Tag Archives: animal

You Animal!

Another blog about habits of speech and why they might need some scrutiny. When a human does something especially vile, it is common to refer to them as an animal. There are a number of problems with this.

For a start, it reinforces the idea that humans are fundamentally better than other animals but that we can fall, through our actions, to being at the same lower level as animals. This in turn backs up all the ways in which we otherwise mistreat and exploit other life forms.

Secondly, it gives the rest of us some rather unreasonable insulation. If we give truly offensive humans animal status, we tell ourselves that they are not us. They are not like us. We are not part of the problem. If the perpetrator in an animal, we don’t need to talk about rape culture, or how fascism is permeating our culture, we don’t need to talk about reasons for radicalisation, or gun control or anything else. Refusing to identify a terrible human being as a terrible human being, we let ourselves off the hook for perhaps helping provide the context in which they have acted.

Thirdly – and this generally applies to men – it suggests there was no scope for them to do better. We often apply animal language to men who sexually offend. They are sharks who can hardly be expected to avoid a piece of meat. Which is shitty logic, because it perpetrates the idea that men can’t control themselves, can’t make rational decisions and so forth. It also suggests that rape is a natural/animal thing and it isn’t. Most species have all kinds of complex things going on around sexual selection. Most often it is the female of the species who chooses the male. Mallard ducks aside, most creatures have reproductive strategies that are either cooperative, or about showing off to attract a female.

At the same time, we deny our fundamental animal natures. We are animals. We are mammals the same as all the other mammals. We are different in some ways but there are plenty of differences between other mammals, too. If we reserve ‘animal’ as a term for those we don’t want to recognise as human, we make it that bit harder to identify ourselves as animals, because it becomes a term of insult. We need to recognise our animal selves, and that all humans are animals of the same sort, stop pretending we are separate from nature, stop denigrating nature and stop creating ways to ignore unacceptable human behaviour.

Changing the words we use won’t change everything overnight, but it is an easy place to start. Change the words we use and we can change how we think about things, and that in turn changes behaviours, and ultimately, cultures.

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Penance and the disembodied

There are a number of concepts that I picked up early in life that make it hard to be embodied. As they were part of the environment of my youth, I expect it wasn’t just me.

Rather than thinking of food as being necessary fuel for the body, or a means to health and vitality, or a pleasure, eating seemed like a bad thing. Hunger – a perfectly natural bodily process – was something to rise above. Food should be eaten slowly, with care and tidiness, not gobbled up with enthusiasm. Second helpings should not be sought. Physical exercise was a penance you could do for having eaten food.

The notion that a person could enjoy their body, their food, their physical activity came to me rather later in life than was ideal. For too long, it seemed like the life of the mind, and perhaps the spirit were the only things worth worrying about and that all bodily things were there to be ignored, transcended or beaten into submission. A desire to be disembodied, not present.

It’s difficult to get into any kind of physical activity when you see it as punishment. You do it to atone for transgression, but not with joy, or for its own sake. If food is a vice, and burning off the calories is a necessary toll to pay, there’s no life of the body in this.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on thinking differently – learning to see food as necessary fuel. As a consequence, my fat and protein consumption have gone up. Increasing the oil in my diet has been hard, going against everything I’ve been taught, but ironically it seems to help with the weight loss. I’ve started using physical activity rather than sugar to keep my brain working through the day. My sugar craving has reduced dramatically, my focus has increased dramatically. By paying attention to my body and working with it, I’ve changed.

The key thing in all of this has been starting to treat my body, with its various feelings, cravings, urges and needs, as fundamentally acceptable. Not as something bad that needs controlling and punishing. Not as something that must do penance for feeling good. Meeting my body on its own terms and finding what it can do, and what helps it, rather than the simple obsession with being thin at any cost. Thin at any cost is something that will disembody you, although many of us have metabolisms that decline to be thin even under considerable pressure.

My animal self is not something I need to control or transcend. The life of my mind does not require it – in fact I think better when I treat my body with greater kindness. My spiritual life does not require me to transcend my body, either. I can have a spiritual life in which it’s ok to show up, skin, hunger and all.


A soft animal body

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.”

A favourite quote, taken from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. I like the acceptance, and the allowance in the idea of ‘the soft animal of your body’. I like the permission to love, and the sense that this, and only this, is truly important.

I love this quote because it challenges me, because it is at odds with everything I am, everything I do, because I can see the beauty in it, but I’m a long way from living there.

What would it mean to accept my body as a soft animal? I’m kinder to soft animals than I am to myself. I’m not tolerant of my own bodily softness, seeing is as excess, as inherently unacceptable. The softness that is innately female I have a very complex relationship with, to say the least. To see the honest animal of myself, to see the mammal – accepting that mammals are furry, and they wrinkle over time, they hurt, and break and bleed if you aren’t careful with them. To see that mammal and honour it, would be a thing. As someone who honours nature, I’m pretty useless at doing that insofar as nature manifests in my own skin.

Love what it loves. Of course I love, and I’ve never tried to stop myself doing that, but I hide it. I try not to bother anyone with it, because I expect it to be an affront, something unwelcome. Rounds of seeing the disappointment in the faces of people when I’ve said ‘I love you’. Dealing with rejections from people who wanted me for sex but did not want anything of my heart, and felt pressured by the giving of it. Unreasonable, excessive, too much. I haven’t learned not to say it, but I’ve learned to be afraid of saying it.

The soft animal of my body, if it were some other animal body would turn up warm and friendly, to curl around legs, snuggle upon laps, offering warmth and its soft furry presence to comfort and soothe. I would be a cat, to purr soft affirmations into the bodies of others. This body doesn’t really lend itself to doing that.

I wonder what it would feel like to consider myself acceptable as a soft animal that loves what it loves.

Humans are not reliably kind to soft animal bodies – human or otherwise. Not to our own, not to each other’s not to the other soft animals we share this world with. How often do we treat things as though we expect them to be stone, and then claim to be surprised when they bleed and cry?