Neologisms and catchphrases spread faster now that we have the Internet. One that I see a lot is “adulting.” Another is the phrase “my body wants.” It’s usually followed by something such as “frosting.” The idea that the body has its own internal wisdom and that it sends us clear signals is a very interesting concept that may or may not be true or helpful. For instance, sometimes my hand wants to rise up and slap the stupid out of someone, but it seems like a bad idea to let my hand become autonomous.
I’ve been working on public speaking this year, and it’s one of the hardest things I have ever done. When I get up to the podium, my legs start to shake. It’s like I’m standing in rapidly rising floodwaters. First my legs shake, then I feel it in my belly, then my hands shake, then my voice shakes. It took me three tries to make it longer than 60 seconds. I can stay on a mechanical bull longer than I can give a speech. My body wants to run away. In any other situation, I’m fearless. I can give the same speech standing at the same level as my audience; I can take over the dance floor; I have no qualms about being nude in public; I’ve marched in parades and sung karaoke. What’s different about a podium? My brain says ‘nothing’ but my thighs disagree. Whatever my body supposedly thinks it wants, here, it’s not going to win.
I have another automatic physiological response when I get mad. I can feel the stress hormones flooding my body. If I am forced to talk under these circumstances, my chest and throat constrict and I can’t seem to breathe until the whole paragraph comes out. So frustrating. I can’t bear the thought of raising my voice to someone in anger. What I wind up doing is turning on my heel and walking off at a rapid pace. I’ve done it barefoot in the rain. I’ve done it without latching the door behind me. After burning up pavement for three or four miles, I’ll feel settled enough to head back and have a rational discussion. Or not. Not everything is up for discussion. Fortunately, I don’t get mad very often. I’m experienced enough to know that when I feel that physically angry response, I will wind up saying things that are not my final opinion, and I can’t take them back. My body seems to want a fight. Again, why should I let my amygdala run my life?
There are so many things my body wants to do that are not in my best interest. Many of them are facial expressions. Eye rolls. Facepalms. Blatantly staring at someone. Coughing or sneezing without raising my elbow. Inappropriate scratching. Much of etiquette involves learning the protocol of controlling our body language, facial expressions, and biological functions. My body wants to act like the primate I am, even during my wedding ceremony or such. Too bad, body. Cowboy up. Or maybe cowboy down a little more?
Feelings are called ‘feelings’ because we feel them in our bodies. It’s instantaneous. First we feel it in our bodies, and then we interpret the physiological response with our minds. For instance, a rush of adrenalin is interpreted as anxiety by some people, and exhilaration for others. Much of that feeling comes from a previously poured foundation of storytelling. We believe things we have been told, or we explain things to ourselves, that set our responses. The story my brothers tell themselves about skydiving is completely different than the story I tell myself. The story I tell myself about my body image is different than the story that most people tell themselves. Someone in my acquaintance recently trolled me about supposedly not finishing kindergarten until I was 8. He might have felt such an insult to the bone; I just laughed, because I had already been tagged in the 99th percentile by that age. He couldn’t hurt my feelings because I knew he was wrong about me, and if he were as smart as he thought he was, he wouldn’t want to go there.
Going back to the issue of body image, I hardly know where to start. Nothing about the current discussion about body image makes any sense to me whatsoever. It plays like this: “I’m perfect just the way I am. Any hint that body fat is anything other than superior and sexy is body shaming. I need to preserve my self-esteem by not knowing how much I weigh or reading any preachy articles from medical journals.” From where I’m sitting, anyone with real body pride would not feel that hit of perceived shaming. Just like I didn’t care when someone implied that I was stupid, I don’t care what others think of my physical appearance. That’s good, because being a size zero is anathema right now, even for marathon runners like me. I know my body does what I want it to do. I’m functionally fit enough to run uphill carrying 1/3 of my body weight. All my health metrics (fasting glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, percent body fat) are in the healthy range. I’ve overcome some serious health issues, so I know what being sick feels like, but I seem to be getting healthier as I age. For most people, it’s the reverse. People in their 20s and 30s can protest all they want about how healthy they might feel, but it starts to ring false when we start hitting our 40s and 50s and relying on prescription drugs to get by.
The body wants 8-9 hours of sleep a night. We sleep-procrastinate; many of us get by on 5-6 hours. The body wants copious hydration. We think water tastes bad. The body wants insoluble fiber. Americans eat half or less of the recommended amount. The body wants a set quota of micronutrients every day. Less than 2% of Americans eat the recommended amount of potassium, and that’s just one non-negotiable biological requirement on the list. The body wants natural daylight. We sit indoors under artificial light. The body wants movement. We sit and sit until we develop chronic neck and shoulder pain, back pain, and the kind of droopy posture that makes us ache day and night. The body wants all sorts of things that we never give it.
When we say “my body wants,” we’re almost always talking about cravings for unhealthy foods. “Hey, I want curly fries, and I’m salivating. I guess my body knows what it wants.” I’ve never seen anyone use this phrase when referring to catching up on sleep, doing lat pulls, or eating cruciferous vegetables. It seems to be a type of bravado or cutesy talk, like when we use the phrase, “don’t judge :-)”. We want to bond over how we do things that are a bad idea and don’t do things that are a good idea. Anything else is a socially problematic, nerdy, preachy, holier-than-thou, wet blanket breach of etiquette.
Food cravings are not an indicator of nutritional deficiency. If they were, we’d crave healthier options. Chances are that we’re truly craving something else, but we’re too detached from what is natural for the human body to realize what we’re missing. We mask the unsettled feeling with artefacts of modern living, like chocolate, caffeine, or electronic distractions. We don’t make all the possible connections when we get ill, and generally we don’t think illness has anything to do with our unnatural, Space Age eating, sleeping, and activity patterns.
Tuning in to what the body wants involves questioning our default responses. If my body really wants those curly fries, why do I always get indigestion and a headache after I eat them? If I’m really giving my body what it wants, what is my explanation for my health problems? Why does my body not seem to want the amount of water, sleep, and healthy foods that decades of research and longitudinal studies indicate it should? What would happen if I started with the assumption that mainstream research is accurate, and behaved accordingly? This can be radical. When I made the decision to Do the Obvious and make a sincere effort to follow mainstream advice, dozens of things clicked into place at once. Suddenly I was sleeping and moving more, and I quit taking anti-inflammatories all the time because I didn’t need them. This is why I question the idea of giving my body “what it wants.” It took me nearly 40 years to get a useful understanding of what that was.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.