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Originally published August 13, 2018, on robynrapske.com. Republished here with permission. (Get your blog featured!)
Embodiment: Why does this word matter to me?
I’ll start by saying that I used to think a lot about “Body Image.”
I had ‘bad’ body image after puberty hit. I began evaluating how my body measured up against standards I’d been blissfully unaware of as a child. I remember scratching my fingernails along my stomach at 13, hating that it wasn’t flat like my skinnier friends.
I had ‘bad’ body image after puberty hit.
As I aged and began to lose my pubescent weight, I had elated moments of really ‘great’ body image. As I slimmed down, did my hair, and wore things I felt flattered me, I enjoyed feeling like I measured up to the standards.
My experience was like the up and down of a Yo-Yo. When I was matching societal standards of beauty, I felt ‘up’; happy and satisfied with my life. When I didn’t feel I matched these standards, I felt ‘down’ and less satisfied with my life and my mood would plummet for the rest of the day.
When I didn’t feel I matched societal standards, I felt ‘down’ and less satisfied with my life.
Then when I discovered things I was passionate about, like social work and justice for the marginalized, I found I could step out of the Yo-Yo for a brief time while I was distracted by what I could do to help others. I sort of ‘disconnected’ from my body.
Then, of course, I’d step back onto the Yo-Yo when I saw a photo of myself that I didn’t like, or when I’d dress up and judge my body as ‘great’ for a night out. Essentially, I could see my body as: “Good,” “Bad,” or “Disconnected.”
Essentially, I could see my body as: “Good,” “Bad,” or “Disconnected.”
I’ve heard so much about body image: “Body Positivity,” “Good Body Image,” “Bad Body Image,” “Healthy Body Image”–there’s so much conversation about it.
I thought this was the only conversation I could have about my body.
What I’m grateful for, is that this is not my only option. There is another conversation I can have. I’ve only recently heard it termed “Embodiment” on a Liturgists podcast of the same name.
What is Embodiment?
I don’t know that I can define it well, but for me, this is how it’s mattered as a term: Embodiment is experiencing life through my body. Experiencing society through my body. Experiencing who I am through my body.
Embodiment is experiencing life through my body.
Instead of thinking about and judging my body, I can spend my energy living life through my body.
It sounds a bit weird, and I don’t know how else to explain it, so I’ll try to ‘flesh’ it out with stories.
When I was a kid, I lived an almost fully ‘embodied’ life. I didn’t judge my body or think about it. I didn’t even really ‘listen’ to my body. I simply lived out my life through my body without much question. I wept when my body said that I should. I laughed hysterically when something was funny. I ran in circles when I felt a rush of energy. When my stomach hurt, or my head hurt, or my throat hurt, I stopped doing the things that would hurt until I felt better.
When I was a kid, I lived an almost fully ’embodied’ life.
I experienced my life fully through my body and didn’t think much about it.
I forgot about this way of living when I hit puberty, and it was only through some challenging life circumstances that I began to learn what an adult ‘embodied’ life looks like.
One of these was insomnia, which I began to struggle with at 18 years old.
Do you know the feeling? Looking at your clock, knowing that with each passing minute you’d be getting less sleep, and the anxiety about the next exhausted day just making it less likely that you’ll fall asleep? That would happen to me so frequently that my brain was learning to get anxious as bedtime loomed nearer.
Out of desperation, I succumbed to my psychologist’s suggestion to try ‘Mindfulness Meditation,’ despite feeling very haughtily judgemental of things such as Mindfulness practices. I did an 8-week program she prescribed–a daily regime focused on learning how to reconnect with my body’s experience of the world.
Out of desperation, I succumbed to my psychologist’s suggestion to try ‘Mindfulness Meditation.
I had deep skepticism. Especially when I read the instructions for the first day, which was entitled “Raisin Exercise.” I was supposed to spend 10 minutes slowly observing my body’s experience of eating a raisin. Touching it, looking at it, smelling it, letting it sit in my mouth, chewing it one chew at a time, swallowing it, then finally sitting with the flavour in my mouth.
What was phenomenal is that when I was forced to stop and experience something as silly as eating a raisin, I realized there was so much to my body’s experience of the world that I was unaware of.
I noticed my body was really good at subconsciously operating multiple muscles in order to chew and swallow. My tongue is so skilled! And I didn’t realize raisins were so juicy because normally I ate them in handfuls, like eating popcorn during a movie–so mindlessly. It made me wonder how much my body was experiencing in life that I wasn’t even aware of.
It made me wonder how much my body was experiencing in life that I wasn’t even aware of.
After 8 weeks of committing to a variety of exercises training my brain to notice my body’s experience, I no longer struggled with debilitating anxiety over sleepless nights. I also noticed more calm building stronger in my mind. I enjoyed simple things more than ever before.
All from taking intentional time to understand my body’s experience of the world.
I’m paying attention to my experience more now.
When I go for walks, I love to pay attention to the wind on my skin, smelling the cooking of my neighbours, inhaling the soft, wet ground after a rain, or noticing that sounds are muffled by the snow. My body is the only way I can experience these things that bring my soul fullness.
My body is the only way I can experience these things that bring my soul fullness.
My body has also collected experience about the world and protects me. It shows me that I am not yet safe in this world as a body with female parts. While walking, running, or cycling outside, men have wolf-whistled, gazed unabashedly, and yelled at me. Because this has happened to my body, if I am running past a man (or group of men) my body tenses up, my arms close in towards my chest, and sometimes I feel a rush of adrenaline that causes me to act out protectively.
My body is expressing survival mechanisms I wasn’t aware it had.
My body experiences the same trauma and joys that my mind experiences. If I ignore this, I think I’m in danger of being stunted in my growth to become more fully alive–and stunted in my healing from the ways the world has injured me.
My body experiences the same trauma and joys that my mind experiences.
Perhaps body-disconnection and judgement is a ‘Western’ kind of problem introduced by certain dominant cultures. I’ve heard other cultures don’t struggle to live an embodied life as much.
Regardless of reason, I’m here now, relearning my body’s connection to who I am and the world I interact with, and it’s a much fuller experience than I’ve ever known.
I’m here now, relearning my body’s connection to who I am and the world I interact with, and it’s a much fuller experience than I’ve ever known.
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Robyn lives, works, and plays on unceded Coast Salish Territories, along with her husband, Thomas. She is navigating what it means to be a social worker on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC, working from a position that is anti-oppressive, anti-racist, anti-colonial, and trauma-informed. She also really, really likes videos of cute puppies.
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