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Photography Ashley Armitage, via @ladyist

How self-isolation and social distancing is messing with our sense of self

Clementine Prendergast explores the body as a metaphor and how it’s playing out in COVID-19 society

Earlier this week, I went out for my state sanctioned daily exercise. Having had a suspected case of COVID-19 the previous week, and unable to walk a few metres without breathlessness, it would be an understatement to say my 60-90 minutes of fresh air is now the highlight of my day. As I approached the canal where I planned to enjoy my brief encounter with the outdoors, I was confronted by a woman screeching at me for being too close to her, “Do you want me to fucking die?” she yelled after me. I regret to admit, on this occasion I did breach the two metre rule. I had nowhere else to go to. I thought if I moved my body past her swifty enough it wouldn’t count. As someone with a strong moral compass, I was distraught that I'd broken government-legislated rules, put others’ health at risk and been subject to public humiliation in the process. 

Her anger was resultant of the lack of physical distance between us, but her emotional response felt metaphoric of a broader challenge we are all facing with social distancing. To prevent the spread of this disease we must keep separate from lovers, family, friends – even strangers. But so much of our sense of self is determined by our relationships with others. What does it mean to have an isolated body? We explore the ways in which this physical distance forced upon us is impacting the way we relate to our bodies.

Psychologists and anthropologists have long argued that the body is a metaphor of our experience. It is the perfect vehicle to house, clothe, decorate, display, perform our emotional experiences, a tangible object to make sense of the world around us. We only need to make reference to the ‘body politic’ – a medieval metaphor which refers to the collective organisation of a nation, state or society to begin to understand how this metaphor is currently playing out in COVID-19 society. 

As many of the institutions that uphold the social order – schools, offices, churches – close their doors it feels as though there is a dismantling of society – of this ‘body politic’. This metaphor – dismantling of the collective body – is a breakdown in relationships, intimacy, identity, meaning, purpose, togetherness. In the absence of social connection, we are left in isolation with lone bodies. As social animals this cannot fare well for us. 

As a culture that prioritises the self above anyone else (just think of the dominance of narratives around self-care, self-love, self-improvement, self-help) it is probably true those of us in the west are better prepared for this indefinite period of isolation. However, our need for social connection is intrinsic to our human condition and as countless studies show, absolutely vital for our wellbeing and flourishing

Nonetheless, as the COVID-19 virus spreads ferociously throughout society, the conventional wisdom on human wellbeing is being compromised as we collectively, albeit from our self-isolation units, unite against our common enemy: COVID-19. COVID-19 is a virus. A virus which, unlike bacteria, must have host cells in order to reproduce and spread. Thus, while the virus has an airborne component (droplets from an infected person can travel one meter from breathing or speaking, two metres for a cough and up to eight metres from sneezing) the current research shows that recipients of the virus must touch their mouth, nose, or eyes to become infected.

“In the absence of social connection, we are left in isolation with lone bodies. As social animals this cannot fare well for us... as countless studies show, absolutely vital for our wellbeing and flourishing”

I outline this rather convoluted detail because while the transmission of COVID-19 is still largely unknown, there is in fact a lot of research on the spread of viruses. And yet, in a time of crisis, moral panic overtakes us all and few have any patience for the science. No one (OK, apart from Bill Gates) anticipated the spread of COVID-19 and as such, the language used to describe it, ‘unknown’, The ‘Black Swan’, ‘unprecedented’ means the disease is shrouded in mystery. As Sustan Sontag writes in Illness as Metaphor, “Any disease that is treated as mystery and acustely enough feared will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious.” 

While public health campaigns acknowledge the literal contagion of the disease, there is no recognition of the fear of moral contagion. There is no acknowledgment of the way in which the metaphor of COVID-19 impacts our social relations and in turn, as social being our sense of self. As the politicians keep telling us COVID-19 ‘does not discriminate’ and with no visible evidence of the virus to the naked eye, every other person on the street becomes a risk and a threat to our livelihood. In the absence of ordinary social interaction, we are reduced down just to our bodies, with everybody walking too close to us a potential polluter. 

It is true this sentiment is no new cultural phenomenon. Societies around the world have had strict moral codes around the danger of bodily diseases as potential polluters for centuries. Women would be forced away from civilisation and into the forests during menstruation for fear of dirt, with illness, disease, and physical ailments deemed to be a threat to social order. Sontag writes to this sentiment “a surprisingly large number of people with cancer find themselves being shunned by relatives and friends”. Just like ancient menstruation rituals, these sufferers become the object of practices of decontamination by members of their household “as if cancer, like TB, were an infectious disease.”

In short, disease is deemed anti-social. With the moral panic surrounding disease causing the ill, diseased, suffers, pollutees to sacrifice themselves in order to save others. In the case of COVID-19, the infected body is shamed for playing host to this disease and must repent. The NHS guidelines advise a seven day period of isolation after signs of the first symptoms. After seven days indoors with my suspected case, I could not wait to resume my regular wellbeing rituals and get outside to exercise. Nonetheless, I was subject to WhatsApp persecution by a friend who felt I should remain indoors because I risked infecting others. 

A similar sentiment to my opening story, the social distancing is creating an emotional barrier between us. While some suggest we should be calling it physical distancing instead, the reality is that what we experience in the social manifests in the physical. Sontag's key argument is that society's disease metaphors cause patients to feel as if society is against them. With COVID-19 we are all at risk of becoming a patient, and we do not know to what extreme need we may help. This fracturing is pulling us apart, our very physicality driving this, but we are feeling the repercussions emotionally. 

In lockdown we are working hard to make up for our lack of real life contact, constantly connected via technology, and yet we are as MIT Professor Sherry Turkle writes “Alone Together”. While we ramp up the connection – back-to-back schedules, calls, check-ins, Zooms – and strive for a sense of intimacy with loved ones we continue to feel alone. Why? Because this is an immaterial intimacy. As animals we need physical closeness.

In her book How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy, Jenny Odell neatly outlines the difference between connection and sensitivity. Odell notes that connection or connectivity can be understood as the “rapid circulation of information among compatible units”. This contrasts to sensitivity which involves “a difficult, awkward, ambiguous encounter between two differently shaped bodies that are themselves ambiguous – and this meeting, this sensing, requires and takes place in time”. What Odell highlights here is that internet connection alone is not enough. Our human connectedness requires a physical and tangible component, which involves sensing, feeling and being in the company of another body.

“As the body disappears, so does our ability to empathise,” Odell writes. It is no surprise, given that 65 per cent of human communication is non-verbal, meaning that it happens when it moves our bodies and senses others’. Video call may be a vital lifeline, it is not enough to sustain our very human needs. As Dr McGlone, professor of Neuroscience and head of the Somatosensory & Affective Neuroscience Group at Liverpool JM University “physical touch is as important as the oxygen we breathe in, the food we eat – we are social beings”. Without it our mental health and wellbeing will decline.

I am not the most tactile person, but in the absence of touch, I feel a disorientation within myself. With others fearing to come near to me given my suspected case of the virus, I feel uneasy in my disease-ridden body. Anthropologists use the term ‘liminality’ to describe the experience of being between two states. This is how my ambiguous body currently feels – between illness and wellness.

“In the absence of the sensitivity of others might we instead use this time to care for ourselves a little more? Perhaps, once we emerge back to the normality of our relationships, we may value them more and have more care to give to them too”

Naturally, I feel desperate to return to my regular wellbeing routines. As Heather Widdows of Perfect Me, notes, beauty ideals, much like disease, have taken on a moral dimension whereby we (mostly women) attribute implicit moral value to daily efforts of improving our looks. As author Jia Tolentino puts it in her essay Always Be Optimising, the body is always to be worked on, to become “more appealing, more endlessly presentable”.  In the absence of wellness – gym classes and diet rules, I feel like a failure of a woman. 

In fact, the pressure to keep improving is not limited to just the body. The pressure we feel towards the optimisation of our body is metaphoric of the pressures we feel towards productivity-at-large. In a society driven by political economy, to produce, to innovate, improve, optimise is to have value. As so many of us not only lose our wellbeing to COVID-19, we lose our work too. 

While there may be temptation to make the most of all the free time, it may also be very favourable not to. Odell argues in defence of self-maintenance based on an Audre Lore reading of self-care as “self-preservation”. In the absence of the sensitivity of others might we instead use this time to care for ourselves a little more? Perhaps, once we emerge back to the normality of our relationships, we may value them more and have more care to give to them too.