No body is perfect

By Michael Birnthaler, July 2019

In no previous period have people focused on their own body to such an extent as in the present time. From tattoos through bodybuilding to body modification, modern human beings do everything to perfect their body. Yet it seems that the search to obtain happiness from our bodies is futile. Instead, those who strive hardest for health and physical wellness seem least able to achieve it. Why is that?

Photos: © Charlotte Fischer

As long as a hundred years ago, Rudolf Steiner looked specifically at this question and found a remarkable answer. In a lecture entitled “Health fever”, which he gave in Munich on 5 December 1907, he describes the striving for health and happiness through the body as something of a paradox, similar to the striving for money and wealth. Because such money only materialised when the grim striving for it was abandoned. As long as someone directed the flow of money towards their own ego, wealth remained elusive. But as soon as they placed their ego in the service of the common good, luck would smile on them. They were transformed in accordance with the “Snow White principle” – many give, one becomes rich – from a Pitch Mary into a Gold Mary (as in the Mother Holle Grimm’s fairy tale).

A similar thing happened with physical “prosperity”: those who were seeking a healthy body purely for themselves as an end in itself would suffer most from illness. Those, in contrast, who strove for a healthy body to have sufficient strength to serve the common good would be blessed with indestructible health. 

It appears more difficult than ever today to develop a socially serviceable attitude to our own body. Where until the modern era an ascetic and body-denying attitude predominated, a body-fixated, narcissistic relish of our own body dominates today – and be it in the form of a never-ending battle with the scales.

“Madonna” as physical ideal

“Madonnas” worship their bodies and degrade it to a hedonistic object of desire. A typical example of this idealising body image is the “King of Pop”. Michael Jackson would not have become the greatest pop icon of all time if he had not completely reinvented his body and face – until it gave the impression of an angelic mask. But his success boomeranged on him, the surgically obtained joy in his body was transformed by destiny into pitch; Jackson died at an early age, in pain and miserable. Anaesthetics, drugs, medicines and all kinds of medication were found in his house.

Less harmful examples of the idealisation of the body and excessive concentration on it are widespread today. Tens of millions of people go to gyms, beauty farms, five-star wellness temples, solariums and saunas, steaming oriental saunas and apply smelly fango packs. Yoga long ago became a part of the work-life balance of the urbanite. 

In Germany alone, the boom meanwhile encompasses five million people, and 20,000 yoga teachers focus on making “disciplined hard bodies” receptive to wellbeing again and soften into appreciation. They promise to raise a person to Nirvana through the body, the right breathing, liberating asanas and the lotus position.

Like a Barbie doll

Whereas a generation ago the artificial modification of our own body still had a whiff of jail and brothels about it, it is almost seen as a status symbol today. The boom in tattooing and piercing is unstoppable. According to one study, nine percent of all women have a piercing today. Fifty-three percent of all people with a piercing in Germany are under the age of eighteen. Millions of Germans undergo cosmetic surgery. All of that seems quite normal.

A harder form of the artificial body image is body alteration. This refers to changing the body in ways that range from simple surgical interventions such as the implantation of metal studs in the back of the neck, splitting the tongue or scarification, to extreme operations to make a person look like a lizard for example. There are meanwhile 30,000 “BodMods” in Germany who indulge in this self-mutilating passion. 

Women who want to transform themselves wholly and completely into Barbie dolls are also deemed to be “BodMods”. Barbie Bennett from California, for example, has not only subjected herself to numerous cosmetic procedures but also brain washing. In twenty sessions of hypnosis so far, she is trying to decimate her IQ and make her mindset as close to Barbie as possible.

Wild as Tarzan

The new focus on the body is determined here less by a real physical need – no one today any longer needs the muscles to haul bags of coal – than by an emotional state. There is an arsenal of possibilities today to feel “really great” now and again: from survival, learnscapes, wrestling, rugby, live action role play (LARP), which currently attracts 40,000 young people, to shamanic fakir routines. They gather in their thousands for body workouts, in boot camps, or quite mundanely in bodybuilding studios with their flashing chrome. And let us not forget “I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here”, a nauseating show with insane ratings in which viewers can act out their inner Tarzan from their television armchair.

Liberated from the shackles of a heritage that downgraded the body, the representatives of a wilderness-oriented body image are turning towards an unrestrained muscle-bound morality which equates to idolatry of the primitive body. 

Terminator, the machine human

The male counterparts to the Barbies are the machine humans, the terminators and cyborgs. In this context a tattoo has spread virally online as never before and has been called up tens of millions of times in the shortest period of time. The clever thing about it is that it is a 3D tattoo which makes the tattooed person look deceptively similar to a machine human.

Another variation are biochips which are implanted under the skin and give the wearers machine-like potentials and link them with a worldwide network. More than 50,000 people are meanwhile going about as living transhumans, as so-called cyborgs – and the trend is upwards. The latest craze: the BodMods want to show evil not just on their skin but completely embody it. Thus a man has had himself deformed to such an extent through several operations, including a partial amputation of his nose, that he looks like the Nazi villain “Red Skull”.

These four prototypical body images are a visible clue of the progressive alienation between body and soul, between spirit and body. But how can we find the way back to a real affinity with the body? Rudolf Steiner in the lecture mentioned above: “Anyone who takes pleasure in music hall and such like belongs there and it would be wrong to take that pleasure away from them. The only healthy thing to do would be to remove their taste in it.” It is thus a matter of awakening or creating the disposition for a feeling (“taste”) which supports the spiritual and social dimension of the body. But the fixation on the body can only be overcome by developing a “taste” for higher values. Idols such as Terminator and Barbie can only be shed to the extent that real ideals take their place. 

Steiner never tired from stressing that with sport, too, it was not a matter of practical Darwinism but of “meaningful movement”, of the experience of the qualities of space and a holistic experience of the body through the senses. At the Herbert Hahn schools, for example, activities with a physical emphasis such as fire drills, coastguard activities, mountain rescue, expeditions or technical assistance deployments, giving the growing young people a satisfying physical experience, are part of the everyday life of the school. They are not about the idealised or instrumentalised body but finding a friend in our body. 

Because anyone who experiences their body as a friend with which to tackle the challenges thrown up by the needs of our time will be permitted to experience real happiness in their body. Because they know: no body is perfect.

About the author: Dr. Michael Birnthaler,