Tuesday, September 9, 2008

HustleJunkie: Renewing the Body

Graydon Gordian is the author of 48 Minutes of Hell and a contributing writer for Hardwood Paroxysm. His HustleJunkie column runs every Tuesday here at HP. This week's column continues his discussion of the body and modern culture.

Infatuation, sadism, lust, avarice
possess our souls and drain the body's force;
we spoonfeed our adorable remorse,
like whores and beggars nourishing their lice.
-Charles Baudelaire
We Americans have an awful relationship with our bodies. The heavy-handedness of our Puritan history combined with the unbridled nature of American capitalism has twisted our understanding of our own flesh past the point of perversion. Parents shield their children's eyes during sex scenes but openly allow them to view fictional murders, as if human intimacy was a greater threat to moral fortitude than taking another person's life (I am not suggesting children should be allowed to view sexual content on film, merely that withholding such content while simultaneously exposing them to fictional violence is a dubious moral judgment). Video games like Grand Theft Auto, although somewhat controversial from the outset, only inspired a real backlash when it integrated an overt sexual element: Never mind the fact that the game's original content was based off of glorifying theft and murder.

And all the while, our economic culture swings to the opposite extreme. Our current food system, bereft of any sense of foresight or responsibility, sacrifices public health in the name of mass consumption. As Jonathan Rowe, a community organizer in California, noted in his March 12th testimony before the Senate committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, current economic indicators such as the GDP, which is driven not by our quality of life but by the volume of our monetary transactions, are actually bolstered by unhealthy lifestyles:
By that standard, the best kids are the ones who eat the most junk food and exercise the least, because they will run up the biggest medical bills for obesity and diabetes.
And while one half of corporate culture implores us to feast without reservation, the other half feeds women (and increasingly men) wildly unrealistic images of what they must look like in order to have any semblance of worth: You can never be too thin, you know. No matter which direction you head, the current nature of our socio-economics seems to lay waist to any attempts to have a healthy relationship with our bodies.

Whether moral or economic, a recurring aspect of American culture seems to be our inability to not fall into the trap of the extreme.

As my polemical tone has hopefully suggested, this need not be the case. Humans are not destined to look upon their own bodies with a regrettable combination of inadequacy and shame. Our sense of our physical selves is taught, and therefore can realistically be reformed.

Which brings me to back to sports: Sport is often used pedagogically. Most contemporary team sports developed in academic settings, oftentimes as a vehicle to instill in adolescent men (the history of sport cannot be divorced from the gender divide) a form of Aristotelian virtue ethics (it is no coincidence that sport was and continues to be highly emphasized in the Catholic educational system: in many ways Aristotle provides the moral foundation for both). Respect. Teamwork. Honor. The classical pillars not just of successful athletics but what our society deems to be proper socialization. And for the most part, youth sports seem to remain a tool through which these virtues are passed on.

But much of American youth and adolescent athletics has been corrupted by our inherent competitiveness. Don’t get me wrong: I am an intense competitor, and when on the court I hustle ceaselessly from buzzer to buzzer. I’d love to act as if that is an aforementioned virtue that was instilled in me during my youth but really it’s a survival tactic: I’m a pretty mediocre basketball player, and to make up for it I go all out. But we have allowed the nobility that comes alongside struggling for victory to be corrupted by our cultural inclination towards the extreme.

Youth sports are no longer a place for “play.” They have been corrupted by a ceaseless pursuit of excellence which not only threatens young men and women’s sense of self-worth, but also their bodies. As Michael Sokolove noted in his New York Times Magazine article “The Uneven Playing Field,” children are increasingly encouraged to specialize in a sport earlier and earlier during their childhood, leading to not only a false sense of promise but the increased likelihood of serious injury:
The club structure is the driving force behind the trend toward early specialization in one sport — and, by extension, a primary cause of injuries. To play multiple sports is, in the best sense, childlike. It’s fun. You move on from one good thing to the next. But to specialize conveys a seriousness of purpose. It seems to be leading somewhere — even if, in fact, the real destination is burnout or injury.
By only playing one sport, and increasingly playing it year round, children continually stress only select muscle groups, which are only partially developed and uniquely open to injury. As Sokolove notes, young women are more susceptible to these types of injuries than young men, but both genders fall victim to our current athletic culture.

By standing back and assessing this reality, I can’t help but feel that our entire society has it backwards: Shouldn’t our morals put us at peace with our sexuality? Shouldn’t our food system be driven by a vision of healthy, balanced eating, rather than function in spite of one? Shouldn’t athletics be the centerpiece for fitness and well being in our society rather than a threat to it?

Obviously my argument is laced with hyperbole: Many adults encourage healthy eating, realistic and responsible sexual habits, and athletic diversity and moderation amongst the younger members of our society. But the tendencies I have touched upon our real, as is the potential for change.

I don’t want to parade as a wonk that has some clever policy proposal tucked up his sleeve. I don’t. Many of the cultural shortcomings I have railed against cannot in all likelihood be legislated away. But so many of our bodies have been pushed towards two contrasting extremes: While 20% of American children are overweight (not to mention more than 60% of adults), a growing number of children suffer lifelong athletic injury at increasingly younger ages. If I cannot offer a plan, the least I can do is hope to bring about a brief moment of reflection and greater consciousness going forward.

In the New Testament there is a story in which Jesus, upon entering the temple in Jerusalem, finds that a marketplace has been setup on holy ground. Enraged by the desecration of sacred space, Jesus famously begins overturning tables and chases the traders and moneylenders from the house of God. It may be about time we began overturning some tables of our own.

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