City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Recreational Body

To the woman in rural India who walks ten kilometres every day to fetch water, the sight of the paunchy middle aged going for determined walks must seem a little absurd. What is a defining life condition for one is a self-conscious attempt to import health for another. For most of us, the walk is one of the few ways in which we exercise our bodies, used as we have become to a life which makes little demands on them. In the absence of work, we find ways to simulate it, just to keep our bodies in running condition. Make that walking condition.

We use motorised transport to travel, eschewing even the bicycle as a mode of transport. We use elevators to climb stairs, appliances to help us with our daily chores. We use hired help to take over all tasks that involve physical labour, if we can afford it. Products vie with each other to offer labour-saving conveniences and we surround ourselves with these. Technology works hard to eliminate work- even the smallest effort that we make is hunted down and reduced. Progress means eliminating the effort we made to kick start our motorcycles and dial a telephone. The idea of the ‘automatic’ is that of the self-fulfilling; a condition which allows us to not only eliminate all effort itself, but even the very thought of it. The automatic watch rids us of the need to wind it, the automatic washing machine of the need to transfer clothes from the tub to the dryer and the automatic transmission allows us the great facility of not having to change gears manually.

It is easy for us then to forget that our bodies are machines that transform energy into work. In the earlier days, our bodies were our primary instruments in our quest for staying alive. We hunted, grew food, cooked and cleaned and in general kept the wheels of life moving through the motive force of our bodies. With time, technology and with surplus, it was possible for us to increasingly delegate work to others, be it animals, machines or other people.

Today, for a section of the world, our bodies serve little useful purpose; these are increasingly instruments of recreation. We use our bodies when we want to and not when we need to. Societies with surpluses become increasingly drawn to sport; the body gets utilised in a manner that gives millions of spectators’ pleasure. Sport is an ‘empty’ way of using our bodies- by definition no sport is meant to serve any utilitarian purpose. Sport allows us to expend our energies in a symbolic quest for perfection. The most exercise a child in a large city is likely to get is in sport (and in carrying their bags to school); there are no other avenues for physical exertion.

Sex is the other big function that our bodies serve today. The technology of contraception helped separate recreation from procreation and helped make the body a site of pleasure above all. Our pre-occupation with the body’s sexual needs have grown prodigiously in the last century and several industries starting from cosmetics, apparel, grooming and entertainment to name only a few are dependent on catering to this need.

In keeping with the recreational role of the body, the role assigned to food too has changed. Food is much more than the fuel that keeps us going; we look to be lavished with new and more exotic toasts to our taste buds. The notion of cuisines; the idea that food is something to experiment with, is a relatively new one. Every meal now is a culinary adventure, and nothing is more annoying for the modern family than predictable, routine food. Today’s housewife needs to be able to constantly surprise and delight her demanding family with newer dishes and recipes.

With so much emphasis on personal attractiveness, and such little real use that we put our bodies to, the body has become an end in itself. As pointed out by a social scientist, the body today is seen as a project that is in the process of becoming. It needs to be fashioned by diets, exercises and products. We ‘work out’- having exhausted the need to do real work, we ‘burn’ calories, we ‘build’ muscles in desired parts of the body and voluntarily go on the ‘tread-mill’ to make our bodies a work of art. In everything we do, we simulate real work, only this time to construct a version of ourselves that we are happy to see in the mirror.

As we move from the mechanical era of physical machines to the digital era of computers, we are freeing up yet another part of our bodies for recreation. The mind, which hitherto was completely occupied so far in our quest to build a good life for ourselves, is increasingly being freed up to pursue its own interests. Computers process information at a rate human minds can barely comprehend. A new generation is reaching adulthood not knowing how to make arithmetical calculations mentally. As computers start doing more of the ‘real’ work, our minds will seek more avenues for pleasure. Already, the most exciting developments in the digital world are linked to communication and entertainment. Whether it is i-pod or gaming or blogging, we are finding more and more recreational uses for what was to begin with a computing machine for businesses.

From a time when we lived through our bodies unself-consciously, today we are increasingly living for our bodies. The body is what we pay obeisance to; all its needs have become paramount. The body is the passive recipient of new forms of stimulation. Our body today is a hobby, to be pursued for pleasure or to be perfected to gain admiration from others. To be affluent in today’s world is to pander to the body; to be poor to have to depend on it. When we don’t have too much work, no wonder we need to work out!