Ask a Therapist: Singing the Body Electric — Dismantling Pandemic Body Shame at the End of Covid

by Liz Covey, LMHC

If you have found yourself wondering if the “19” in COVID-19 stands for the number of pounds you’ve gained during the pandemic, you aren’t alone.

Alongside the mental health toll that this 15-month crisis has taken, our physical bodies have also been greatly impacted. The gyms were shuttered. The schools were closed, so caregivers of younger children were effectively tethered to the home. Sports and social activities that motivate movement were cancelled. Even the city parks had shame-inducing signs up until very recently warning that “crowded parks lead to closed parks,” encouraging the public-thirsty citizens back into their increasingly oppressive homes.

A poll taken in February of this year by the American Psychological Association found that 61% of respondents cited having “undesired weight changes” during the pandemic, with 42% of those people reporting weight gain. The survey also found that 47% of respondents “delayed or cancelled” needed health care services during this time. And as UW Medicine reported, eating disorders are sharply on the rise. Dr. Megan Riddle, a psychiatrist and faculty member at the UW School of Medicine, explains in their newsletter Right as Rain that eating disorders “love unstructured environments” so naturally the pandemic made an opportunity for these conditions to flourish in people were are at-risk or for whom isolation had made them so.

It was a rough year in every way imaginable, and for so many — a half million and counting to be precise — it was their last. For those of us who survived and who did so with new routines, activities, and habits, we might not recognize the bodies we now inhabit, and we might feel that more distinctly as we move about in society once again. For these reasons, we might consider turning our focus toward our bodies, for how we feel about them is a great mental health concern of the moment — one where we are precariously situated between our old selves and our current ones. 

Wearied though many of us may be, leaning into the felt sense of what it’s like to be in our bodies today will likely be the healthy way forward. One figure who did this impeccably was Walt Whitman, the queer 19th-century poet laureate of the American civic ideal. Though his position in our country’s canon is fraught with the racial barbarity of his time (not as different as it should be from our own), his writing on living in the body electric during crushing times might continue to be useful. (As a white writer, I am mindful of my bias and checked many Black perspectives in choosing Whitman as source material, including selections from Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet from 2014.)

Whitman was a journalist and transcendental poet in the years leading up to the Civil War, but he turned his attention to the wounded at the start of the war, tending to the sick and dying in a Washington DC army hospital as a volunteer nurse for many years. He wrote about it for a New York newspaper, and his perspectives were later published as a book called Memoranda During the War. In many ways his war-time experience echoes our own during COVID:

Look at the patient and mute manner of our American wounded, as they lie in such a sad collection; representatives … from all the States and all the cities. Most of them are entirely without friends or acquaintances here — no familiar face, and hardly a word of judicious sympathy or cheer, through their sometimes long and tedious sickness, or the pangs of aggravated wounds.” 

Whitman’s nursing work, which today would be called chaplaincy, amounted to sitting at the bedsides of the lonely young men as they recovered or died, making him a patron saint to the venerable nurses, aides, and social workers of our day (only now with the addition of an iPad). 

Prior to this time, he had written the now-lauded collection Leaves of Grass, in which he vividly draws a connection between the sensuous and the existential, concerning himself with topics no less weighty than birth, ecstasy, democracy, and death. But each examination begins with the body, as the poet “loafes” to observe the titular grass which serves both as a symbol of perfection in physical nature, corporally and otherwise, as well as an emblem of the “beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Such colorful metaphors might feel more relevant to us modern folks after living through 2020.

What brings Whitman to mind for me today is his insistence on the sanctity of the body as the locus for his reverie on the American experience. He did this with such abandon that in his time Leaves was considered obscene, and he was disavowed by the poetry elite at the time of publication (this was also owing to his suspected homosexuality, which was a crime in his day). “I am the poet of the Body, and I am the poet of the Soul,” he writes in an opening stanza. And he continues:

“I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me
is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or
am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds …

“Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man [sic]
hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be
less familiar than the rest.”

In this moment, at the point of reentry to social normalcy, I propose that we seriously consider taking up Whitman’s notion of the inherent divinity of not only the souls but also the bodies of those who have survived. Including your own.

Might we take a cue from him to see the goodness in our lives as directly correlated with the exquisite mundanity of the flesh and blood that holds us together, regardless of our perceived imperfections or struggles? Upending the idea that a “good” body means one that is slim, firm, smooth, and otherwise tidied up for public viewing? Haven’t we learned that a good body is one that breathes? One that awakens each day?

I suggest that we apply this year’s hard-won lessons of flexibility, adaptability, and collective goodwill to our own and each other’s bodies, and ditch the self-deprecating talk around weight, or the omission or shame around our struggles with eating disorders or other health issues, and remember that we simply survived. We made it. We are here to “sing the body electric,” according to Whitman, which is a force of life from within and a birthright of every human being. Our proof of this is as close to us as breath and heartbeat. 

Perhaps this perspective would allow us to take further steps away from the culture’s patriarchal and capitalistic specter on the body as object or as ornament. Imagine instead that today we measure ourselves only against the chart that details COVID statistics and not the Insta post or magazine cover that makes us feel inadequate in order to compel us toward some product or following that offers a version of fulfillment that is empty and inhumane.

There will be time to renew our healthy ways, should we discern that they truly are in our best interest in the aftermath of this strange, contemplative year.

For now, let’s focus on having care and compassion for our survivor bodies, different though they may be. It strikes me as good mental health care to view our bodies today as the badass guardians that protected our futures, those which are afforded now by the good grace of science, some better-late-than-never political stability, and societal cooperation (pray it continue). As Whitman writes at the end of Song of Myself:

“There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

So enjoy the heaven or hell of the barbecue or the dinner party with your loved ones, free of the tyranny of this past year’s constraints. And consider entering it with a willingness in hearts and minds to celebrate more than judge and to share more than shame (especially important when the target is one’s self). 

We survived, dammit. That may be all the perfection we get in this lifetime. 

Now go play.

Excerpt from “I Sing the Body Electric” in Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman:

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for the South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know. We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

📸 Featured Image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama (under CC BY 2.0 license).

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