Liberating the Embodied Self
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 infiltrate and occupy 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.
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 n****r. I’m a n****r.” 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 our liberation. 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 liberating 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 both 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.
|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 liberating my body self 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.
Reflect. Engage. Resist. Transform.
As current social conditions galvanize even more of us to do the work of dismantling oppression, it can be difficult to know exactly where to begin. For those of us who bring a somatic perspective to our work in the world (and even for those who don’t), it can be helpful to understand how the body is implicated in social justice work, and how to engage our bodies in the process of activism. This post incorporates key ideas from many social justice theorists and somatic practitioners, and distills them into three key areas: doing your own work, working for others, and working with others.
DO YOUR OWN WORK
1. Educate yourself about oppression and embodiment.
Understand that systems of oppression are interlocking and mutually reinforcing. Recognize that although systems of oppression are never about individuals per se, individual effort can and does make a difference. While you may not have created the conditions of oppression that currently exist, accept the fact that failure to resist these systems of oppression effectively maintains the status quo. All the oppressive system needs to thrive is your willingness (conscious or not) to go along. Although not all oppression is enacted through the direct subjugation of the body, our bodies are always on the line.
2. Explore your own body oppression and how it shows up.
Doing the difficult work of examining how oppressive social systems have affected you on a personal level is one of the foundations of effective activism. When you don’t know how you’ve been wounded by patriarchy, racism, capitalism, heteronormativity, ablism, or other forms of discrimination, it’s easy to be triggered and reactive when these issues surface in your interactions with others (even allies and fellow activists). On a somatic level, this self-examination can be especially transformative.
3. Decolonize your body.
Identify and uncouple trauma patterns. Oppression is a form of trauma, evidenced by what is now a considerable body of research. Discover how your body has responded to this ongoing traumatic event, and learn about some common somatic effects – including hypervigilance and chronic hyperarousal of the autonomic nervous system, somatic dissociation, and intrusive body memories. Work to uncouple environmental cues from unconscious reactive patterns so that you are better able to witness your body in the moment and support your ability to be resourced in difficult situations.
Reclaim your body image. One of the most insidious 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 tall 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 is endless, and the work of managing, correcting, and hiding what is “wrong” with us is exhausting and demoralizing. If we channeled all the time, energy, and resources devoted to making our bodies socially acceptable (to the degree that is even possible) and redirected it instead toward cultivating and celebrating the uniqueness of our body selves, the social world would be such a rich and vibrant place. 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, and finding ways to radicalize and reclaim our body image serves us all.
Cultivate your senses. Another key strategy of oppressive social systems is a tendency to promote a dissociative or disconnected relationship with the felt sense of the body. While we are encouraged to identify with the outside appearance of our body, we are discouraged from feeling ourselves from the inside. Sensuality is often mis-appropriated as sexuality, and the palpable enjoyment of our own bodily capacities and appetites can be judged as unseemly. The process of socialization in many cultures involves the cultivation of a master/servant attitude toward the body that denigrates our senses as little more than tools in the project of self-mastery, rather than as gifts to be celebrated and enjoyed in their own right.
Interrogate your non-verbal communication. Research into the interpersonal dynamics of body language suggests that oppressive social systems are reproduced and reinforced by the everyday nonverbal interactions with others whose social standing differs from ours. These asymmetrical interactions occur when a person with higher social rank is permitted to use movement behaviors that are forbidden to the person with lower social rank – for example, the right to take up more space, to use forceful, direct movements, and to initiate touch. Learning how nonverbal communication informs your interactions with others can help you shift the patterns that reinforce harmful power dynamics.
Liberate your movement. Once you’ve explored how body movement can be co-opted by oppressive social systems to reinforce inequitable power dynamics, continue the process of self-liberation by experimenting with movement expressions that are unique to your own body. Allow yourself to stretch into new shapes, rhythms, and movement qualities that express who you are and how you feel on the inside. Explore relational space in new ways. Claim the pleasure and authority of your own movement preferences.
4. Learn about your own body privilege and how it manifests.
In the same way that our bodies are shaped by experiences of oppression, so too are they shaped by experiences of privilege. The unearned benefits of having a body that meets the criteria for membership in a socially dominant group are considerable. Even if we don’t choose or want these privileges, they attach to us and afford us access and ease in countless ways – being able to walk down a city street without being afraid of harassment or attack, being able to gain access to public buildings using the main entrance, using the restroom that fits your gender, not being seen as exotic, or dangerous, or feeble-minded just because of the way your body looks or moves.
Each of us holds a unique combination of body privilege along with bodily oppression, so unpacking the privilege your body affords you is as important a part of embodied activism as exploring the somatic implications of being oppressed. In particular, be attentive to social situations in which your body feels particularly comfortable or unremarkable – the luxury of inattentiveness is a hallmark of privilege. Notice also when your body reacts with vague apprehension or distaste to the bodies of others, and ask yourself if you hold more body privilege than they do.
WORK FOR OTHERS
Many of the social justice activists I know (myself included) began our activism by working on initiatives that bore directly on the oppression we personally experienced. There’s nothing wrong with this, and it can help us feel more connected to a community we identify with and want to support. For me, it was profoundly affirming to be in a room with others whose bodies looked like mine, especially after years of feeling like the deviant body in any social situation. However, if we understand the roots of oppression as the treatment of others as “less than human” to justify our own self-serving interests, then it makes sense that activism which strives to undo the harm of divisive in-group/out-group tactics and the myopia of identity politics should include working with others who are different from us.
In doing this work, it’s important to check your privilege (see above) and map your assets. Then use your privilege and assets to support the liberation of others not like you. Do your own research to educate yourself about their history and culture, and how oppression lands in their bodies. At the same time, don’t assume that you know everything you need to know about what it feels like to live in their skin. Serve them, as an antidote to the self-serving inclinations within us all. Be curious and attentive, use your own capacity for embodied presence and engaged responsiveness to listen and empathize without imposing your own experience or taking over. When their bodies are in pain, know that the pain is not because there’s anything wrong with them. Learn to love their bodies as you’ve learned to love your own.
WORK WITH OTHERS
One of the most challenging aspects of social justice work can be getting along with our comrades and colleagues. We’ve all heard stories of the in-fighting, back-biting, and power struggles that occur in community activist circles, and it should be no surprise that no one is immune to the distortions, deflections, and disconnections that oppressive social systems inculcate. For this reason, I often advocate engaging in the important tasks of doing our own work and working for others before tackling the challenges of working with others as a peer member of a movement or cause. Being grounded and centered in your own bodily experience of oppression and becoming skilled in serving the embodied liberation of others can be useful groundwork when conflicts arise or egos get bruised. In particular, knowing your oppression triggers and privilege blind-spots in advance can help you self-regulate when toes are being stepped on and blame is being allocated. Learn to have difficult conversations with your peers without losing the connection to your own embodied felt experience, and your work with others will strengthen the community instead of destabilizing it.
Last but not least, as you work with others shoulder-to-shoulder and arm-in-arm to advance the cause of equity and inclusion, remember how fragile and resilient our bodies are. Take time to rest and tend to the need to move, breathe, eat, and feel. Offer touch when it’s wanted, and ask for it when it’s needed. Revel in the wonder and mystery of the body at the same time as you honor its limitations, pains, and challenges. Inhabiting your own skin with as much fullness and life as you desire (and working to support every body’s right to do the same) is, after all, the whole point of social justice work in the long run.