Body Work and Leonard Cohen's 'Beautiful Losers'

In university, I wrote an essay for my one of my English Lit classes on body representation in Leonard Cohen’s novels. Part of my argument was about the ways in which people enact body work in order to create an exterior that is a better reflection of their inner self. We are constantly fixing ourselves to feel good – plucking our brows, getting haircuts, diets, exercise – and to a certain extent it works. But the other part of my argument was that we are also ultimately setting ourselves up for failure.

The physical body cannot achieve the perfection we are striving for.

In Cohen’s Beautiful Losers there are three characters who all have a different relationship with their bodies: F., who is obsessed with perfecting the human body, I., who is fixated on his body's flaws, and Edith, who attempts to reclaim her self-identity through body manipulation. F. ends up in a mental institute, Edith crushed by an elevator, and I. alone and depressed. Both F. and Edith die from failed attempts at finding fulfillment through the body.

This is an extreme conclusion. But at the same time, it's not. People do die from trying to achieve the perfect body. People do end up in institutes.

Beautiful Losers was one of the most complicated and confusing novels I've read and also one of my favourite. Unfortunately, I didn't end up doing great on that paper because, in trying to work through the final message of the text, I became further entangled in it. Maybe that was the point. You can’t always get a final conclusion that’s nicely wrapped up with red ribbon. The same goes for body work; there will never be a point where you stop and go, I've got it. I have achieved perfection!

Body work can be good if we are being healthy and mindful about it. We have to remind ourselves that the body can be a reflection of the self, but it’s not the only reflection. It’s a dangerous path to go on if you start to believe that your exterior is the only thing that represents who you are.

Instead, do things that are important to you. Read. Write. Sing in the shower. Dance. Create. Spend time with family and friends. Laugh. Donate to a good cause. Volunteer for an organization that speaks to you.

An important aspect of Cohen's novel is that F., I., and Edith were all “losers” in a sense. All three characters, in trying to define themselves, and in trying to disrupt the social system they don’t belong to, are risking loss and, as such, lose beautifully.

To lose beautifully means learning to find beauty in non-beauty: in the way that people don’t quite fit into the system, in our flaws, in how we attempt to reclaim ourselves by reclaiming our bodies in all of its imperfections.

Like Cohen himself says: “There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in”.