Are Our Bodies Machines?

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This is a guest post by Rebecca Walsh. She has an M.A. in philosophy from Münster University, Germany and has taken a special interest in the evolutionary sciences for the past two years.

Author’s Note: I wrote this piece as an addition to Paleo Women are Phat, an essay that was very influential to my thinking about being Paleo.

I believe we are currently experiencing the collision of two very dominating and possibly oppressive cultural ideas:

  1. Lean and elongated forms are the “healthiest” and should be the aim.
  2. Our bodies are machines, which we have the power to control.

I find that these late-cultural ideas are actually underlying the common notion of “Evolutionary Mismatch Theory”.

“Mismatch Theory”, in short, suggests that we are living in an environment that we have not evolved to live in. In the Paleo Community, we talk about modern day humans in western societies as being akin to zoo animals; we believe our superficial environment is making us sick and fat. By comparing the fat ape at the zoo with the tone ape in the wild, we confidently believe that if we are able to reinstate our natural environment (to the best of our abilities), we will also come out in the end as the tone, svelte ape.

Underlying Mismatch Theory is the idea that the human natural state is lean and tone, just as the wild animal is. But the cultural historian Georges Vigarello evidences that the “elongated, thin body” only became popular in the 1920′s, as it came to symbolize the changing female role in society as she attempted to become more masculine, participating in the public realm with “agility and movement”. Before the 1920′s, the corset was fashionable, which actually accentuated the woman’s curves.

According to the evolutionary sciences, while the attractiveness of facial symmetry and waist-to-hip ratio seem to be universally agreed upon (i.e., in evolutionary psychology, a universal trait is viewed as an adapted trait), there is no universally preferred body fat level. Rather, body fat preferences are relative to culture, time, and a person’s age. Additionally, researchers have shown that, cross-culturally, preferred female body fat level increases with the risk of local food shortages and depends heavily on ecological variability (e.g., women in colder climates will have higher levels of body fat).

Ultimately, body fat distribution is most likely a marker of female attractiveness to the extent that body shape conveys critical information about a woman’s fertility and youth.

It slowly becomes clear that the image of the “lean, svelte lion” may not be the healthy, universal standard for humans, i.e., there is actually no certain way that the “Paleo Woman” is supposed to look.

The second cultural idea that I believe is at work in Mismatch Theory, quite dominantly, is the power of “self-transformation”. We believe that if we find the perfect diet and exercise plan that simulates our natural environment, we will have the power to transform our bodies back into the svelte, wild animal we were supposed to be, despite our zoo-like surroundings.

The idea of “self-transformation”, particularly of the body, is also quite young and also took hold in the 1920s, accompanying the rise of modern technology. Vigarello writes:

The body comes to be judged as somehow more malleable and flexible in analogy to the universe of contemporary technological innovation, which has itself come to be inundated by machines that are surgically designed and appended with computerized supplements.

In other words, this is the first time in history that we began to see our bodies as machines which function according to the will. It therefore becomes a “weakness of the will” if we are unable to transform our bodies into a form that is “long and lanky”. At no other time in history did we believe we had so much control over the body’s appearance. If we look to Plato, a philosopher who saw the mind as far superior than the body, even he conceded that the body had a very strong influence and that it would not be easy for the mind to counteract this influence. At best, with proper education over time, it may be possible for the mind to bridle the body’s powers. It is evident that Plato’s idea, though placing a premium on the power of the mind, is far from the idea of the mind as controller of the machine, the body.

Is it appropriate to treat our bodies like machines, constantly tweaking our diets and working our bodies into the ground for the sake of “fitness”, to achieve the tone and lean ideal? Or is it time to admit that while we may be able to control our external environment to a certain extent, we do not have actual control of how our bodies, our internal environment, will react to this.

Some of us may have to completely abandon the project of “self-transformation”, which is usually in the form of having a “goal weight”. While short and long-term goals are essential for living good, fulfilled life, a goal “weight” may be highly ineffective if we literally cannot control whether it is achieved or not.

A shift in thinking needs to occur. This shift involves recognition of the fact that there is no ideal, lean, svelte “Paleo Woman”. Our image of the “Paleo Woman” is actually a product of our contemporary cultural imagination and is not based on science.

This shift in thinking also involves recognition of our bodies as different than a machine under our control. If the body is no longer “our machine”, we will no longer need to feel “morally weak” or like a “personal failure” if the weight does not come off. We will not feel the necessity to spend endless hours and days “tweaking” our diet, but are free to pursue more fruitful endeavors.

The pathologist Charles-Joseph Bouchard noted in 1882 that “a healthy person can overconsume fat without becoming polysarcous” while another person can get fat without any exaggerated consumption. Despite the numerous studies done to disprove this, none have been convincing and Bouchard’s idea still rings true today.

It does not help that we are constantly overwhelmed with “before and after photos” and testimonies. But these photos and testimonies simply do not tell the whole story; they do not tell us about the long-term future of that person.

Under the “paleo imaginary” (any evolutionary-based diet), we are supposed to all be beautiful, lean, wild animals. And if we follow the diet, we will be able to return to our original state.

This is simply an illusion.

While an evolutionary-based diet will lead to better overall health, it does not mean that it will suddenly “release” our body to access years and years of accumulated fat. Health simply needs to be divorced from the idea of the “lean” wild animal.

The idea that we are able to transform and dictate our body’s appearance in the long-term is a relatively new cultural idea, of which we do not know its nuances or implications.

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  • Amy B

    Great post, Rebecca. I feel like body image is getting more attention here and there in the Paleo community, and yet, in some ways, it can never get enough. Women (and men, too, but mostly women) have been absolutely bombarded with images of “the idea” for decades, and while the ideal might be something some women can achieve naturally and easily, for others, they will spend their lives chasing after it, never get there, and those feelings of shame, failure, disappointment, and worst of all — self-loathing — will bleed over into other aspects of their lives. It’s a terrible state we’ve gotten ourselves into where young women are simply terrified not just of “being fat,” but of having any excess flesh whatsoever on their bodies — as if we’re just supposed to be skin pulled very taut over bones, with not a lick of fat anywhere.

    Sometimes I wonder how much human creativity and potential has been lost to poor body image. How many people are waiting until they love what they see in the mirror before they write their novel, go after that dream job, start that business… (I know, because I did that to myself for many years, and sadly, sometimes still do it.) How much brain power is devoted to counting calories/points/grams, and how much anxiety is felt over how many minutes someone did or did not spend on the elliptical machine? That’s valuable brain real estate that could have gone for creating something good in the world.

    Healthy, vibrant, powerful bodies come in many shapes and sizes. Does that mean we can be 300+ pounds and in good health? Likely not, but I’m inclined to think a little cellulite and some bumps & lumps here and there don’t mean we’re not gorgeous and don’t deserve all the best for ourselves.

    These issues need to keep coming up, because too often women *and* men take things too far and engage in some pretty dangerous food & exercise behavior in the name of chasing a body fat percentage they might quite literally not be designed to maintain. (Not if they also want to FEEL GOOD at the same time.) ;-)