Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Look at That Body

A woman is doing triceps pressdowns with a rope. As she pushes the rope down, her triceps flex. They look, well, sexy.

I am that woman, admiring my own my triceps in the mirrored wall of the gym. If you’re put off by this apparent vanity, bear with me. I don’t look good during every exercise I do—with some I look ridiculous or even repellent—but with many of them, I daresay I look awesome. I lunge forward and admire my legs. I do Supermans and admire my lower back. And triceps—there’s something about them that gets me every time.

Somebody’s Tricep!

Allow me to clarify what I am not talking about. I’m not talking about walking around with a full head all the time.  I’m not talking about glorifying the body while disregarding everything else, in the way we often do with celebrities. However, I am encouraging you to admire your body and be proud of it when you exercise. If it is acceptable to be proud of your intelligence, your hard work, your good taste, and other attributes and accomplishments, why not the accomplishments of the flesh? Why should that be considered vain or otherwise immoral? Moreover, when I admire my body while exercising, it is not so much that it’s my body—it’s a body, doing what it has evolved to do: lift, push, pull, stretch, move.

A Brief Look at Philosophical Positions on the Body

Using the index of Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy, I did not find much of interest relating to philosophical positions on the body. What I did find related mainly to epistemology. (What is a body? How do we know it’s there?)

One interesting passage, though, came from a chapter on Plato, who writes,

“The body is the source of endless trouble to us...”1

then goes on to enumerate several ways the body is inferior to the soul. The Stoic Epictetus, according to my man Marcus Aurelius, would say, “Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse.”2 And yet the ancient Greeks are famous for portraying ideal bodies, often in motion, in their sculpture. We are now in the midst of the Olympics, a body-glorifying celebration if there ever was one, which of course originated in Greece. Greek attitudes towards the body, unsurprisingly for any culturally rich society, were not uniform.

Discobolus (disc-thrower). Interior from an Attic red-figured cup, ca. 490 BC.
Source, including caption: Wikipedia

Russell himself, explaining his own views on beliefs in the John Dewey chapter, writes,

“But in fact the distinction between the mind and body is a dubious one. It will be better to speak of an ‘organism,’ leaving the division of its activities between the mind and body undetermined.”3

Without exploring more thoroughly this question of mind–body distinction, a question deserving of its own post (or more than one), I simply note that observing yourself while exercising is a way to marvel at this distinction. My mind commands my arm to move, whatever that means, and my arm moves. My mind commands my legs to do one more squat, and my legs disobey. Who’s in charge, here? Philosophers and other humanities scholars pay so much attention to the wonders of the mind that they often forget the wonders of the body.   

Though they are not strictly philosophical thoughts, the Christian Bible has several verses that admire the human body, albeit because its magnificence gives glory to God:

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139: 13-18, English Standard Version)

“How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince's daughter! . . . Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. . . . Your neck is like an ivory tower. . . . How beautiful you are and how pleasing. . .” (the man in Song of Solomon 7: 1-9)

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20, English Standard Version)

Ultimately, I do not think there is a philosophically defensible position that denigrates the worthiness of a body exercising. Relatively speaking, our bodies are frail and ephemeral. Often, they are ugly and pathetic. But sometimes, they are beautiful, and rarely more so than when they are in motion. In those moments, take time to appreciate them—especially your own.   

1. Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 137.
2. Ibid, 263.
3. Ibid, 821.


  1. I like your blog. Keep em coming. I don't think I've ever put too much philosophy into exercise before.
    I transitioned from lifting weights for vanities sake to running longer distances over the last few years. While my body may not belong on Baywatch at the moment I am pretty happy with transformation. There's a certain beauty in seeing my legs contract for the hundred thousandth time in a day. I might bulk up again in the future as my interest develop, but for the moment I'm enjoying the efficiency of my current condition, and the places it takes me.

  2. Thanks, Marcus, for this interesting comment. There can certainly be a fine line between vanity and pure, joyous admiration of the body. Maybe it's impossible to keep them fully separate - I don't know.