I’m outside. He’s on his porch and calls out to me: ‘I’m getting a little’ (his hands gesture) ‘procedure’ ……
With that comment, the tendrils of fear unfurl and snake toward me, my skin buzzes with questions, and my stomach drops …… – the wisdom of my body that knew before my brain ever did. A dear one of mine was in distress and doing his best to minimize showing it.
We talked, exchanging details and reassurances, and my fear and anxiety retreated slightly. At some point, I said: ‘your body is doing amazing work; your body does all it possibly can to keep you alive every single day’. He went quiet then nodded his agreement. Reconcilitation with a few words and a moment of breath.
His body is a miracle. Our bodies are miracles, and many of us have forgotten.
This piece, like all my writing, has been gestating long before I ever put pen to page and fingers to keys, and it is a response to socio-political movements around the body – body neutrality, inclusivity, positivity.
I opened this piece about the body of a man, but it wasn’t just the conversation above with a male loved one of mine and my own body wisdom that initiated this piece – it goes back much further. It was female friends that tell me: “I don’t know how to feel joy in my body” or ask out of shame: “can I have sex with my clothes on?” stories of coercion into sex, or disgust with their bodies and themselves. It was watching the fall out of a friend call herself fat. It is the social media movements of body inclusivity that are anything but and continue to represent more of the same, perpetuating the harm. It is watching friends and loved ones diet and their exhaustion at “failing” to meet some ill-defined goal. And so much more.
Go back to the beginning: Embodied as a woman
My own somatic experience finds the above stories inherent. I haven’t always felt my body was (is) a miracle or even at home in my body. Living as female, I was inculcated with messages that my body was not safe, explicitly and implicitly. This indoctrination of body messaging happens to most (all?) girls and women. From the beginning, I learned that female bodies are:
- Removed from our personhood (objectified), hyper-sexualized, appropriated for and by others
- Inherently flawed, less-than, worth-less, and not enough, which others can profit off of (see The Beauty Myth)
- Gross, dirty, and taboo, inherently and/or because of menstruation and birth†
- Prey and under threat of violence
- Sinful, temptress, invitation and tool for male pleasure
- Too much – too loud, too big, too small, too needy, too tall, too emotional, too ________
- The most important part of her existence – her body is her worth
- Machines – meant to work and produce and serve (mothering, caregiving, even sex) and these acts are still less-than, unpaid, under-paid, and not always part of the GDP
- Not to be trusted with her own body
- Women have forfeited their inherent body knowledge and wisdom to medical providers and have suffered consequences (see references below)
- Shameful – shame literally lives between our legs (the Latin root of women’s genitals means “to make ashamed”)
- (is there more????)
How do these statements feel, in your body?
These poisonous cultural dictates penetrate bone and spirit. Paradoxical and contradictory, disempowering, and even purposefully and intentionally impossible. Is it any wonder women often feel alienated from their bodies? Internalizing this messaging into somatic entity, the weight of the body and shame, disgust and self-loathing is stressful, traumatizing from trying to pass in a system designed for failing, and too much, so very much, to bear, so we/women burn ourselves out attempting to comply, or we escape with distraction, addiction, or worse. We are out of our bodies, we lack desire and experience sexual dysfunction, we have discomfort with all things body, including death, and we experience high rates of autoimmune and chronic disease. Add in any other factor of marginalization (sexuality, gender fluidity, race, ability, age), and the body becomes a place of extreme threat.
*Cis-Men likely have their own list, but being born female, I am not privy to the list, at least in its entirety. Perhaps less hurtful, perhaps more, perhaps it doesn’t matter. However, men are often purveyors of and complicit in, intentionally or not, the system that affords them privilege, and I can only write from my experience as a female. We will come back to this at the end*.
“Unknowingly separated from the full amplitude of my existence, I begin to hunger for something I cannot name. A kind of greed for experience and objects overtakes me. And in an effort to take in more, I become even more divorced from myself” (S. Griffin, The Eros of Everyday Life). We, women and likely all individuals, have become birfurcated from ourselves and are hurting, hungry, and seeking.
Reclaiming our bodies, finding security and home in our bodied, perhaps even joy in our embodiment, is subversive and rebellious and powerful. It is time to unweight ourselves from the shame and to re-write and re-member the body.
“We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all maps change. There are new mountains” (-Ursula Le Guin)
How did we get here?
What we are talking about is a philosophical split between mind and body, the creation of a false duality, leading to the disconnection from the body, all caused by harmful and historical cultural norms, going back to Freud, to Descartes, to Plato, even to our culturally accepted creation story of Adam and Eve, people long dead, yet their ideas or stories remain. The mortal body is threatening and meaning-less than the mind, which is in some ways immortal (see previous sentence, for example). With body as threat or less-than, body processes become taboo (birth, sex, disease, death). Sensuality and the erotic (full-bodied experience beyond “just” the sexual and love, see Audre Lorde) are dismissed or ignored, and therefore body wisdoms like perception, intuition, emotion, are less reasonable and trustworthy than logic. The lived experience of body as threat, dismissal of body, and separation of body, are stressful and disorienting in the least and traumatizing at worst.
“The system designed to protect us from nature creates an unnatural frailty. Divided from life processes which cannot be extricated from death, from earth, the grounding of being, the self is confused. This is a crisis of identity” (S. Griffin, The Eros of Everyday Life)
This fracture between mind and body mimics and aides that of the separation of human and earth, male and female (or male and others, to honor the nonbinary), white and “other” races and ethnicities. The imposed dichotomies all relate to a dominator, patriarchal system (see the work of Riane Eisler, Carol Lee Flinders, and bell hooks to start). From this disconnected state, we have lost ourselves, our bodies, each other, the earth, the mystical. We don’t belong, and we don’t know who we are because we are cut off from our experiences. We occupy narrow paradigms of allowable functioning, behaving, thinking – exactly what a system based on dominion needs to remain entrenched.
“….belonging begins with the body, and if we cannot be enchanted with the miracle of our own physical existence, how can we ever hope to become enchanted with the wider world, and our place in it? If we shut ourselves off from the vicissitudes of bodied existence, and hold the world at a safe distance, we seal ourselves away from joy and wonder” (S. Blackie, The Enchanted Life)
There it is….Joy….with a dose of creativity
Intentionally reinstating joy and pleasure, awe and enchantment in our lives brings us back to our bodies (embodiment) through experience and sensation.
“By pleasure, I don’t just mean the sensual kind, through the comfort of a good meal and a hot bath are important. I mean pleasure as a state of being at home in your own skin, of feeling well where, when, and with whom you find yourself” (AM Brown, Pleasure Activism).
Brown’s definition mirrors that of the erotic by Audre Lorde: “when I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives” (note that the concept of the lifeforce is nonbinary but the author was writing from her perspective as a woman).
*About sex, as an aside: Although the words ‘pleasure’ and ‘erotic’ are often thought of as being specific to sex, what we are talking about is gratitude, fullness of sensation and being, and presence in the moment. Lorde and Brown both specify that their terms are inclusive of but not specific to sex. However, the confusion by many is not surprising – sex will put you back into your body, in the moment, in a (hopefully consensual and) joyful way. And it works in reverse – if you feel shame or disgust with sex, one has a hard time occupying that specific space of relational (or solo) fully embodied pleasure – shame puts the brakes on orgasm and sexual wellness (see Come as You Are). *
But we refuse joy, pleasure, the erotic, like we escape the body, almost by reflex. Joy isn’t productive, and in a scarcity-oriented culture, it feels superfluous. Stuck carrying around the weight of shame (byproduct of the scarcity mindset culture as well as how we view bodies), we don’t feel worthy of Joy. Joy is also terrifying for many because it is vulnerable and threatening as risk, so we push it away. Brene Brown calls this ‘foreboding joy’ (Daring Greatly): “When we spend our lives (knowingly or unknowingly) pushing away vulnerability, we can’t hold space open for the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of joy. For many of us, there’s even a physiological response – a “coming out of our skin” feeling. We’re desperate for more joy, but at the same time, can’t tolerate vulnerability”.
Refusing joy and pleasure, we occupy less of ourselves and our lives, in a fractured bodymindspirit. It reminds me of a quote from Rilke: “if we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and down. Thus they have a certain security” We might be safe and secure and out of vulnerability in our small corners and reduced existence, but what is happening in the rest of the ‘room’?
There is equal parts work and sweetness here – allowing joy and pleasure, breathing through fear and vulnerability, we find that joy and pleasure are not the extraordinary, the expensive vacations or once-in-a-lifetime moments, rather, they are found in the everyday, moments of presence, awareness, sensation, and gratitude. Because joy is often felt through the body, if we let it in, it brings us back to and connects us to body. But in doing so, joy also connects us to each other, in shared experience and humanity, as well as awakening us to our interconnectedness with all (ie a spiritual practice or experience). Joy and pleasure can be tools that carry us through challenges, creating resilience. Joy is also related to justice – taking the time to step out of the hustle mindset, it allows us to experience life as a gift, rather than a capitalist tool, and as such, joy is empowering and revolutionary.
“A central aspect of pleasure activism is tapping into the natural abundance that exists within and between us, and between our species and this planet. Pleasure is not one of the spoils of capitalism. It is what our bodies, our human systems, are structured for; it is the aliveness and awakening, the gratitude and humility, the joy and celebration of being miraculous” (AM Brown, Pleasure Activism; emphasis mine).
The experience of being embodied, joyful, and present is also a creative experience (return too to Audre Lorde’s quote). Art “creates a bridge between being and embodiment” (MC Richards, Centering); it is the embodiment and noticing of perception, making the intangible (sensation, emotion, perception) tangible. The creative life is also a form of justice and activism by constructing new ways of being – as mentioned above, our culture dismisses joy as superfluous. It takes creativity and resolve and boots on the ground to manifest and live a different world for the self and for all.
“The world is not what I think, but what I live” (Merleau-Ponty; this quote – creative, earth-bound, embodied).
My experience: Living the Question – Embodiment as a Practice of Joy and Reconcilitation
“be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now” (Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet)
When did I lose connection from my body? And why? How is it that I could buy into such a destructive narrative? What could I do to return to my body?
I remember being child, 4 years old or so, and running with abandon, little legs pumping; I remember being 6 or so and exploring construction sites for new housing that supplanted field behind my house; I remember being 10 and bicycling in the neighborhood – discovering new hiding places and friends; I remember mud and puddles and grass between toes. Body to a child is tool for exploration, joy, play, life in moment and movement.
But something changed, and I became aware of my body as object, worth-less, as something disobedient and ill-fitting to be managed and disciplined. In hard-to-pin-down specifics, I know it had something to do with life as a teenager and developing into womanhood. I became a perfectionist in body via disordered eating and in school (mind over body). I self-mutilated and put myself in harmful situations. I was anxious and depressed, even suicidal at times. I was seeking control and obedience in body, and if not that, at least escape. Being in-body hurt though I could not verbalize that at the time. And from the above, it is no wonder why. I was experiencing trauma from living in an oppressive, patriarchal society that told me I was insignificant and arbitrary.
Yoga, exercise, quality relationship, and writing, have been my tools of recovering myself, though it took years to shed the self-destructive tendencies (still shedding). Through movement and writing, I am able to return to body, to the present, feel fully, discharge heavy emotion, and/or reinstate bodymindspirit connection. Research supports the use of all of these modalities for healing from somaticized trauma – art, movement, affection, all help complete and release the stress cycle (see Come as You Are and The Body Keeps The Score). But, it isn’t enough – the patterns of self-loathing and abnegation have a cultural context; I cannot change culture on my own, but my response to it. I am learning.
I am learning by unlearning cultural norms. I am learning deep love and accountability to my body. I am viewing my body as devoted companion, honoring that it does everything it can to keep me alive. I find pleasure through movement, sensation, mindfulness, nature, and community, and my body is home to all of those experiences. My body is home to me. I am learning to live in my body joyfully, as reclamation and reconciliation, gratitude and love. My regular self-care and community care involves cultivating and living in joy, in-body. I am living my question of hows and whys of body discontent and disconnection, my own and others, by actively living in and cultivating joy.
My joys, *for your inspiration*: my partners, my children, my inner circle of friends; nature, thunderstorms, sunrises and sunsets, bird watching and listening, plant sensing and gardening; giving healing work; art and creative play; tattoos and piercings (designing them, getting them, appreciating them on others); obstacle course training, yoga, tae kwon do, and movement of almost any kind, it all feels like a form of prayer; reading and being surrounded by books, poetry – creating and consuming; the circle(s) of women that I host and facilitate; empathy and kindness; ritual; shamanic practice; giggling and breathless laughing and gentle sarcasm; chocolate and ice cream; baking for friends with allergies; deep exhales; adventures; listening to and feeling the music of yo-yo Ma and Zoe Keating on skin; physical closeness to a loved one; solitude, quiet, and noticing. All gifted through my body, by being in body and by some kind of transubstituation, my body becomes joy.
To end, we need a new list
Through the work of joy and art, activism and community-care, we need a new list to replace the implicit, body-negative one promoted by our culture.
“….the work of the artist is to rebuild the temple, to again sanctify life” (S. Griffin, The Eros of Everyday Life)
A new body list – How to socialize and sanctify the body – men, women and nonbinary:
- You have a body and are alive, and as such, you are miraculous
- Your body is perfect and necessary and important
- If you feel other than, ask who wrote the narrative that tells you otherwise and who benefits from that story?
- You are not just a vehicle for spirit or mental/intellectual pursuits – your sensual, embodied experience matters too
- Your body is trust-worthy
- Your body is not defined by its utility, but rather, your body is a place of rightness and meaning, inherently and intrinsically
- Your body is reliquary
- Your body is your companion
- Your body is beyond the learned binary and culturally imposed expectations
- Your body is resilient and does all it can, every single day, to keep you alive
- Your embodied diversity is one of your gifts – to yourself and to us all
- Your body is an altar to ancestor
- Your body is continuous, integrated, and collaborative with the earth as well as the cosmos
- Your body is continuous and integrated with mind and spirit – the separation is false
- Your body is intelligent; this intelligence lives throughout the body (not just the mind) and has its own intelligence that shapes the mind and experience (see embodied cognition)
- Your body is worthy of nourishment, respect, rest, sensuality, the erotic, and love
- Your body is home
How does this new list feel? I hope like re-membering and reconciliation and Joy.
“There will be joy here. Joy – happiness, delight, pleasure, bliss, ectsay, elation, thrill, exultation, rapture. This joy will be palpable when you walk through the gates. It will be found in the green grass, in the voices of the women, in the taste of their home-cooked cassava, sweet potatoes, fufu, and peas, in their grateful bodies dancing and dancing to what will feel like a ceaseless drum. It will move through you and you will touch joy and suddenly realize you have never felt joy because it requires abandon. It grows from gratitude and cannot exist where there is mad cynicism or distrust. You will touch this joy and you will suddenly know it is what you were looking for your whole life but you were afraid to even acknowledge the absence because the hunger for it was so encompassing” (-Eve Ensler, In the Body, In the World)
*May you find joy in and through your body and not be bowed by shame and scarcity and competition. May you find reconciliation and love for your self in a society that will tell you something else. May your love extend beyond skin to others, for healing and collaboration, ancestral and future. May you find gratitude and ease and live life as gift and body as miracle. *
Self-Reflections/Meditations for the Reader
- What would you add to the negative and the positive list about the body?
- What is pleasure, joy, delight, ______(synonym of your choice)? How does it look? Feel? Smell? Taste? Is there a color? Sound like? – find the sensuality of joy
- What brings you joy and pleasure? Put together a joy list.
- And so very, very , superlatively important: When was the last time you did ^that^, if ever?
- Do you resist joy? How can you change that?
- Are you satiable in your pleasure and joy? If not, how can you stop chasing and start savoring?
- What are some ways you actively practice gratitude? Do these need or deserve expansion?
- How do you or how can you bring joy to your community? And receive joy from them?
- What is your relationship to body? Do you escape it as often as you can?
- Do you feel at home in your body?
- Contemplate: “The body is the home we never leave, though some of us may try. It is the place where our soul has taken root for a lifetime and it is only through the body’s senses that we come to know the world in which we live” (TP Turner, Belonging)
- If you don’t feel miraculous in your body, what self-care and community-care techniques can you ask for or seek out to help you change this story?
- I fully believe that representation matters here – different abilities, sexualities, genders, ethnicities, sizes, age, body “imperfections” (hair, cellulite, stretch marks, wrinkles, spider veins, etc)……..more presentation and less erasure will normalize, accentuate, and value the diversity that is our embodied experience.
References and Additional Resources for further exploration:
Gender and Medicine:
Duff, K. The Alchemy of Illness
Griffin, S. What Her Body Thought
Gunter, J. The Vagina Bible
Pearce, LH. Medicine Woman
Northup, C. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (new edition coming out 5/2020)
Nagoski, E. Burnout
Nagoski, E. Come as You Are
Rein, V. Patriarchy Stress Disorder
Poems about the body:
Smith, TK. Hunger so Honed https://poems.com/poem/a-hunger-so-honed/
Taylor, SR. The Body is Not an Apology https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7lKPdh_y-8&t=94s
Article with body positive poem links: https://www.bustle.com/articles/187750-8-body-positive-poems-thatll-remind-you-to-focus-on-self-love
Social media groups worth following:
With_this_body on IG
Drsprankle on IG and twitter
Burnoutbookgroup and Emily Nagoski
The Girl God and Trista Hendren
Eat Breathe Thrive
The Body is Not an Apology
Sex Positive Families
Body Politics with Dr. Maria Paredes
Books and Websites about Embodiment:
Bacon, L and L. Aphrarmor. Body Respect
Blackie, S. The Enchanted Life (see also her book If Women Rose Rooted, which explores the relationship of women, body, and earth as separated men and logic)
Brown, AM. Pleasure Activism
Brown, B. Daring Greatly
Dulsky, D. The Holy Wild
Eisler, R. Sacred Pleasure
Ensler, E. In the Body of the World
Estes, CP. The Joyous Body
Gay, R. Hunger
Griffin, S. The Eros of Everyday Life
Hanh, TN. The Art of Living
LaPorte, D. The Desire Map
Lorde, A. Sister Outsider (Her essay on the erotic can be found here: https://fredandfar.com/blogs/ff-blog/the-erotic-as-power-by-audre-lorde )
Odier, D. Desire: The Tantric Path to Awakening
Richards, MC. Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person
Taylor, SR. The Body is Not an Apology and related website: https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/
Van der Kolk, B. The Body Keeps the Score
Empowering those with different abilities: https://disabledbutnotreally.org
My past blog on body love: https://ignitewell-being.com/radical-self-love-on-body-diversity /
My past blog on presence: https://ignitewell-being.com/longing-for-sanctuary/
From our first body list:
- † Gross, dirty, and taboo, inherently and/or because of menstruation and birth
- Let’s squash that right now,: The vagina is actually self-cleaning and things like vsteam can be harmful – don’t let someone profit off of your fear and culturally imposed shame (*insert middle finger emoji*). For more information on how amazing the vagina is (and how Big Fem – companies that push products designed to “clean” the vulva and vagina – is a sham), see the book The Vagina Bible. If you have a vagina (some trans men do too and there is a chapter on trans individuals), read it.
- There’s also something odd culturally about women and pubic hair. Pubic hair didn’t appear in art on women until the late 19th Women were told to shave before giving birth in recent history. Pubic hair isn’t shown publically, in movies (including porn), as if it is inappropriate, shameful, or dirty. But this hair has functions, biologically, sexually, and marks the actual transition of becoming child to adult (for our discussion, woman). Studies indicate that pubic hair removal can actually increase a woman’s chances of acquiring sexually transmitted infections. If you choose to remove your hair, consider why – is the choice yours or are you catering to someone else’s desires or cultural bias? See The Vagina Bible for more information.
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), RYT 500, reiki master, and shamanic practitioner. Writing is copyright protected, please cite accordingly. Main picture is from Jana Blue Photography, taken at our circle, please do not reproduce the picture without permission.
Thank you for reading. I know that this piece is imperfect and there is so much more to talk about, but to make things blog length rather than book length, I have addressed things as well as I could. Please do explore the recommended resources – I would love to hear what you learned and what speaks to you.
Also, as a holistic healthcare practitioner, I fully believe that joy is medicine and an indicator of ‘deep wellness’. It changes individuals – converting pain and shame to radiance of being. Don’t believe me?, try it.