Six months ago, the sidewalk began to feel like a place of fear and algebra. As I walk down the street, I see people coming my way, and I can tell they are calculating our speeds and charting our courses. I do the same thing, imagining how to give people space, dancing off the sidewalk into the street as the distance between us thins. We are all trying to remember the math class that demanded of us: “One train leaves Philadelphia at 50 mph. Another leaves New York City at 60 mph. When do they collide?” In sidewalk math, we all try desperately to avoid the collision.
Having strangers assume that your body is dangerous is, of course, not a new thing for many people. Our anti-Black and anti-homeless society falsely trains people to treat certain bodies as scary. However, while fear of bodies based on race and class is nonsense created by elites for political gain, this virus is very real. There are serious, legitimate, scientific reasons to be cautious around each other during this time. Masks, gloves, plexiglass walls, sheltering-in-place and physical distancing are the protocol of the era. Unfortunately, staying healthy by way of avoiding contact with other bodies may have serious side effects. If we neglect to name and deal with these side effects, I believe we risk internalizing a permanent fear of human bodies.
One of the most detrimental teachings of the form of Christianity, at least the brands used by the European and American empires, is the teaching that our bodies are inherently evil. Based on dubious interpretations of the creation myths in the Biblical Book of Genesis and on poor translations of Paul (who wrote large parts of the New Testament), this country’s Christianity-infused culture conditions us to have tremendous body shame and body fear. The religious teaching that our bodies are evil combines with patriarchy, white supremacy and ableism into a toxic brew. In my view, there are few among us who are able to easily trust our bodies, listen to our bodies and love — not just indulge but love — our bodies.
Our view of the body has more relevance than just self-esteem. It is political too. Believing that the body is sacred and wonderful, rather than evil and dangerous, actually undermines the legitimacy of many violent power structures in our world. To embrace the sacredness and glory of the body is to unmask the immorality of the long-term caging of bodies in prisons, of military crusades that accept “collateral damage” so cavalierly, of structural homophobia and transphobia, and so many other forms of oppression justified by fear of the body.
I share this concern not to undermine the necessary measures of keeping each other safe by giving each other distance. I name this in an attempt to spur dialogue about the dangers of inadvertently reinforcing a subconscious belief that bodies are evil. In the meantime, I will continue to give people space on the sidewalk, while separating out the goodness of their body and breath from the potential virus it carries.
Read more of the Sept. 9-15, 2020 issue.