Are you beach-body ready? No, probably not, and neither am I, if by being ready we mean: tanned, toned, taut beyond measure, a perfected shining instance of a certain kind of slim, young and apparently flawless (and here: female) body that serves as an understandable, if predictable, shorthand for sexual availability and desirability. The question is not mine, but comes from a recent notorious advertising campaign by a meal replacement supplier that has featured prominently and offensively on the London underground over the last few weeks. Featuring a lithe and tanned bikini-clad model who stands squarely on to the viewer’s gaze, it implies: she is, and you’re probably not. Not ready. Not sexy. Not good enough.
The furore over Protein World’s ad campaign has focused, variously, on the social irresponsibility of ratcheting up the pressure on women and girls to conform to a depressingly stereotypical physical ideal and the objectification of women’s bodies more generally, along with the achievability of the particular kind of body that the advert promotes (only the other day I heard a sports coach on the radio saying that the model’s slim figure could be achieved through diet and exercise by any woman under the age of 40). The model, 23-year old Australian Renee Somerfield, has gone on record to say that her slim figure is the result of a healthy lifestyle (and genetic disposition), rather than dieting, and naturally enough won’t hear a word against her employers, though she adds: “The real goal should always be health, not body size.”
Nevertheless, both women and men have taken umbrage at this especially glaring instance of the calculated cultivation of body-shaming and body dysphoria for commercial exploitation, and the ad, which has now run its course in the London underground, has been banned from returning following numerous complaints and countless creative instances of defacement.
The concept of readiness for the pushers of meal replacement powders (and let’s be clear: there is absolutely nothing sexy or interesting about meal replacement powders) involves the notion that there is something to be done – more precisely, something to be bought – prior to setting out for the holiday, the beach, the good times. Readiness is chiefly a question of technique thwarted only by our unwillingness to get or stay with the programme. What stops us from being ready, we are told, is a failure of effort or preparation or self-denial; a failure of will, in other words, to master and control self or situation.
This is a kind of being ready, in other words, that already knows what achievement looks and feels like, that has figured health, beauty, sex, strength, and happiness in straightforwardly knowable terms measurable against a series of physical indicators. For me, the visually striking thing about the Protein World poster is the static quality and the awkward pose of the model.
There she is, hot by numbers: slim, blonde, pelvis shifted anteriorly toward the lens; she’s rocking the just-shaved stubble-free look, day-one hair, recent (because unsmudged, pristine) application of make-up; she has not so much achieved as incarnated beach-body readiness, and yet: what to do now? Not much, it seems, of anything particularly clear or substantial for her in this beach-body-ready Valhalla (and no-one, notably, to do anything with): on repeated viewing the image takes on a slightly disturbing aspect of a certainly glamorous young woman, posed awkwardly in front of that garish background for all eternity, a modern variant of the yellow hell described by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who finds that she’s replaced not only her meals but life itself with an eerie simulacrum. Ironically, the advert’s evocation of beach-body readiness as a perfected state without sequel results in it undermining its own argument: no, you’re not beach-body ready, and frankly, thank goodness. Run away, while there’s still time!
In place of the kind of readiness promoted by Protein World (and what a world that is!), I want to suggest that we might rethink readiness less in terms of achieved mastery over a future that in fantasy we presume to know and more in terms of the cultivation for our capacity for responsiveness and adaptability to a future that may yet surprise us with joy. I’ll let you in on not-too-great a secret: I have been body dysmorphic for most of my adult life; I grew up in a household of avant la lettre nevernudes, and I have never knowingly achieved body-readiness for the beach, the swimming pool, or, indeed, the Finnish Lapland outdoor hot tub and sauna team-building experience with nine male office colleagues that remains a stand-out memory from all my days spent toiling in corporate offices. Training as a Rolfer, in which we’re blithely expected to walk around in our underwear as though that’s not a thing, was an incredibly – how shall we say? – challenging thing for me to do.
The point will be obvious to many, but in case you’re someone who has never experienced how painful it feels to stand in a room of your peers in only your underwear, I’ll describe it for you thusly: the sense of shame of feeling bad about one’s body feels like the oxygen is being sucked out of the room, or that the ground will give way; it feels dizzying and terrifying; it feels like being pulled away from the handrail in the pool when you cannot swim, or being dragged into the centre of an ice-rink when you cannot skate. It is a feeling of being overwhelmed, a feeling that in its smaller way is nevertheless physiologically identical to the experience of trauma.
Having trained as a Rolfer, what I now know is that the feeling doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to what you look like, your weight, or the rest of it: I see people’s bodies every day as a part of my Rolfing practice, and people’s comfort or otherwise to be seen in their underwear bears little relation to any of the conventional indicators of beauty. Certainly, I am beach-body ready by none of the Protein World indicators of especial physical charms or unassailable confidence. But I realise that what has prevented me from being beach-body ready in the past has been, chiefly, fear.
Quite recently I came across this quote by Kevin Frank, a senior US Rolfer and author. It comes from an article in which he’s responding to a question about the aims of Rolfing: ‘Almost everyone will agree that the point of the Ten Series is to achieve lasting improvements in the way a body responds to its environment. The healthy response to the normal demands of life is to meet them, and to grow a little longer as one does so. How do we evoke this healthy response in a body that has lost this capacity?’ [itals. mine].
I like this quote because it speaks to me of the kind of insight and personal growth that experiences such as Rolfing (though not only Rolfing) can cultivate and support. Within it there’s a more technical point about the relation of stress and fear and our habitual, often defensive ways, of holding ourselves to physiological states of compression, rigidity and tightness in myofascial tissues and joints. So many of us live both physically and mentally in something like a ‘brace’ position: fearing the worst, expecting trouble, living small versions of ourselves rather living to our potential. Bracing is a kind of readiness against an expected blow and it shares something of the static dimension of the beach-body readiness evoked by our lady of the yellow wall: readiness as a limit rather than an opening towards both the exigencies and the opportunities of life.
I also draw on Frank’s words to demonstrate the way in which what Rolfers hope to achieve with their clients is not something that is best described in narrowly cosmetic terms. There is no question that Rolfing can facilitate striking cosmetic improvements in many people in a way that I have previously written about: compressed, stressed, overly muscle-bound bodies benefit from decompression, release and lengthening; where there are areas of weakness and collapse, bodies benefit from the stimulation and activation of parts of the body that are being underused or from improved support from the feet and through the structures of the midline of the body (eg. the adductors and pelvic floor).
But what we are trying to do is to nudge the body towards a place of greatest resilience and functional repertoire – integration is the word that we use – a place where, for instance, where clients might say that they now feel that their ‘feet are a part of their body’, or their ‘arms no longer feel like they are dragging them down’, or their ‘head doesn’t feel so heavy’, or find that they can ‘breathe more fully’ and ‘hold themselves more upright’. These are physical sensations which are powerful indicators of integration – the making whole of a complex structure which has different parts working together.
A body that has received the Rolfing ten series is a body with fewer places of strain, fewer parts that are liable to ‘give’ or ‘twinge’ through over-use or under-use. It is not a perfected, static body definitively immunised against the ravages of age, diet and happenstance. But it should be a stronger, better aligned, more resilient body, one that is readier and more resourced to meet whatever life may have in store. What that looks like and feels like will be different for each person.
What Kevin Frank is describing in physical terms, I would argue, implies a different vision of ‘readiness’ (for the beach or whatever else life holds) that meets life in an attitude of courage and responsiveness and remaining open, as best one can, to the possibility that our small instances of holding our nerve in the face of the things we find challenging may be rewarded with new and more interesting life.
This is not an easy thing to do. Even after my Rolfing training, my beach-body-readiness (and not only that) is a little wobbly, precarious, not finally achieved – and nor am I past caring. Wearing my bikini (yes, I do own one) to the beach will, I suspect, always feel slightly terrifying, precipitous, and of a piece with the many other things in life which require me to be a little bit braver than I frankly feel like being. My contention is that we need to uncouple an idea of a courageous ‘readiness’ from the narrow, frankly boring, conception of ready-made ‘readiness’ peddled by the purveyors of gussied-up dehydrated milk powder (95% whey protein concentrate, anyone?). Their complacent attempt to exploit female body insecurity for commercial gain has prompted an exuberant and defiant backlash for which, one must suspect, they were not ready.