Decolonizing the Body

How do we resist the implicit messages that our bodies are somehow wrong, flawed, or inadequate? Can we consciously interrogate and disarm those messages in a process of reclaiming our body image and body movement for our own liberation?

In an earlier post, I described a set of steps for engaging in an embodied form of activism that included the body as one of the “territories” currently occupied by the dominant social forces that shape our world. These forces – such as capitalism, patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, and industrialization – work together to colonize our body selves from the outside in (and then from the inside out) by asserting and enforcing a set of universal norms that define ideal bodily characteristics and behaviors. These body “ideals” create a narrow and tightly constricted understanding of what “normal” bodies should look and act like. All bodies that naturally (or intentionally) fall outside those norms are vulnerable to varying degrees of scorn, contempt, and abuse.

Like all social norms, we are mostly taught “body norms” implicitly. That is, we absorb them by watching our parents, listening to our friends and classmates, and by drinking all kinds of imagery Kool-Aid through movies, television, magazines, and social media. The bodies that are held up as beautiful and strong are the ones we unconsciously admire, and the bodies that are vilified or ignored become the bodies we learn to hate. Even when those bodies look like our own.

For example, in a chilling video based on actual social psychology research* studying the psychological effects of segregation, Black pre-school children are shown two dolls that are identical except for skin color. They were then asked to point to the pretty doll. And then to the good doll. In response, young Black children consistently pointed to the light-skinned White doll. Then they are asked to point to the doll that looks like them. As they raise their fingers to point to the brown-skinned doll, the looks of confusion, shame and despair on their young faces are heartbreaking to witness.

Clark Doll Test 2

In an interview, researcher Kenneth Clark noted a time when he and his wife and co-researcher Mamie were conducting their “doll test” experiment in rural Arkansas, and he asked a local Black child which doll was most like him. According to Clark, the child responded by smiling and pointing to the brown doll and stating: “That’s a nigger. I’m a nigger.” Clark described this experience as “more disturbing than the children in Massachusetts who would refuse to answer the question or who would cry and run out of the room.”

As this example illustrates, even when dominant body norms harm us deeply, we often have a hard time refusing (or even recognizing) them. The visual messages about what’s “okay” are so pervasive and compelling that we sometimes don’t even realize we’ve adopted these norms as our own until they are held up for questioning. The insidious power of body norms is such that Black children get tangled up in a Catch-22 that automatically disqualifies them from ever being pretty or good, fat women are disgusted by their own innocent flesh, and the “disabled” struggle to insist that their real problems are ones of access rather than infirmity.

As I have argued in a previous post, one of the ways that oppressive social systems maintain their power is by convincing the oppressed that there is something fundamentally wrong with our bodies. We are too fat, too flat-chested, too wrinkled, or too short; our skin is too dark and our hair is too curly; we use a wheelchair or a cane; our eyes are the wrong shape or color. The list of our “faults” is endless, and the work of managing, correcting, and hiding them can be exhausting and demoralizing. I’m not suggesting that we always find ourselves in a body that fits who we are, or that we shouldn’t make changes to our bodily appearance. What I am suggesting is that body shame is a tool of oppression. Finding ways to radicalize and reclaim our body image serves us all. Cultivating our sensuality, interrogating our nonverbal communication, and reclaiming our own freedom of movement can also serve as effective strategies in resisting the deadening and demoralizing effects of body shame.

In the project of decolonizing my own body, questioning some of the implicit messages I have ingested has been key to reclaiming the territory of my own body image. As someone raised female, this has meant challenging deeply-buried assumptions about attractiveness and self-worth. It has meant coming to terms with my own mobility limitations as a member of a professional somatics community full of accomplished dancers and yoga practitioners – a community that often unconsciously positions physical strength and flexibility as an inherent good. And within that largely heterosexually-normed community, it has meant insisting on an esthetic that makes my queerness visible, even when that visibility is exposing and marginalizing.

That said, reclaiming the territory of my body image has not always meant choosing images that contradict prevailing norms. As I note in a chapter in Caldwell and Leighton’s new book on Oppression and the Body, “reclaiming the body is not necessarily about altering one’s appearance and behavior in defiance of dominant norms (although there’s nothing wrong with that). It’s about questioning our choices – and lack of choices – with respect to how our bodies look and move, regardless of our position(s) on the multiple spectrums of social identifications.”

What that has meant for me is that I conform (by choice) to some general norms (being clean, smelling nice, not burping loudly in public) and not others. It means that I can embrace my love of clothing without feeling like I’ve utterly succumbed to the early social conditioning that requires women to care about their appearance more than men do. It also means that I wear my hair short and my face bare without fearing that I’ve likewise conformed to some implicit “lesbian” dress code. Because reclaiming requires interrogation and choice; otherwise, you’re just substituting one set of cultural body norms for another.

Sometimes, the choice isn’t simple. For example, when I was younger my small breasts worked perfectly with my genderqueer esthetic. I didn’t need to wear a binder or a bra to feel comfortable with how I looked and moved. Now that I’m older and about 40 pounds heavier, my breasts are much more noticeable under my clothing. It’s screwing with my genderqueer image, and markedly increasing my levels of body dysmorphia – not because I’m fatter, but because I look more female. I haven’t resolved the issue, but I’m doing my best to name and track all of the complex social forces at work in shaping my experience.

Naming and tracking the social forces that affect me has been one of the most productive and affirming strategies I’ve used in decolonizing my body. It’s helped me identify more clearly what I’m refusing, what I’m supporting, and how it’s all landing / manifesting in my body. On a concrete level, I’m better able to see what I’m doing with my various resistance techniques and I have a greater sense of consolidating my efforts. Rather than random acts of rebellion, I have a plan and a vision for what I’m doing and where I’m going. My liberation feels like a positive strategic effort, rather than a reactive battle against the prevailing hegemony.

To give you an example, the chart below illustrates some of the factors I’ve tried to track. On the top row, I’ve outlined three “moves” or strategies that I use regularly to support my own liberation: androgyny, sensuality, and sustainability. Of course, these moves will be different for everyone – these three are simply ones that are important to me, given my life experiences, current understandings, and social identifications. Although examining my Whiteness and resisting the embodied impact of ableism and classism are also very much on my agenda in terms of decolonizing my body, the three moves below represent the territories where I’ve done the most consistent work.

I then made note of all the places in my life where my commitments to androgyny, sensuality, and sustainability were currently manifesting. Because of my love of clothes, it was one of the biggest places were my acts of resistance were focused. For someone for whom clothing is not such a big deal, this section might not even appear on their chart. In my case, I also wanted to add diet and movement practices to my map. As a somatic movement therapist, I’m viscerally aware of how my movement shapes my sense of my body, and how moving helps me metabolize the environmental toxins of oppression. I’m also increasingly attentive to the ways in which the food I eat supports (or fails to support) the kind of world (and the kind of body) I want to live in.

  androgyny sensuality sustainability
what social forces this move resists, subverts, or refuses heteronormativity, cissexism, gender binary somatophobia, puritanism, intellectualism, industrialization, body objectification, commodification capitalism, consumerism, imperialism, anthrocentrism
how I manifest it in and through my clothing gender fluid styles, dresses and pants together soft fabrics, moveable, unrestrictive, bare feet recycled, second hand, organic plant-based, locally produced, fair trade
how I manifest it in and through my grooming short hair, no make-up, clipped nails, no shaving clean, soft, scented

 

organic products, not tested on animals, plant-based
how I manifest it in and through my diet

 

 

 

fresh, fragrant, flavorful, handmade, simple, comfort food organic, local, fair trade, ethically produced, not wasted
how I manifest it in and through my movement practices taking up space, gestures that cross gender norms expressive movement, touchwork, breathwork

 

walking as transport, community-based folk dance

 

As you can see, the chart can be worked several ways. In my case, I mapped all the little things I was doing that felt like “resistance” in some way, and then grouped them together. Once the groups were formed, it was possible to see the links from my everyday efforts to the larger oppressive social forces at work. By mapping individual strategies in this way, I’m able to see how small efforts add up and where I might be doing more to resist a particular ideological invasion into the intimate spaces of my flesh and bone.

Of course, it’s equally possible to start with the larger “isms” that shape our body norms and then plan concrete strategies to deconstruct and disarm them. Either way, having a map for my project of decolonizing my body has been affirming and inspiring. I still have a lot of work to do, but on the days where I feel like throwing in the towel and surrendering my more dystopian and misanthropic tendencies, the map helps remind me of my commitment to my own embodied liberation.

 

*Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1939). The development of consciousness of self and the emergence of racial identification in Negro preschool children. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 591-599.

 

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