of trying to escape it. She is clear in her explanations that she is more than aware of “the problems” that manifest in inhabiting fatness. But she is stuck in the pain of her trauma and terrified of the recognition and exposure that may come if she is to embody a more perfect, more optimised body. “There is a moment when I am losing weight when I feel better in my body. I breathe easier. I move better. I feel stronger.” Gay notes. “I get terrified. I start to worry about my body becoming more vulnerable as it grows smaller. I start to imagine all the ways it could be hurt. I start to remember all the ways I have been hurt.” 

As Hunger so eloquently explores, fat bodies are not – as society ascribes – lazy, gluttonous and undisciplined. Fat bodies, like all other kinds of bodies, are vessels carrying a lifetime weight of experience and emotion. However, as new technology continues to take stead and rewrite the rules of the body, an “Always Be Optimising” mentality is fuelling incessant self-surveillance. As such, the pressure to embody perfection is heightened, as we see an alarming increase in body dissatisfaction, body anxiety becomes the norm. 

Rather than attaching ourselves to these heightened social pressures, may we take a step back and remind ourselves of the age-old mind-body problem. Our bodies should not simply be places to perform, but rather places to live from. As such, just as we would attend to problems of the mind with great care and attention, so too should we attend to the body with the same level of detail. Our body anxieties are our emotional anxieties and we must come to recognise this.