Changes in the experience and definition of pain

I want to address a specific change in the definition and experience of pain since I started to practice BJJ. It is likely that if you’ve read one of my previous posts you know already that BJJ is the thing I love most. In order to practice BJJ, I need my body to be (more or less) in its optimal physical state. Training is never completely safe, and injuries are one of the most frequent  and inevitable threats to my body’s physical ability. Before I started to train, I experienced pain mainly as a function of  subjective feeling. Now I experience pain as a function of its association with potential injury and the degree of that injury.

The most important thing for me about pain is its implication to my future training. Pain that is not  associated with any injury is now experienced as neutral, or even as pleasant if it means that I succeeded in performing a specific technique. Pain that is associated with potential injury that is very mild and that from my past experience will not interfere with my training routine (for example, poorly executed arm bar) is more unpleasant, but it soon dissipates from my consciousness altogether. When it comes to intense pain, its experience depends very much on my ability to train “around” the injury. If I can train “around” it, the pain loses its intensity and effect on my mood. If I suspect that the pain will damage my training routine, it effects me so much that I get depressed.

P.S. Since I started practicing  martial arts, I developed some connections with others who have walked the path before me, and their emotional and practical support is especially valuable to me in coping with injuries. I wish to thank them for their support.

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Why am I so interested in bodies?

I research the sociology of the body because bodies are immensely complex and deeply fascinating phenomena. Our body anchors us in time and space, it is the only vehicle through which we can track the passage of time, and the marks of time are permanently inscribed on it in turn.

In a way, we are bodies, but we also have bodies. Through the body we are alive and present, and some of us invest great resources in the project of continuously shaping and adorning our bodies. This reflects the special ontological status of the body as both the object of our perception and the condition that enables our perception, as noted by Merleau-Ponty.

Our society reduces human bodies to the mere objects of sexuality or medicine (or the combination of both). We are allowed to engage with our bodies, with the bodies of others, to communicate and touch other bodies mainly within these two frameworks. And these frameworks are heavily gendered. I believe that this is one of the major factors behind the alienation from our bodies and the reinforcement of the mind/body split in the current era.

The reduction to sexuality and medicine also reflects and contributes to the body’s role as a major vehicle of social oppression and control. Our culture, instead of encouraging us to cultivate and develop the infinite potentialities of experience, to think of and engage with our bodies and other bodies, channels us into a narrow, increasingly violent and sad terrain of (already) known options. My research, in the fields of fat studies, of medical sociology and embodiment in the martial arts, seeks to analyze and develop new and alternative ways to experience, experiment and change our bodies and the way we live them.

The animal instinct

Each time I sense my instincts in action, I feel excitement and awe. For example, on the mat, during a sparring roll, when someone suddenly sweeps me, I fall on my side and automatically send my left to absorb the fall (so that I don’t hit the mat with my face). I will never absorb a fall in a so precise and confident manner when I will consciously do it. Years of human gendered socialization have created great walls of alienation between my mind and body. But I still have the channel of the instinct. When I observe my instinctual responses I feel as though I am watching an alien side of my consciousness, from the outside, as a by-stander.

What I love about BJJ has nothing to do with winning or losing

In August I wrote about my experiences of gender and embodiment in the martial arts, specifically in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). A lot has changed. So this post is a kind of update post. From the beginning , the most important thing practicing BJJ  gave me was the ability to unite my body and mind, an ability for which I found no other outlet, before or  since. As a woman whose experiences with her body were objectification or alienation, practicing BJJ was a precious gift – the experience of a unity with my body (generally, I feel far more one with my mind, then with my body).

I was physically active before I started practicing BJJ but what characterized my physical activity was that it was monotonous and solitary. At the gym where I used to work out, there was anti-bacterial spray you could use to clean up the machines before you use them. I think this  spray is a good metaphor to the kind of human relationships that often develop at the gym.

When I started practicing BJJ I had to become one with my body for three main reasons:

  1. For the first time in my life I found an outlet to express and develop intelligence and creativity through my body.
  2. I had to engage in intensive embodied learning that made me concentrate 100% on my body (unlike the simple monotonous movements at the gym).
  3. I had to be 100%in the here and now to avoid pain and feelings of helplessness that sometimes occur in sparring and drills.

However, recently, I have begun to experience unity with my body in a completely different way.

I used to be very competitive. I had to temporarily let go of that competitiveness and toughness, when I gradually returned to practice after the most serious injury I suffered. But this was only a forced concession. Because my body prevented me from doing what I love the most for nearly two months, I lost my trust in him (Hebrew is a gendered language and I think of my body in the usual masculine grammatical way in Hebrew).I was afraid of rousing my body’s fury again.  As I slowly regained confidence in my body’s ability to endure the pressure, I returned to my old (relative) toughness. I measured the quality of my sparring rolls by the number of submissions, of me or of my sparring partners.

For a while, I had felt that I was improving my technique. But lately I’ve been feeling stuck, that my technique was even deteriorating. The number of submissions I succeeded in pulling dramatically decreased, and there were entire sparring rolls in which I couldn’t even reach a dominant position once.

These experiences (among others) drew me closer to the inevitable conclusion that I am simply not gifted in BJJ, and that I probably need to work twice as hard  as the average male to reach his level.  Surprisingly, this conclusion did not change the intensity of passion I have for BJJ. It made me realize that what is more interesting to me than winning or losing, or mastering a technique, is the primordial and primitive physical encounter of the struggle.

I noticed that I started to roll with much less physical force. I get less tired. What is most important for me in the sparring roll is making this connection, bodily communication, with another embodied human being. To get some sort of message through, with my body, and to receive the message (or messages) of my rolling partners

I feel calmer, more relaxed and more focused when I spar. I want to listen and embrace what that other person has to tell (me). His or her achievement (in submitting me, for instance) may be interesting , or it may not, but it does not automatically decrease my presence. I feel almost as though I meditate during sparring . I feel that the alertness of pain is not the primary reason I am one with my body during sparring anymore. I am one with my body because I have to focus, I have to be 100% in the here and now (being  100% in the here and now has always something to do with being one with the body, although not always in positive ways), in order to receive the message the other person sends me through his or her body and movements. I need to be precise to get my own message through.

I want to get better. I want to master additional techniques. But I know that  even if I don’t, or even if it will be painfully slow, what interests me in BJJ has nothing to do with winning or losing.

An update: the fact that I love BJJ most, but I know that I’m not a talented practitioner, makes me understand this line by Nirvana: I’m worse at what I do best, and for this gift I feel blessed.

A letter to a “Naked woman on a sofa” – Lucian Freud, 1984-1985

Image

I really like this painting. It expresses a deep truth for me, as an embodied being. It strikes me as a painting of a real woman. Not just body, but body and mind. Not merely an image, a simulacrum or a cultural sign.

Something is very familiar to me in this painting. It evokes something in my past, in my childhood, even though it seems to me that today I’m younger than this woman when she was drawn. It makes me think about mother-daughter relationships, and more broadly, about multi-generational bonds between women.

It reassures me, makes me calm. Even though she is naked, drawn through the eyes of a male painter (Lucian Freud), I don’t feel like I’m a voyeur. I can identify with her, with the marks of time on her body. She seems serene to me, and strong in a way. I wish that I was surrounded with such images as a girl, as a teenager, without having to hate my body that will never conform to the images that did surround me at the time, and still do!

Why do I enjoy this painting so much? Clearly – and even though she meets some cultural norms of beauty (she is white, she seems to have an average size body) – she fails to meet others : her breasts are soft (too soft, our culture says), her tummy is loose (our culture says, too loose). I find in her body solace that I cannot find in the muscular images of men I like to identify with so much (consciously and to spite others) because they are strong, tough, not soft. I am her more than I am tough.

Flushed areas are marked on her face and she has big, wise eyes, which seem to me be absorbed in the here and now, like time itself is her lover. I feel as though this painting tells me something valuable and old about my identity, my flesh and my mind, as a woman. I am already her, she is a part of me.

Stop oppression in the name of health

Fat studies researchers and activists aim to understand the dominant reference to fatness as pathological and as a health problem in its broader social, cultural, political and economic context. They argue that the medical terminology and logic both conceal and reinforce social power relations that underlie any definitions of ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ body sizes, as well as the corresponding  social stereotypes and prejudices surrounding fat bodies (See, Wann, 2009). Researchers argue, for instance, that different factors, such as economic status, mediate the alleged correlation between fatness and ill health; that health should be viewed as a holistic concept that includes more elements than a person’s weight, such as general life style; and that the pressure to lose weight, and the measures that reinforce this pressure, are more damaging to health then fatness itself (Burgard  2009; Ernsberger 2009; Lyons 2009).

One study, for instance,  compared two groups of fat women: one group was encouraged to diet and exercise, while the other was encouraged to eat a healthy diet, to listen to one’s bodily cues, to engage in fun activities and to participate in a fat acceptance group. After one year, the health of the second group improved significantly, e.g. their blood pressure and cholesterol levels decreased (although they did not lose any weight).  The participants of the first group lost weight but did not improve their health to a significant extent.  Most of them eventually regained the weight they initially lost (Farrell, 2011).

Historians and cultural critics, such as Amy Farrell (2011), Hillel Schwartz (1990) and Peter Sterns (1997), argue that the social rejection of fatness and the pressure to lose weight were connected to underlying social trends that characterized late modernity in the West. They also argue that the social rejection of fatness preceded and then became intertwined with explicit medicalization of fatness.

Fat people’s health is none of your business. You should not publicly dissect and analyze the risk factors presumably associated with fat, just as we (as a society) don’t target other social groups. If you really care about fat people’s health, you won’t take part in media humiliation and vilification of fat people, see, for instance, “Headless Fatties“.

If you are interested to learn more about the social stigma of fat and its’ implication, you should read UCLA Professor Abigail Saguy’s new book “What’s Wrong with Fat”. To see some of my published works on the subject, visit my page on Academia Edu or Google me on ScholarGoogle.

Bibliography:

Burgard, D. (2009). “What Is “Health at Every Size?””. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. 41-53). New York & London: New York University Press.

Ernsberger, P. (2009). Does social class explain the connection between weight and
health? In E. Rothblum and  S. Solovay  (Eds.),  The  fat studies reader (pp.  25–36).  New York,  NY & London, England:  New York University Press.

Ferrall,  Amy E. (2011). Fat shame:  Stigma and the fat body in American culture. New  York: New York University Press.

Lyons, P. (2009). Prescription for harm. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. 75-88). New York & London: New York University Press.

Schwartz, Hillel. Never satisfied: A cultural history of diets, fantasies, and fat. Free Press, 1986.

Stearns, P. (2002). Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West. NYU Press: NY.

Wann, M .(2009). Fat Studies- an Invitation for a Revolution. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. xi-xxvi). New York & London: New York University Press.

Widening the range of women’s representations

Image

This portrait simply makes me happy. Right now this representation is so rare that it feels like science fiction. But it goes to show us how we would feel, if we had the male privilege of being surrounded by images of strong, wise , mature, smiling with confidence members of our sex , whose beauty does not stem from the their photoshopped, extremely thin, young naked bodies.

We can see just how deeply we’re absorbed by “Disney” and “Barbie” like representations for women by looking at this disturbing work of art. This made me think to myself “Your Disney strips away my humanity”!