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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 43 – August 1999
If you had to sit down to reinvent the wheel I bet you would end up with a round thing, not a square. It’s elementary – round wheels work, square ones don’t. Well, to be honest I’ve never seen square wheels but I know I wouldn’t like them on my bike. If I am talking to you about wheels it is to illustrate the importance of shape in relation to function.
Form conditions function (the reverse can be true too but that’s another story). This universal law applies as much to the living as to the material world. Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, was well aware of this law and used to say that ‘shape is a clue to function’.
Within the biological world, enzymes offer a good example of the close relationship between form and function. Enzymes are proteins which are biological catalysts. Like any other proteins they can, through a process called denaturation, lose their normal shape.
When this happens the enzyme loses also its catalytic properties.
Sadly, when it comes to the outer form of the body this law is too easily ignored. True, we have the expression to be in good shape’, meaning to be fit, which, I suspect, must have come from a popular recognition of the correlation between shape and function. But, nowadays the literal sense seems to have been forgotten.
Goethe coined the word morphology – the study of form.
Regrettably, morphology has mainly been the preserve of the artist and the anthropologist. Dr. John Collee, writing in The Observer Life 17 March 1996, effectively illustrates this state of affairs when he laments that ‘the art students in the college down the road were allowed to study naked bodies but for first-year medical students, the only safe nude was a dead nude – old, cold and pickled in formalin’.
Morphology is much needed for the physical therapist but its teaching is seriously lacking – it is conspicuously absent in the curriculum of the varied training schools. Yet it is a necessary tool for the correct diagnosis of musculo-skeletal disorders. Accordingly, morphological normalisation (reshaping the body), the aim of the Mézières method, is the treatment of choice for the back-pain epidemic and other varied postural ills.
When morphology obtains the place it deserves in the teaching of health sciences, it will be realised that all living forms in optimum health happen to also be the most beautiful. When in an organism there is perfect adaptation of form and function beauty is the natural corollary. This fact prompted Prof. J. Arthur Thomson, a noted British biologist, to list the omnipresence of beauty as one of the ‘seven wonders of biology’. The Greeks got it right when they associated beauty with health.
The old saying that beauty is only skin-deep should be debunked for good, but falsehoods die hard so I won’t hold my breath. If in some quarters beauty has a bad press it is the fault of the fashion and advertising industry which promotes a spurious and artificial idea of what is or what is not beautiful. We are witnessing a cult of the body beautiful which expects us to be uniform, mere clones of the current ideal of beauty, imposed on us by a capricious fashion lobby. In these circumstances, the fear of losing one’s individuality via the dictats of this kind of body beautiful is perfectly legitimate.
There will be no shortage of disgruntled people to cry ‘body-fascism’ at my advocacy of beauty. But my idea of beauty has nothing to do with this dirty word. Body-fascism could be defined as the imposition of rigid norms for what constitutes an acceptable body. The beauty I am talking about is a pragmatic, healthful and natural one that will free instead of alienate you. And far be it from me to make you pathologically body-conscious and to give you a body dysmorphic disorder (obsession with imaginary flaws in your face or body).
To assert, as I do, that the human body has a natural, normal form which ensures its proper functioning is no more fascistic than to say that our enzymes must have a precise shape to be able to work efficiently. To quote Dr. John Collee again: “…we know that a wound is not infected because the skin is not discoloured, and a shoulder is not dislocated because the gentle contours of the joint are the same on both sides of the body.”
Beauty is our birthright. It is ours by heritage from the patient and crafty work of evolution. Since its original mould has been sculpted by natural forces it cannot possibly be rigid, inflexible and of a monotonous uniformity. Nature is too much in favour of diversity.
The natural ‘Canon’ is elastic, dynamic, organic and can accommodate all sorts of sizes, constitutions and builds. Yet a precise arrangement of parts is necessary to qualify for beauty. The key factor is harmony (from Greek harmonia, meaning agreement, concord). Beauty then can take many forms but we have to respect strict boundaries because any slight deviation from the template will be a source of malfunction resulting in aches and pains.
To make this paradox understandable let me recall the wheel.
Wheels come in a multitude of styles but they all have the distinct characteristic of wheelness. Now let one of these wheels be slightly buckled and you have a very good example of a hardly visible flaw that can spell dramatic and potentially dangerous effects. So small the distortion, so important the effects.
When it comes to shape and function, wheels and Man are governed by the same laws: they need to be well rounded. Whatever your age or condition, get in shape! It’s possible, for where there is a wheel there is a way.