Last Thursday, I finally had my oft-rescheduled wisdom tooth surgery, which is why I haven’t been blogging. It’s apparently a more complicated procedure once you’re over the age of 20; your bottom wisdom teeth sit next to a nerve and extracting them after they’ve fully grown means you run the slight risk of minor facial paralysis. (I also had to have all four of them out at once, which wasn’t what I was expecting when I went in.) I’ve spent the last few days mostly sleeping, eating soft foods and becoming intimately acquainted with some miraculous prescription painkillers. Good times.
But this experience got me thinking: Why do we deal with pain and comfort the way we do? That idea popped into my head while I sat in the oral surgeon’s chair and the nurse simultaneously tried to prep me for the operation and calm my nerves. (I’d never been under general anesthesia before.) “It’s the guys who come in here and get freaked out,” she joked. “The bigger they are, the worse it is.” I laughed nervously.
And in the woozy moments before I passed out, I filed away her comment for later. She was probably on to something.
Her aside touched on the subjectivity of pain and discomfort, which I think most of us recognize. And while there’s probably a lot of variance as to individual thresholds for those things, there’s a huge social component to certain perceptions and sensations. The ability to brush off the kind of agony you feel when you work out is a learned behavior, and often informed by things like gender and class and race in ways that we don’t always acknowledge. I tease my female friends that working out with them is always a drag because they’re crybabies.* (“It’s supposed to hurt!”) The arrogance/condescencion in that statement is twofold: it presumes not only that my friends can’t handle physical pain because they’re women but also that my very genderized notion of pain is the only way of understanding and experiencing it.
And, of course, my teasing them about their respective pain thresholds doesn’t hold up to the flimsiest scrutiny. these are people who regularly walk around in three-inch heels for fun, who routinely have various parts of themselves tweezed or waxed or sanded down or hotcombed, and who soldier through an often excruciating monthly ritual. If the nurse was right, and guys get all squeamish before surgery, I’m willing to bet a lot of it has to do with the fact that relatively few of our medical experiences as men are invasive ones. But my friends’ relationships to those things are not dissimilar to the way I experience DOMS: as inconveniences to be tolerated, even embraced. The way they shrug them off (or commiserate over them) has the added benefit of reinforcing the ingroup/outgroup dynamic.
Growing up male meant that I was actively pushed into sports and a very different kind of relationship to my own physicality. Me and the dudes on my block played ball on the court across the street from my house after school and all day on the weekends. You learned that driving the lane was an invitation to get hit, that posting up meant pushing and shoving and grappling for position, and that calling foul on some bullshit might get you the ball, but carried considerable social cost. (“Stop crying! I ain’t even hit you that hard!”) This physical interaction reinforced a bunch of ‘masculine’ virtues, and somewhere in there, we were being instilled with the idea that physical discomfort and sweat and fun and socializing can all be one fuzzy mess.
There’s also social location to consider. I grew up in the inner-city, which meant having to share physical play space with other folks. (It didn’t matter if you couldn’t play ball; if they needed another person to run a full, you were conscripted into service.) This very specific socialization might not have happened if I lived someplace where everyone had hoops in their backyards. And still, my genderized relationship to muscle pain and physical activity as an adult has become a decidedly middle class one. I have a gym membership. I work convenient hours. My job doesn’t entail the kind of grueling, taxing work that leaves so many laborers battling a constellation of progressive injuries at relatively young ages. And I have health insurance. Even our bodies function as class markers, and we live our lives with the physical and cultural limitations that have been written into them over time.
I’m sure I’m missing a ton of stuff, but all of the rambling brings me to a broader point. If our physicalities are so elemental and inextricable to our identities — class, gender, even race and religion — then it follows that most of us are not even experiencing the same corporeal world. And this goes not just for physical pain, but the way we express grief and humor and happiness. It’s no wonder that so many of our most banal experiences don’t translate across certain lines. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is exactly why diversity is so important to the crafting of policy: there are indeed plenty of instances in which a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.)
I’m not sure how much sense any of this makes. I was working this out while I was drifting in and out of fitful naps with a mouth full of bloody gauze, which I suppose is as good a time as any to mull over the vagaries of pain. And feeling remorse for being condescending to your friends. And knowing when to acknowledge that you can’t tell someone how they’re supposed to feel about any given experience, and subsequently shutting the hell up.