Ta-Nehisi (pronounced TAH-nah-HAH-see) Coates won the National Book Award this year for his book “Between the World and Me,” written in the form of a letter to his son. The book is an extraordinary exploration of what it means to be black in the United States of America. As I sat down to write this week’s column, I found myself returning to the text because of Coates’ emphasis on the cumulative effects of racism on the black body.
Coates uses the word body (or its variants) from the opening sentence of the book to the very last paragraph, and the repetition is intentional. He recounts a scene in which his young son is inconsolable following the announcement that the police officer who shot Michael Brown would not face punishment.
“What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” (emphasis mine)
As far as I know, Coates hasn’t devoted much time in his writing to fitness and health in the traditional sense. But this emphasis on the word “body” betrays an intuitive understanding of what it means to be a healthy human being. One of the great things about literature–and art generally–is that we bring our life with us into the piece. So I read “Between the World and Me” as one of the great arguments in favor of holding policymakers accountable for the health of the citizens they lead. And I read it in part as a rebuke to those of us who don’t treat our bodies with the respect they deserve, especially given how easily some people’s bodies can be destroyed in an instant.
Too deep for a fitness blog? Maybe. But I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people lately about their bodies, and I’m disheartened to hear the way many people think and talk about the one body they’ll ever have.
“I don’t have time to cook,” they say.
“Working out feels like a waste of time,” they say.
“Why would anyone work out five days a week?” they’ll ask.
With each statement and each question, my interlocutor suggests that they don’t take their body seriously. They they think the food they put into it is only an afterthought; that ensuring proper movement of the vessel that will carry them along in their existence on this planet is time better spent on other things; that the spreadsheets at work are more important than having the strength and energy to spend quality time with the people that they love.
When I respond to their questions and statements with reason and fact, usually people agree with me. Their body IS important. Nutrition IS important. Movement IS important. So more people share Coates’ intuitive understanding of the human body’s primacy than it would appear given how most of us choose to spend our time. The question becomes, then, how do we close the gap between what we know to be important and the values we exhibit on a daily basis?
I’m not sure I know the answer. I wouldn’t call myself a cynic necessarily, but I know the stubborn tug of job, television, and eating out can be difficult to surmount. I know this because I’ve had the same struggles even while I work as a fitness professional. To say that I’m well-known in certain Oregon District restaurants would be a colossal understatement, for example. I happen to hate our kitchen and the dishwasher we inherited doesn’t appear to have been operational within the last ten years. (It only “sort of” cleans the dishes). So I get it: cooking doesn’t always seem like a fun option. But when I find myself slipping into the abyss, I remind myself of my body. It’s my body.
Normally I’d end a column like this with a numbered list of things you can do starting right now to turn your life around. Today I just want to ask you to do this. Take off all of your clothes. Stand in front of a full-length mirror. Be honest with yourself about what you see–and what you’d like to see.
This is your body. It’s the only one you’ll ever have. Contained within it is your emotional health and memories; contained within it is your ability to interact with the world around you and the people that you love; contained within it is your capacity for expressing the physical manifestation of love. How ought you to treat such an important and impressive vessel? What choices could you make right now to reflect that?