BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION: I have been translating (from Portuguese) some of the interviews and stories written about me in the past five years, as well as producing summaries about the videos recorded with some longer interviews. These translations were a requirement for a professional project. It has been hard work. Most of the original texts have style problems in Portuguese, make extensive use of imagery, metaphors and colloquialisms. Some phrases make no sense. The few arguments are not logically constructed. Interviews that took over four hours, sometimes even more than one day, were edited in such a manner that my words frequently sound out of context. Translating these texts has been more than hard: it has been pretty unpleasant. One of the most uncomfortable common features is that even when the whole story is about me (that’s the case with all the stories in this series), the title highlights my famous transgender brother, Laerte Coutinho. This is journalistic sensationalism and opportunism, to say the least. More than that, it is a disrespect with the reader and with the subject of the interview (me). There were worse stories than the ones published here, but those I ignored. I decided to post these on my blog chiefly because they reflect the moment when the media found my suicide story an interesting ornament to the big hype of the moment: Laerte’s coming out as a cross-dresser. Soon they realized that the suicide led back to horrific aspects of Brazilian political power: rape, abuse, brainwashing, physical and psychological torture within the leftist organizations. The stories about me stopped. I became “untouchable” and received more than one threat, including one with a sub-text of execution.
Enjoy – if you can.
- Sister Courage
- She’s got the strength
- Lifter controls bipolar disorder
- The body as a stranger
- Marilia defends bodybuilding
- Science and free form exercise
- Marilia’s brother’s breasts
Translation of the article “Corpo, ilustre desconhecido; Não podemos nos sentir plenos enquanto não tomarmos real consciência de nosso físico”, by Jeanne Callegari, published at Vida Simples, Abril Publishing House, September 21, 2011.
The body, this notable stranger
We cannot feel complete until we become really aware of our body
Text by Jeanne Callegari – photos by Gustavo Arrais – Revista Vida Simples, Abril Editora, September 21, 2011
The words in the computer called my attention. “We live in a culture that alienates us from our bodies”, said athlete and writer Marilia Coutinho, in an interview. “Our institutions produce individuals that see the mind in the first person, but thinks the body in the third person”. I immediately felt a connection with this. I have constructed my identity around the mind (smart young lady who likes theories) and I used to neglect my body: I didn’t exercise, didn’t feed it well, didn’t care about resting. It has been some time, though, that I found out how bad this was for me and decided to change. It is not easy to change habits built over a lifetime. This way, I went through life disconnected from my body. Disconnected from myself.
Then it occurred to me to write a story about the body. From the start, I felt a contradiction: how to write about something that, essentially, we experience, in practice, through movement? As I was typing the text, I felt back soreness and also a suffocating feeling, typical of the anxiety of not knowing how to start. I restarted many times, always feeling that chest tightness. Little by little it sank in: as everything we do in life, writing is physical. There is the mind, that thinks and elaborates, but it is connected to the body, it only exists in the body. What we feel and think influences the physical, and vice-versa, as all of those who had a headache after a fight with the loved one know.
Western medicine did a lot of research on somatization, which is how our emotions affect our health. But the relations between our mind and our body are deeper than this. If physicians can’t find the cause for a patient’s pain, for example, they say it is “psychological”, as if the psychological weren’t part of the body. Being specialized, medicine treats bones, eyes, skin as if they were separate and independent parts. But how should a pain in the legs be treated without considering the deeper origins this pain might have?
We repress our sensations, since childhood, in the body. “It is in the tightness, retraction and muscle soreness on the back, limbs, diaphragm and also face and sex that all your history is written, from birth to present day”, wrote physical therapist Thérèse Bertherat, in the classic “the Body has its Reasons” (Martins Fontes). To manage the anxiety of not being able to transform the environment, children silence their own body. “You have bent as much as you could and, to fit in, you deformed yourself”, says Therese. A child that needs a lot of contact, for example, cries because she feels needy. However, if she doesn’t get to be held as she needs, she will shut down the crying because she doesn’t want to feel that anxiety forever. This way, holding our breath, holding back the tears, curving our shoulders, we go on repressing our pains. But we end up repressing other things as well. One of them is the natural ability of the body to self-regulate. “We create muscle armors, protection layers and with this, we block our perception of the whole body”.
“We lose our ability to feel illness, to see how much we need to rest”, says Sandra Volpi, psychologist from the Reichian Center, at Curitiba. Armors formed by slouching shoulders, curved backs, crooked knees are not the only losses suffered in childhood. Strength, agility, coordination… Our physical aptitude is slowly lost. At each “kid, stop running!” or “girl, get down from there!”, we lose the opportunity to develop our potential. Women suffer even more. Because they are considered fragile, their movements are subject to more restraint: they must be moderate, not jump like boys, not climb things. Boys are allowed some more movement. They develop better, physically. Exercise is easier for them. In spite of that, women suffer more pressure than men to lose weight and fit in a beauty standard.
Marilia Coutinho calls this estrangement body alienation. “Alienation means that something is separated from a subject”, she writes in the book “Aesthetics and Health” (Phorte), published last August. It is the separation, in the human being, of something that is essential to itself: its bodily nature, the conscience of itself. It is a form of mutilation. The body, of course, cannot cease to exist. However, without knowing it, we start to see it as something strange, something that disobeys us, that gets fat, loses weight and gets sick regardless of our will. It becomes a sort of unruly child that we may even reject if it doesn’t do what we want.
Separation of the mind
Body alienation comes from an ancient way of thinking: the idea that the mind (or soul) and body were separated. In ancient Greece, Plato spoke about the world of ideas, that were perfect, unlike their manifestations in the physical world, that were always a bit crooked. Think about a cookie cutter. The form is perfect. That would be the soul, the true reality. The final cookies, however, are all different: one is thicker, the other a little burned. The cookies are the body, the material world. Bodies must be tamed, submitted. “Since the soul was immortal, it was considered more noble, superior to the body”, says Danise Bernuzzi de Sant’Anna, History professor at PUC-SP and author of “Corpos de Passagem” (Passing Bodies, Estação Liberdade).
This is the prevailing vision in many religions. Christianity, for example, mentions an immortal soul and that the body is the source of sin. It has to be punished, then. Hindi philosophy divides the world between purusha (mind/spirit) and prakriti (material substance). In the Western world, this perspective reached its peak with Descartes. His famous phrase: “I think, therefore I am” implied that the mind was superior to the body.
Once established the separation between mind and body, what happens? Very early, without noticing it, we tend to lean to one side. Body or mind: we can’t have both. Remember school? On one side, the jocks; on the other, the nerds. Few kids could transition between the two spheres. “Those who choose the mind end up considering that the body knowledge is not for them”, says Leonardo Caramori, Tai chi Chuan master. And the body is left there, sort of abandoned.
Of course, dualism is not the only available perspective. Opposite to that is monism, that considers that there is no division in the essence of things. Therefore, body and mind are not fundamentally different, but part of a complex whole. In Antiquity, Parmenides defended this vision; among the modern, Spinoza. For this philosopher, the world was made of a neutral substance. The physical and the mental would be properties of such substance. Whatever it was, this perspective was always minor in relation to dualism. Scholars started to consider the bodily nature of human beings only recently in their theories, and the fact that we exist in space (we move, we occupy space in the world, we stumble upon each other) and in time (we get old, we have a limited life expectancy). We don’t exist without our bodies: it is impossible to leave it outside the classroom, as much as it is not possible to leave the mind at the gym’s door.
Form X body
At this point you might be asking yourself: “How can the body be neglected in society, if all I see out there is the search for a perfect body, a single beauty standard?” Actually, magazine covers are not designed by philosophers or physicists; people who register at a gym don’t do so seeking a better brain.
But seeking a beauty standard is quite different from being conscious of our organisms. “The ideal of a purer soul was substituted by the idea of a great shape”, says Denise de Sant’Ana. “The dualism persists, but the opposition is now between a fleshy, mortal body, that gets sick and ages, and an ideal body, forever young and clean”. Many people who seek gyms are not concerned with better understanding their own body, integrate themselves, become healthier. What they want is a way to fit into this ideal standard, to have a shape to expose. “It is said that there is an idolatry of the body (“corpolatry”). Actually, it is a formolatry: an idolatry of the form, of a shape. Each person has a unique body. But form is not: it is platonic”, says Marilia Coutinho.
Marilia knows well the story of body alienation. As a child, she had relationship problems and also trouble with her own emotions. The solution came when she was 11 years old and she discovered sports. She settled down. At 14, she became a fencing champion. But then she had to become a member of the Communist Party, where it was claimed that sport was a “bourgeois” thing, and she quit what she most loved. At the same period, she was raped by political leaders. To defend herself, Marilia withdrew from her own body. She even abused it with drugs and self-mutilation. At 19, she left the Party and devoted herself to studying, but the damage was done. She moved on as a biologist and a brilliant scholar, but full of anxiety. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she managed her life with medication. It was only after a suicide attempt that she understood: exercise was the way she could be sane. One year later, she was National powerlifting champion. In the strength sport, she found herself. She integrated herself.
For Marilia, reconnecting through physical activity requires one to be fully present, whole, in each gesture. Because of this, she criticizes the traditional gym model. “You learn how to move machines – not your body”, she says. Joel Fridman, Crossfit Brasil owner, agrees. “The skills required by an athlete are the same that your grandmother needs: strength, balance, agility… She needs to get up safely, for example, he says. For this reason, at Crossfit, they work with the whole body. The movements are full body, functional. There are no mirrors there: the practitioner must learn to know himself.
As I heard Joel speaking about mirrors, I remember my first yoga instructor, Lourdes. She said the same thing about the body. At 74 years old, teacher and practitioner for decades, she executes movements that I can hardly understand. It was in her class that I started the discovery of my own body: I got there tightened, shortened, with soft muscles. Little by little, she explained everything that could be worked. Full of patience, she taught. Practicing yoga every day, I saw, in awe, that I could touch my feet with my legs straight; that my arms could be strong; that the body knowledge is essential for self-knowledge.
When I moved to another town, without Lourdinha’s help, I had a hard time to fit yoga into my routine. I made a mistake: I delegated my learning process to a master when, in truth, it is each person’s responsibility to find their body consciousness. Wise people can help, but, in the end, we are the ones responsible for this search. We are used to attributing the decisions of our lives to the “authorities”: they should tell us what to eat and which exercises to perform. There’s nothing wrong in seeking guidance from a specialist. But it is necessary to hear our own voice, too, because each body is different. Like food, certain exercises and techniques will be better for some people than to others.
So, is it necessary to exercise?, asks me the reader, suspicious. Yes and no. Nobody has to do something they consider boring. “Pleasure is an important component of the equation”, says Marilia. But if the idea is to make peace with the body, find it, you can’t stop at theory. It is important to work it. It is not easy. It may hurt, make you tired, be time consuming. Not to mention the emotions that are triggered by the process. Approaches such as osteopathy, Alexander and physical therapy specialized in body consciousness are ways to discover the body, like yoga. And also exercise, why not? It can be great, as long as it is done with consciousness, without the intention of taming the body but rather thinking about exploring its possibilities.
One of these possibilities is illumination. Not asceticism through suffering as many religions advocate, but transcendence. Anthropologist Chicako Ozawa de Silva introduces the approach of two Japanese scholars to the debate about the body. One of them, Ishikawa Hiroshi, wrote a book called “The body as Spirit”, in which he claims that the things we believe to be spiritual cannot exist without their physical aspects, and vice-versa. Our own existence unifies the spiritual and physical levels. For Yuasa Yasuo, the mind-body integration is a goal we can achieve through self-knowledge practices such as meditation. It is the body’s potential that, if we refuse to explore, we will never know.
To know more:
“The body has its reasons” (“O Corpo Tem suas Razões), by Thérèse Bertherat, Martins Fontes
“Aesthetics and Health”, by Marília Coutinho, Phorte.