In the 1970s, we women used to talk about loving our own bodies. Inspired by the generation-defining tome Our Bodies, Ourselves, we trained for childbirth without anesthesia, we looked at our cervixes using a speculum, and in general cultivated in ourselves the thought that our own bodies were not sticky, disgusting, and shameful, but dynamic, marvelous, and, more important, just us ourselves. Today, as we boomers age, male and female, what has happened to that love and excitement? I fear that my generation is letting disgust and shame sweep over us again, as a new set of bodily challenges beckons.
In conversations, in the ways people I know meet medical challenges (routine and not-so-routine), I’ve noticed not just a discomfort with the unpopular aspects of aging (sagging skin, brown spots, loss of muscle tone), but something more general: a shrinking from the body itself, a desire to deny that this body is who we are. Maybe there are gender differences here—since I think men never fully bought into the Our Bodies phenomenon, and many continued to be repelled even by childbirth—but I see the body-aversion in both men and women.
Yesterday I saw my appendix. It was pink and tiny, quite hard to see, but how interesting to be introduced to it for the first time. In for a routine colonoscopy (my fourth, on account of a family history), I refused sedation as I always do, and I had the enormous thrill of witnessing parts of myself that I carry around with me every day, but never really know or acknowledge. I chatted with my doctor about many things, including the various justices of the Supreme Court, the details of my procedure, and, not least, the whole question of sedation and anesthesia. He told me that 99 percent of his patients have either sedation or, more often now, general anesthesia, since that is increasingly urged by the hospitals. (In Europe, he said, about 40 percent refuse sedation.) He listed the costs of this trend: financial costs that are by now notorious, lost workdays for both patient and whoever has to drive the patient (whereas a non-sedated patient needs no caretaker and can go right back to work), lost time for nurses and other hospital staff, and, of course, the risks of sedation and the even greater risks of general anesthesia.
And, I’d add, the loss of the wonder of self-discovery. You are only this one body, it’s all you are and ever will be; it won’t be there forever; and why not become familiar with it, when science gives the chance? I began refusing sedation out of a work ethic; I continued through fascination.
What are the countervailing benefits of unconsciousness? Naturally someone benefits from charging the notoriously high fees, and no doubt greed is part of the explanation for why U.S. hospitals increasingly push anesthesia. But what benefits might there be for the patient? There are no pain nerves in the colon, so any discomfort is due to pressure (unless one has done 300 sit-ups the previous day, and thus has inflamed abdominal muscles, a practice I have learned to avoid!) and, of course, to disgust and shame. On a scale of discomfort from 1 to 100, with childbirth way up there, colonoscopy ranks around a 5, much less uncomfortable than a facial peel, and it lasts only 30 minutes. So we must conclude that a great part of what motivates people to choose sedation, imposing great costs on society, on their loved ones, and on themselves, is disgust and shame. The way the nurses talked made it clear to me that patients are terrified that they might fart during the procedure—and of course it is the cleanest fart in town, since the colon has already been thoroughly cleansed.
The Our Bodies movement was partly about autonomy. We said, We won’t let doctors take over our bodies and extract the babies, we will be awake and active, and give birth as ourselves. But it was also very much a rebellion against the idea that the female body is disgusting, a staple of misogyny the world over. Whether we read Walt Whitman or not, we were Whitmanians, saying, “I sing the body electric,” that triumphant denunciation of all the shames and disgusts that Whitman saw behind the social phenomena of racial aversion, misogyny, and homophobia. Whitman knew that we will not be able to love one another unless we first stop hiding from ourselves—meaning our bodies. For “if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” If we can love our own bodies, we may possibly also love “the likes of [them] in other men and women.”
In a bold crescendo of anti-disgust, Whitman then enumerates all the parts we might come to love—starting with the ones we already like pretty well, like “head, neck, hair, ears,” then continuing on to the trunk, with its rather pleasing outer parts such as “palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger,” and on down to the strong thighs supporting the trunk. But then, like my doctor’s colonoscope, he delves within, caressing with his words: “the lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean, ... the thin red jellies within you or within me.” These, he says, are actually poems, and they are his poems. “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul. / O I say now these are the soul.”
Once we were Whitmanians. What has become of that youthful surge of profound self-love? As we age, we are yielding to all the forces we tried, back then, to combat: not only the forces of external medical control, but the more insidious force of self-loathing. Whitman knew that disgust was a social poison. Psychologists studying the emotion today confirm his intuitions about its link with prejudice and exclusion. Isn’t it, for all us aging boomers (using another of our old slogans) time to “take back the night”—that is, time to lay claim to that uncharted territory within that we try so hard, and in so many ways, to avoid?