by Jack McLean
Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)
North American society places an inordinate emphasis on the body beautiful. The adoration of the body in today’s society is virtually cultic. It would make the ancient Greeks smile or shake their heads in disbelief. The body beautiful is, of course, associated mostly with youth and early adulthood and is thereby confined to a somewhat exclusive segment of society.
Happily, physical beauty — if one had it in the first place — does not entirely die at midlife, with its many variations on health. But as we slip-slide away from the last vestiges, memories and echoes of things youthful, into the early stages of old age, the handsome man or the beautiful woman is subject to a slow transformation. Beauty of a softer, gentler hue exerts its own special grace among those who have grown old.
An explicit, unabashed and clear link exists between fascination with the body beautiful and sex-appeal. These days the sexual corpus is everywhere and inescapable. I imagine that the erotic body electric, all by itself, is supposed to entrap the sensate soul into a permanent relationship, to make somebody forever close. More often than not, that approach, although it does fan the flames for a while, fails. For lovers soon discover that you have to do something with the rest of your life after sex. The hard edge of reality does have its own dull and unforgiving way of bursting your bubble. You still have to do the laundry.
Sex does seem to sell, all the same. The body beautiful has served well for selling product for more than a generation now. No need for the subtleties of The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard’s book of yesterday about advertising. Flaunting it is where it’s at. Calvin Klein knows this all too well. But C.K. lost it somewhere along the fashion line. Titillatingly tolerated when he slipped flirt into advert, he provoked disgust when his billboards went semi-porno. I don’t really need half-clad pubescent kids to sell me a pair of jeans or underwear.
Then we have the body builders, a more outlandish variation of the body beautiful. While I can to some extent appreciate aesthetic athletes who train seriously, I am left behind at that climactic moment when, in a state of extreme hype and pose, the body sculptors pump up well-oiled muscles under glaring stage lights to impress the judges. But why, I wonder, is his pump better than the guy pumping next to him? (Mysteries abound).
Nudity is your most overt version of the body beautiful. We have some of these trend-setters right here on Salt Spring Island where I currently live. But I am thinking that if we all went nude, nudity would fail to appeal. It would become as humdrum as clothing, except that we could see what all would look like naked. I am not sure how that would put us farther ahead. Would it help relieve chronic hunger or stop the slaughter of defenceless ethnic minorities? If we all dared to be nudistically different, none of us would be different at all. It’s fascination would fail miserably due to broken convention.
In ancient societies, the body beautiful was connected, on one hand, with the more quiescent forms of beauty and with athletic prowess on the other. Check out your classic Greek sculpture and your original athletic games back in Olympia. Now this earlier form of the body beautiful still survives in our day in the quest for athletic excellence during the modern Olympiad.
The body of a well-trained, well-honed athlete at work, man or woman, is pure poetry in motion. But, except for dream-time, there is little or no sex-appeal involved. Here the body beautiful incarnates courage, endurance, discipline and strives to stretch the limits. This body beautiful is about going faster, higher, farther.
Deepak Chopra, a thoughtful, contemporary teacher of spirituality, counsels us to find reality in the soul or the mind by envisioning the body as old, even while it is still young and supple. Realise, he says, that you are aging even now and soon that still firm and useful body that you possess will become infirm. Eventually it will die. What is that reality within you, Chopra asks, that will endure in the face of death? What is that subtle, ethereal body within the body that will remain ever fresh and youthful after the body dies?
The eternal body beautiful is the divine mind or soul. That spiritual body needs as much attention as the sexual corpus longing to be loved in the erotic embrace. It will live long after this failing one finally succumbs to the inexorable laws of nature. Which body beautiful, then, merits our closest attention?