My body and I

By Michaela Glöckler, July 2019

The prematurely deceased drugs and addiction expert Felicitas Vogt (1956 – 2008) told me at one of our last meetings how she had been standing at a red pedestrian crossing in a small German town. Suddenly an approximately 15-year-old teenager stood next to her – also waiting – perfectly styled as a punk: dressed in black, on her head an impressive pink Mohican, nose and ear piercings, around her neck a silver necklace from which skulls were dangling.

Photo: © nivoa

Felicitas looked at her and asked, “Why do you do it?”, pointing at her impressive outfit. The young woman quick-wittedly responded: “Would you have spoken to me otherwise?” Being addressed, seen, heeded – that cannot be taken for granted. So who are we when we are overlooked? When what we are as individuals remains unheeded?

Taking shape out of the surroundings

As early as when we are in the womb, the body is experienced as something – even if we are not yet conscious of it – in which we are active ourselves and on which we are constantly working in close resonance with the surroundings. That has been known for a long time through high-resolution ultra-sound images and through animal experiments. The phenomenon of the induction of tissues during embryonic development is also based on the permanent interaction and resonance of the developing embryo in and with its surroundings.

Gerald Hüther describes this situation as the reason why every person knows what dignity is. The concept of dignity was the result of the experience during pregnancy that we continuously received everything from our mother what we needed. The experience that we are so important to another person that they provide us with everything we need for our development – this imprints itself on us as a fundamental experience and is present in all of us as a value, a virtue, even if this experience is subsequently overlaid with other things to such an extent that we no longer “remember” it. It continues after birth, only in a different form.

It is impressive to see how newborns and infants experience their surroundings as part of themselves as if their experience of themselves did not stop at the boundary of their body. Everyone knows from their encounter with one- and two-year-olds what happens when we get too close to them: they have “stranger anxiety”, turn away and can also react with hurt through screaming and crying although we might still be several feet away. This strong connection with the surroundings then wanes in the course of the first seven year, the capacity for imitation is reduced, the senses have largely developed, the second set of teeth erupts and with it the ability for abstract memory.

Now the child can retain in their memory what they have heard or seen just once and clearly reproduce and describe it. At this time the awareness of the boundaries and geography of their own body (body scheme) has developed to the extent that they can clearly orientate themselves in space. The anthroposophical understanding of the human being adds the perspective to these observations that in the course of the first seven years all the life forces which shape the body successively withdraw from working in the body and are transformed into the forces that form the life of the thoughts.

Making ourselves at home in the body

In contrast to the first septennium, the period between the ages of seven and fourteen is governed to a greater extent by emotional maturation and the development of the feelings. Other than the formative, growth-oriented life forces of the etheric body, the astral forces work in a differentiating way. This differentiating activity culminates physically in puberty, when the male and female constitution establishes itself, and emotionally in living out sympathies and antipathies. 

A developmentally oriented view makes clear the extent to which the experience of our own body is determined by the opportunities we had as children in the first seven years of our life to be involved effectively in the development of our body: in other words, the freedom we had to move about and towards things; how we were allowed to act out our curiosity, play and explore the objects in our surroundings; how we were able to develop our interest in everything around us  – without, however, being deprived of the clear boundaries set by parents and carers; boundaries in the sense of a day-night rhythm, rules about eating and the development of good habits that are part of a healthy perception of ourselves and the environment. If this substrate is absent, the life of the feelings, which increasingly emancipates itself from the body and is experience purely through the emotions, can orientate itself neither in its relationship with the body nor as it relates to the surroundings. There is a feeling of insecurity.

Much lies in such insecurity, which can escalate into feelings of anxiety or hate towards their own body and the surroundings, to make adolescents susceptible to joining gangs and other ways of reaffirming their identity in which their self-experience, riven with doubt, can receive affirmation and be made to feel powerful. But it also becomes comprehensible why the longing to have a more intensive perception of their own body through the way they dress is so great: as tight as possible, as casual as possible or full of holes, and anything but appropriate for the season.

Experiencing the body as image of our own identity

From the age of 14 to the early 20s, when the young person is full-grown, the focus is on the development of the freedom of the will. In the anthroposophical understanding of the human being this system of will forces is described as the I organisation. These forces act in an integrating way and are able to coordinate and harmonise the activities of the etheric body and astral body with one another. The parallel neurobiological process is that the controls in the frontal lobe and the human thinking, feeling and will become increasingly self-determined. 

Many parents prohibit their children from having tattoos or piercings in places other than the ears before the age of 16. But after this age things become all the more colourful. The experience of deliberate decision-making, the sense of freedom, of being able to do with their own body what they want – indeed, to turn it into something with which they can identify and show as their own – all these things now govern the consciousness of the young person. That this free creative intent turns towards their own body with such intensity is a development which started gradually after the Second World War and has turned into a global mass phenomenon since the 1980s. 

Interestingly, this development has gone hand-in-hand with the entry of radio and television into households, followed by the Internet and digitalisation. One little-heeded consequence of digitalisation and media consumption is that children and young people have fewer opportunities in their leisure time to do physical things. Hiking, playing outdoors, sport, making music and other hobbies are neglected – because the screen with its enormous entertainment potential is very attractive. But it represents a deficit in the development of the way we experience our body which then becomes a reason to assure ourselves of our body by different means.

Because how does a healthy life in our identity form? Through what we do ourselves! Without becoming active myself, I cannot experience myself as existing either physically or emotionally. Such own activity takes place at a physical, emotional and spiritual level. If it is absent through a lack of self-directed activity in the first seven years and through a school system that expects formulaic performance and fails to address the creative soul forces of the school child, then deficits in the experience of self and the formation of identity must of necessity occur.

Then there is the added factor that after puberty the focus is in any case on the school leaving exams and the performance demanded by society so that the young people simply do not have the leisure to develop an awareness of their own spiritual forces and to reflect independently on their self and the world. Thus today’s body culture in adolescence can, on the one hand, stand as a replacement for many things that can no longer happen in the development of children and adolescents. On the other hand, it reveals the strong will of adolescents to become individuals and to make their own body an image of what they feel to be their identity. 

The Dutch painter Rembrandt painted self-portraits throughout his life. He wanted to experience and make visible how his body expressed the soul and spiritual forces at work in him. The desire to make self-portraits is something that only emerged in the modern era and in that sense is typical of modern human beings. What in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century was brought to expression mostly artistically by a small elite, has turned into a mass phenomenon in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Styling or changing our body artistically, or at least taking a lot of selfies and sharing them with others is typical for us human beings today. 

The crucial factor, however, will be to penetrate to what artists such as Dürer or Rembrandt sought in their self-portraits: the spiritual forces which shape the body, which enable an experience of our inner life and which continue to exist after death. Without them there would be no individual development, no real identity.

About the author: Dr. med. Michaela Glöckler, paediatrician, is the former head of the Medical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach and co-founder of the European Alliance of Initiatives for Applied Anthroposophy/ELIANT.