Lying on the floor in my living room, I try to get my body/mind to relax. Heart racing. Rapid breathing. I tell myself, “This is not actually anxiety. It’s just a reaction to the medication.” That logic doesn’t change the fact that I haven’t slept well in over a week. The medication is the treatment for an acute asthma flare, a flare that probably happened because I pushed too hard at the gym. Or because I ate something that I am sensitive to. Or because my lungs have just never worked the way they are supposed to. Or maybe it’s because I’m overweight. Next, I wonder if everyone has this reaction to the medication or is this just another way my neurology diverges from the norm.
The self-judgement is really on a role now. Too fat. Too out of shape. Too old. Lungs don’t work. Brain doesn’t work. Lazy. Not good enough. I take another breath and try once again to get my muscles to relax. Now, it is anxiety, even if it wasn’t before.
Of course, if I’m too something, if I’m not enough something, there must be a standard against which I’m being measured. Body positivity activist Sonya Renee Taylor calls this standard the default body. “Aspects of the default body change across culture and geography, but it shapes our ideas of normalcy and impacts our social values,” she writes. “Know that our propensity to shape human diversity into sameness creates exhausting barriers for the bodies that do not fit our default models.”
The default body is male, white, on the tall side of average height, well-groomed, physically fit, conventionally handsome, and young. We attach other characteristics to him as well. He is educated, speaks with standard English grammar, owns a home that is as well maintained as his yard, drives a reliable, ideally luxury, vehicle. He is also a financially stable to wealthy, married, Christian, straight, cisgender father. Such a narrow definition of the ideal.
All the rest of us, and that really is the majority of us, get to determine our value by comparison to the default. We may strive to control those characteristics that are somewhat fluid, such as our weight or our fitness, our education or financial situation, we might try to perform against type, but often those changes aren’t as controllable as we would like to think. And for those of us who are female, nonbinary, transgender or queer, Black, indigenous, Asian or Latinx, neurodivergent, disabled, or older, there is no way for us to meet the standard.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying to assimilate into the standard, to prioritize our proximity to the default body. An office worker pushes past the limits of an autoimmune condition because to ask for accommodations might be perceived as requesting special treatment. A child puts so much effort into complying with behavioral standards that very little learning takes place and they decide they just aren’t smart. A lawyer cuts off their dreadlocks to meet a narrow definition of professional appearance after being passed over for partner, again. A young doctor tolerates daily harassment in order to be part of a prestigious practice. An athlete develops an eating disorder trying to force their body into a default shape it was never meant to be.
And we often find ourselves judging or punishing others in comparison to those same unreasonable standards. I may not be male, but at least I’m cisgender. Or, you don’t get to complain about not being able to find clothes that fit because I’m several sizes larger than you. Rather than working together to create a new system where we all share power, we divide ourselves by default, and the structure remains the same.
As painful as it is to hear this social conditioning inside our own heads, as a society, we have constructed systems which perpetuate the power of the default body to the detriment of those who diverge from the norm. When humans are the default, the rest of the natural world is available as natural resources to be exploited to the point of climate crisis and extinction. When Europeans are the default, other populations and lands can be colonized and enslaved. These same ideas today allow the use of sweatshop labor and convict labor and all those not in the capital class to become human resources for the continued consolidation of wealth and power. They create limits in access to quality education, affordable health care, nutritious food, clean air, and fair treatment in the justice system.
Womanist activist and author Audre Lorde said, “We have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.”
We have no patterns, no standard ways of embracing our diversity, but our covenant calls us to try to find ways to do it. Our Unitarian Universalist principles are our primary covenant of how we intend to treat each other, and the first and seventh principles are the pillars of that covenant. The first principle calls us to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the seventh asks us to respect the interdependent web of life. Every person, in all their non-standard uniqueness is an important part of the interconnected web of all existence. And each relationship between and among us is a vibrant, generative, living connection with the potential to help create a world that doesn’t compare each of us to a nearly unobtainable default.
That is our calling. We haven’t always done such a good job of it. Three years ago, the board of the Unitarian Universalist Association charged the Commission on Institutional Change with holding up a mirror to our denomination to show us the experience of those on the margins whose bodies exist farthest from the default. The released their findings in June of this year, and unfortunately, we, like the rest of society, have a lot of work to do in creating a truly welcoming space where all bodies, all voices, all expressions of sacred humanity, are honored for their inherent worth and welcomed into the web that creates our shared future.
Our shared values point the way – justice, equity and compassion, acceptance and encouragement – but living in covenant is so counter cultural, so against all our conditioning, that as an institution, we don’t seem to know how to do it. Part of that struggle lies in the fact that we are still trying to do it alone. Each of us on their own personal search for truth and meaning, when we are meant to do it as a community.
I recently had the opportunity to hear political theologian Mike Hogue discuss the difference between truth and meaning. He explained that each of us does make our own meaning in any encounter, a meaning based on our conditioning, experience and learning. There is no way for you and me to make the same meaning from any given situation because you inhabit a different body and have lived a different life. When we openly share our different meanings and look at something from as many angles as available, we get closer to the truth. Seeking truth is a collective enterprise. We can state our differences by saying, “I think I made different meaning from that situation.” Then explain our opinion but place it in our perspective and location. Then, and this is key, we can affirm one another’s different meanings. This approach opens the door for a conversation about all knowledge being incomplete and biased. We all have blind spots, and we need each other.
In fact, our collective flourishing, and our collective freedom from judgement and shame, lives in the realization of a beloved, diverse community. One where we are willing to try new ways of doing things and being together. A place where hope can thrive.
Antiracism activist Andre Henry writes, “Hope–the qualified belief in our collective power for change–has at times been a source of frustration. That’s because to be hopeful is to know what could be, if only we would…To be hopeful is to make yourself at home in the “if” of that phrase.” If only we would. If only we could find the willingness to start right now. We can choose to stop the judgement, the control, the punishment, the policing in our minds and our communities and instead seek truth and a new way forward for all of us.
May it be so, and Blessed Be.