Despisers of the body

By Ralia Maijama’a

A few days ago in Imo State, a group of angry women stormed the streets protesting that young girls were using indecent dressing to attract the women’s husbands. What this ultimately means is that the husbands are attracted to the young women’s bodies, which are on display when “indecently” dressed.

The focus and source of the protesting women’s disgruntlement, therefore, is the female body exposed to the male gaze. This write-up is not about that incident, but rather about our current obsession with our bodies because it brought to my mind an interesting section in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) entitled “On the Despisers of the Body” where the eponymous Zarathustramocks those who think that the body is less important than the mind.

His argument is that it is the body, not the mind, that does things; that what we think of as the “self”, that all important marker of our “true” identity, is actually nothing but one aspect of the body’s “great reason”.
That is to say, the body is, in the words of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “a great plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a shepherd”.

In this regard, our emphasis on mind over body is put to question and Nietzsche’s argument on the supremacy of the body over the mind has been justified especially in our own times.

Since Nietzsche’s book, written in the 1880s, there has been a massive explosion in interest in the body as body, indeed an obsession with the body as both “reason” and “faith”.

This obsession with the body and how it appears to the gaze of other selves (or bodies) can be seen in present day concerns with the body such as bodily self-expression, cosmetic surgery, body art, body piercing, and the contemporary body culture along with the rise of the “hospitality” industry, consumer culture, and other notions of physical beauty, body shapes, and bodily freedom.

For most, especially for women – but it is also becoming common with men too – the natural body is something to be ashamed of, and therefore needs to be refurbished, airbrushed, painted over, and transformed into yet another body, one which is based on the person’s idea of the “ideal body”.

This “new and improved” body masks the real, biological body, which, because of its “imperfections” is despised and therefore must not be allowed to surface.

To achieve this ideal body, women augment their natural hair with wigs, hair extensions, hair creams, hair colouring or dyeing, or by perming, curling, straightening or stretching using all manner of chemicals and electronic gadgets.

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The face of the “ideal” body also has to be covered in all sorts of accoutrements, disappearing under a deluge of exotic lip creams and lip sticks, bleaching and whitening lotions, foundations, powders, paints, sprays, glitters and shadows.

What cannot be painted out is modified – eyebrows are reshaped and redrawn; eyelashes are elongated with fake lashes and mascara. Fingers and toes are not left out but disappear under paint or fake nails. Wrinkles, lines and stretch marks are “disciplined” into shape with Botox and laser treatments; sagging boobs and bums are given a new lease of life with implants.

And since it has become unacceptable to have any figure but the “eight”, women squeeze ourselves into modern day corsets, terrified to breathe much less – God forbid! – eat.

Ralia Majiama’a

In this great new “religion” of the body aesthetic, beauty salons are now everywhere catering to the body and its striving towards “perfection”, ever ready with the “technologies of female beauty” in the form of awe-inspiring chemicals, gadgets and devices to satisfy every “worshipper’s” aesthetic desire. There’s hardly now a naturally-given woman, especially among urban women.

The hatred of our true body has caused us to repress our natural body making us to dress it up in new, non-natural, “garments”.

Still not satisfied, we embark on regimes of diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery and health promotion strategies that promise a new ideal of beauty or body-satisfaction; the pressure to transform oneself into a symbol of desirability and feminine beauty pushes many women to invest in the new fad of the transformation of the body through fashion and self-decoration beyond the normative and traditional ideals of womanhood and female desirability.

But where would all this take us? Only to what psychologists would call “a lack of self-acceptance”. This flight from nature, from the body as nature, would slowly take us to a regime of self-hatred, precisely what Nietzsche would call “the despisers of the body”, or, in this case, a refusal to affirm one’s own natural gifts, or those aspects of the body, from complexion and hair type, that Nature has bestowed on us.

Why must a woman have to use wigs, artificial hair, fake eye lashes, fake eye brows, fake nails, fake breasts, and fake hips and height-enhancing shoes? It is, I would argue, not just a blind acceptance of modern fashion statements but also a hidden hatred of what one is.

It is a mark, no doubt, of an inferiority complex, a refusal to be as one naturally is. Self-acceptance is a great virtue and a preparation for a cultural affirmation that is noble, accepting, and prideful.

Thus the new modifications of the body that we see around us is not, as has been conventionally assumed, an interpretation of the body; it is, rather, a misunderstanding of the body, the desire to hide the true body and project, in its place, an artificial, fabricated, made-up, fictitious body— for the body has a great reason, which is to affirm our natural heritage for which we should be proud not ashamed.

•Ralia Maijama’a is a member of The Trumpet Editorial Board.

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