The Inevitable Inequality of Bodies

I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard III last month. The actor playing Richard in this production has radial dysplasia, which added a certain amount of gravitas to the character’s opening lines:

I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

But perhaps due to the fact that I know two men and one child who have the same disability, the actor’s arm quickly ceased to attract my notice, and appeared to be no hindrance to the evil wrought by the character throughout the play. The visible disability of the actor did contribute, though, to a train of thought I was already on: Human bodies are not made equal.

This is such an obvious statement that it continually surprises me that I have to say it, since it is neglected or ignored by many today. Consider the transgender sports movement, where, for example, a male, Lia Thomas, has taken the rightful spot of females in college swimming. What do I mean by rightful spot? I mean that the young women competing in the NCAA championships worked hard for years to get their bodies to swim at a certain speed; Lia also worked hard, but with many bodily advantages that are undeniable to anyone with eyes. I could go on, but I will stop there, since this column is not about transgender sports.

Anyone who watches children play knows that there are bodily differences not only between boys and girls, but between athletic children and non-athletic children, musical or not musical, coordinated or not coordinated, and that these differences show up early and often. (I’m not going into racial or ethnic differences in this column either, but they certainly play into our sense of self.) While parents can steer their children in one direction or another, they will always come up against some facts of nature, for good or ill: Venus and Serena Williams had what it took to become tennis stars; it would be downright cruel to send other children, those without hand-eye coordination, to tennis camp. There are “natural-born” runners and those who struggle through for the sake of fitness or for the sake of a sport they love. Some toddlers bop up and down when they hear music, eager to express with their bodies that they are “in tune” with the sounds, while other children look around the room, bored. Some children fall down a lot or bump into things because their proprioception just isn’t there. And this is all within the realm of “normal”—none of these differences are considered disabilities in need of special accommodation.

These differences don’t simply disappear as children grow, though they are often diminished, but then puberty comes along. Puberty does a number on all of us and sometimes we can forget that as adults (I think we block it out). It is not uncommon for children who are invested in certain activities to stop wanting to do them once they hit puberty, seemingly out of the blue. They may not even be able to articulate what is making them uncomfortable or why they are less interested in certain things. For me, that was ballet. I was increasingly aware that my changing body did not look like a ballerina’s, nor was I willing to do what it might take to get it closer to that form. This was not something I had words for—it was much easier to say I just didn’t want to do it anymore. Adolescence is understood to be a time of pruning, of narrowing one’s focus, but it seems to me that much of the direction of this pruning is dictated by the body.

In addition, to point out the obvious again, some people develop into men or women who are particularly attractive to the opposite sex while others do not. Both sides have their crosses, I’m willing to concede, but they are distinct experiences. I have a friend who complains that she was always finding herself on what she called “stealth dates”—men she thought wanted to be her friend suddenly tried to kiss her. I never had this problem. She and I thus had (and continue to have) very different experiences because of what we look like. In fact, the way that many dating apps work behind the scenes is someone rates each profile—gives the person a number—based on their appearance, and then the algorithm “matches” them with people who are around the same number, since studies have found that people usually pair up with someone at about the same attractiveness level as themselves. (Don’t believe me? Listen to this podcast!)

None of us are perfectly equal because none of us, even identical twins, have the same body (or soul). My body and your body—whoever you are that is reading this—are different in such a way that our experiences differ. If you are six inches taller than I am, you can reach the mixing bowl in the top cupboard while I have to get out the stepstool. If you are four inches shorter than me, you never need to duck through a doorway, but when we go on a walk, you have to take more steps than I do to cover the same ground. If you are a slight, petite woman, you have probably experienced people moving you aside or invading your space more than I have, and if you are overweight, you are uncomfortable in many chairs. If you work out a lot, you can hike Old Rag in the Shenandoah without feeling like you are going to collapse, while if you hardly ever exercise, carrying the laundry upstairs can leave you winded.

What’s the point of all this? I am trying to lay out a case for recognizing and accepting the built-in inequality that being embodied entails. Being equal in dignity is one thing— and of course I am on board with that—but being equal, full stop, is another. The Dobbs decision reignited a lot of rhetoric about women’s rights and equality—as if the ability to kill one’s own child in the womb is the prerequisite for such things. As the grateful recipient of a lot of the work that came before me in those areas, I cannot simply snub my nose at the notions of women’s rights or equality—but I can, with the benefit of an opening position that is different from my forebears, laugh a bit at the very idea that men and women can ever be “equal.”

Nothing that any society can do on the cultural level can change the fact that having a uterus is fundamentally “unequal” to not having one. The power of a woman’s body is the reason that girls “become women” naturally while boys often require some sort of ritual or challenge to overcome before they are considered to “become men.” When they hit puberty, girls enter into a cyclical world of fertility that they have to contend with—even if their way of contending with it is to take a pill in order to make it seem to disappear. The reality is still there underneath, our emotions are tied to it, and the question of motherhood is never absent until menopause. A woman’s ability to bear children is awesome in the true sense of the word: inspiring awe. A woman can conceive a human being—a person who will live forever—inside her body, and (around) nine months later, give birth to and feed that child, again with her own body. That is something that no man can do. She is, without any possible argument, superior to men in that way.

And yet this very power is also what makes a woman most vulnerable. There’s a story about a famous feminist author who recounted that when she was pregnant, she was horrified by the way she instinctively reached for her husband’s hand when crossing the street. (I think it was Betty Friedan, but I can’t remember for certain.) She was horrified because she felt so strongly in that moment that she needed him—that in the state of pregnancy, she unconsciously reached for male protection. She hated it. She could have chosen to love it, because presumably, she did love him. She was forced to recognize the inequality but unable to see it as a good. And even though Brené Brown is doing a lot of great work in the area of vulnerability, I think that it is possible that only Christianity really offers the grounding for us to see goodness in weakness and dependence.

God’s plan for the family—husband and wife, child(ren)— recognizes and affirms that bodies are different; that everyone is dependent; and that dependence is not something to run away from. Husbands and wives are exhorted to respect each other’s bodies and the natural cycles of fertility. They are urged to serve one another in Christ’s name. And in terms of dependence, you can hardly think of a being that is more dependent than a human infant. It didn’t have to be that way; consider how many members of the animal kingdom are up and walking within minutes of being born. In God’s plan, in contrast, human beings are almost completely dependent at birth. And because of this dependence, those who care for the child (mother and father) also have to depend on one another and on their communities. It’s a ripple effect of dependence. We need each other precisely because we are not all the same.

Which brings me back to Richard III and his entering the world “scarce half made up.” We are all scarce half made up, if we could see everything that is in us. Some of us have more visible challenges than others, and truly some have heavier crosses, but our bodies and souls are, none of them, perfect. Equality is not something to be grasped at.

“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:5-11)