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Why do we abuse our bodies for charity?

Luba Kassova | March 20, 2024
Why do we abuse our bodies for charity? Why do we abuse our bodies for charity?

Last week, many of us Britons were immensely proud of Mollie King, a much-liked BBC Radio 1 presenter, who raised more than a million pounds for Comic Relief by completing a gruelling 500 km cycle, despite having no previous long-distance cycling experience. “She's had to dig deep along the way, with her body in agony from the non-stop exertion,” reported The Sun. Her BBC colleagues, her family, friends, and we the public all applauded and rewarded King’s hugely strenuous, nearly superhuman efforts by donating generously to Comic Relief. "It's tough, it's really tough. I’m drained," The Sun quoted her.

My heart ached hearing Mollie King break down in tears a few times on the radio, questioning her ability to continue because her body was so exhausted. She was in physical and mental agony for days, but she persevered and completed the 5-day race. King is one of many celebrities who have subjected their bodies to extraordinary pressure over the years, like Greg James completing his self-punishing Gregathlon – cycling and climbing the UK’s highest peaks in seven days – or Eddie Izzard completing an astonishing 27 marathons in 27 days across South Africa.

As proud as I was of King’s phenomenal achievement, I could not help but wonder: why do we value this self-torture of our bodies? Why do we reward what verges on body self-abuse? Why is it an accomplishment to drag your body through what you thought was impossible?

A very plausible answer for me is that we simply do not value our bodies nearly as much as we value our minds and thoughts. We are raised to constantly override what our bodies are telling us. For example, early-starting schools force us as teenagers to ignore our bodies’ need to get more sleep; our bodies’ need to cry regularly is quashed by well-meaning parents assuring us that there is nothing to be sad about, or that “crying is for wimps”; or our bodies’ need to rest frequently is overridden by gruelling work schedules and ambitious weekend sports or other extracurricular activity schedules.

Rachael Haylock, an embodiment educator whose work involves helping people reconnect with their bodies as a source of wisdom, explains in her course “Embodied Wisdom” that centuries ago humans imposed a false delineation between the mind and the body, placing cognitive intellect on a pedestal, while neglecting the intellect contained within our bodies. Perhaps this started with Descartes proclaiming the supremacy of the mind with his famous quote: “I think, therefore I am”, which Haylock argues should be inverted to “I am, therefore I think” to ring true. I engaged with Haylock’s work after I had disconnected from my body to such an extent that I felt like a walking head, with severely reduced capacity for emotion or tears. My recognition that I was heading towards a burnout led me to Haylock and to practices aimed at helping me reinhabit my body.

Not being connected to our bodies does a lot of damage to us. Too often we are unaware that we repress many of the emotions that reside in us physically. Thus, they end up controlling our lives invisibly, triggering panic attacks or even diseases if repressed over many years. We consume junk food without being attuned to the immediate energy drain it leads to in our bodies. We undertake cosmetic surgeries and procedures, sometimes causing irreparable damage to parts of our bodies. Ultimately, the abled-bodied among us often don’t appreciate sufficiently how miraculous our bodies are just to function in the way that they do, all the while berating ourselves for being too slim or too fat or too old or too ugly.

I was deeply moved recently by CNN anchor Sara Sidner’s reflections on her journey through stage three breast cancer. Amidst her body being pumped full of chemo, Sidner realised how unhealthy her relationship with her body had been for years. In the course of her cancer treatment, she was finally able to grant it the respect it deserves.

“From the time of puberty I have disliked the way that my body is.” Sidner reflects regretfully. “I am thinking of this body that I have mentally tormented. I need to apologise to it…I was really neglecting myself and that makes me sad that I was taking advantage of this body and not giving it back what it needed,” Sidner reveals through tears. “What kind of idiot does that?”, she concludes harshly. It turns out that the vast majority of humanity does exactly that. We neglect our bodies because we wrongly take them for granted or see them as some kind of alien entity that carries our heads. So many of us, myself included, struggle to sense our bodies and the wisdom that they carry for our benefit.

“Just be kind to yourself,” advises Sidner, going on to offer her own lessons in self-care, which include drinking water, going for a run, working out, letting yourself be mad and letting yourself cry. These precious lessons, shared by someone who can no longer take their body for granted, benefit us all. After all, we must remember that it is our bodies that make it possible for us to stay alive, and therefore we owe so much to them, do we not?

Mindful body scans, meditation, drinking pure cacao, dancing, singing, drawing, doodling, candle breathing or painting are some of the practices I have learned to use to reconnect with my body, and I wholeheartedly recommend them.

I now allow myself to dream of the day when the challenges we put ourselves through to raise money for good causes will be anchored in compassion for rather than competition with our bodies. These challenges would include meditating for five days, or immersing ourselves in communities to ensure that every member drinks enough water every day for five days, or challenges that rely on alternating physical exertion with activities that make us laugh, or on giving out hugs to everyone (who wants them) for five days or even producing a massive piece of artwork. It strikes me that the real challenge we face today is not putting our bodies through inhumane suffering but being kind, attuned to, respectful and nourishing to them and to those of others around us.

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