Now I know we need to take what the media calls “outrage” with a grain of salt, but I had to look into the outrage people are expressing over Lena Dunham’s choice to show her naked body repeatedly in her show Girls. Indeed people are outraged. They are outraged that Lena Dunham is inviting us to see her perfectly normal, not perfect or digitally perfected, woman’s body. They are outraged that she presents her character as someone whom people find beautiful, sexy and desirable seemingly irregardless of her non-Playboy model status. Not only are they not comfortable with this minor depiction of reality in our entertainment, there are some people who are intimating that Ms Dunham doesn’t have a right to show her body in this way. - This makes me outraged.
One of the major voices in this attack on Lena Dunham and her supposed gall in showing her body is the often offensive Howard Stern. OK, he refers to her as “little fat chick” repeatedly, what did we expect from Howard Stern? We have not come a long way, baby, in relation to people feeling like they can critique women’s bodies. But when he links choosing to watch a show that exposes him to Lena Dunham’s body with “rape” because “I don’t want to see that” we all have taken a turn into deeply disturbing and oppressive territory. And sadly, he is not the only voice out there suggesting that Ms Dunham has somehow overstepped her bounds by appearing naked.
Let’s break this down. Assuming a consensual adult setting, are we willing to entertain the idea that only certain people have a right to show their bodies? In what context – in art, entertainment, porn? What about on beaches? Can someone claim to be offended by a fat person in a bathing suit? Do we need to earn the right to show our body by meeting a certain standard? How far do we take this? Does it only apply to celebrities? Are we suggesting that now artists must meet a weight requirement, that directors agree to only use actors who conform to an established standard? Will we institute a new sort of Hayes code that censors body images rather than morally objectionably content? If the majority prefers to see people of a certain body type should we mandate photo-shopping of all public photos? How many people have to decide that Christina Hendricks’ curves are disgusting rather than hot to draw a line? Would Marilyn Monroe’s pregnant body in Some Like It Hot be sell-able nowadays? Do we no longer make any room for diverse representations of the desirable?
Have we really come to place culturally where a normal body is treated as not fit for the public view? Signs point to yes, at least for one vocal group on the internet. And for the many, many women who feel that their own body flaws are cause for shame and exclude them from owning their own version of sexy. This censorship is already happening internally in every inner voice that says, “I can’t be seen in a bathing suit, We need to keep the lights off so my partner doesn’t see my thighs…” In that case, then I guess Lena Dunham is offering us much more than a chance to see her bare her body in the service of story-telling, she is offering us a much needed reality check.
On a long drive I was listening to a public radio conversation amongst scientists about the possibility of creating truly intelligent computer “minds” and whether or not a computer could develop feelings. This was inspired by the recent movies Her and Transcendence, both featuring computers who develop or upload personalities that can interact with humans. This brings up interesting questions about what is consciousness and what we need to feel connection with another. But what surprised me was the complete absence of any mention of the body itself and its role in our emotions.
I am not a neuroscientist; I am a psychotherapist. From all that I know and have witnessed in human’s emotional lives, I do not believe we could ever create a computer personality that can have feelings. Why do I say this? Because feelings involve physical sensation. Hence FEEL-ings. We are so attuned to our fleeting physical shifts throughout our day that many of us don’t even consciously register them anymore. But what we know from scientists who look at our emotional responses, the experience and expression of emotion uses several parts of our nervous system all working incredibly quickly and sometimes, seamlessly. But if we could slow the emotion creation down, what we most often would find is that 1) first there is an external cue that we register to in a split second, so quickly that we are sometimes unaware of the cue itself (I fumble my change while getting my morning coffee) 2) we have a non-voluntary physiological reaction; our body responds in a way that we can feel (the muscles in my arms and hands tense, I get a burst of focus, my stomach contracts, I blush) 3) our neocortex is mobilized to make sense of the body response, this is when an emotion is assigned to the feeling within our mind (those sensations feel to me like embarrassment) 4) then our neocortex references social norms and meanings of this emotion and enables us to decide how to behave (I notice that the barista didn’t seem to care, this has happened before, no big deal, I can let it go) . All of this happens within seconds. But the feeling of emotion begins when our body responds.
Now as a therapist, I am also aware that what we think affects how we feel. What we focus on shapes our perceptions of the world and our responses to it. We can indeed think ourselves into a bad mood; we have all done it. But in that case the thought is the original cue, an internal one rather than an external one. The feeling state will still be based on a physical response, and our subsequent interpretation of it. Our body is the source of our emotional life. It is integral to our unique responses, our desires, our sense of connection to others. I believe our body allows us to feel the way we feel about people or situations through a complex flow of sensations and chemistry. Without a complete nervous system and the ability to experience sensation, I believe a computer mind could generate preferences, maybe even a pattern of enjoyment. But not love, not sadness, not anger, not longing or lust. For those I believe we need a body. Are you listening to yours?