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When I first heard the term “embodiment” used in a psychotherapy/mental health context, I was immediately drawn to the idea.
As a person in eating disorder recovery and a proud diet culture drop out, I believe it can be so healing and liberating to reject the notion that our body is separate from, and needs to be subjugated by, our mind.
Too often, our culture promotes the message that our body is a project meant to be tweaked, refined, appraised, and disciplined – that we need to spend our lives suppressing our bodily needs for food, rest, sleep, and connection in order to conform to ideals of thinness, abledness, and productivity.
I believe this idea that we need to be at war with our bodies is so often at the root of many mental health struggles including disordered eating and low self-esteem. So, the idea of practices that foster connection and attunement with one’s body, and that promote listening to one’s body rather than ignoring and suppressing it, greatly appeals to me.
However, when spending time in embodiment spaces, I have found that at times, narrow definitions of embodiment are promoted that still end up reinforcing able-bodied, thin, and healthist ideals.When spending time in embodiment spaces, I have found that at times, narrow definitions of embodiment are promoted that still end up reinforcing able-bodied, thin, and healthist ideals. Click To Tweet
When you google “embodiment”, the image results often feature thin, white women and men who are out in nature and meditating, praying, or engaging in some other kind of spiritual activity or physical movement.
These images reflect what I have often experienced to be promoted and adhered to as a singular, universal definition of what it means to be connected to one’s body.
According to many embodiment practitioners, this involves being connected with nature, and as an extension, all things considered natural.
This usually means eating “natural” or “clean” foods, exercising and movement, meditation and yoga…the list goes on.
It usually involves some form of mindfulness, or being aware of and focused on one’s sensations. It often involves performing neurotypical social cues like eye contact, an upright body posture, and speaking smoothly in a way that conveys some, but not too much, emotion, and almost never anger. There is also usually some aspect of spirituality promoted – being truly embodied can be associated with belief in a power higher than oneself.
To be very clear, I am not at all knocking these practices or approaches to embodiment. Movement, meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and spirituality can all be helpful and healing, and for many people, these practices do help foster a sense of connectedness to their body.
However, I have also found that some of these practices can be inaccessible or more difficult for neurodivergent and disabled folks, as well as people with eating disorders.
For example, meditation and breathing exercises might be inaccessible for people with pulmonary conditions, and practices requiring sustained focus for long periods of time can be hard for Autistic and other neurodivergent folks. Some neurodivergent people also are unable to feel bodily sensations. Additionally, many people have atheist and secular worldviews, and spirituality may not align with that.
Personally, I have been told in embodiment spaces that existing in ways that feel most comfortable to me and aligned with my values shows a lack of embodiment.
My fidgeting, lack of desire to exercise, consumption of processed food and soda, preference for digital communication over in-person communication, and lack of conformity with feminine beauty ideas have often been attributed to my being “disembodied.” If I truly were listening to my body, I have been told, I would crave non-processed foods, exercise, and be able to keep my body still and quiet and beautiful.
Related: Embracing Embodiment
Perhaps even more dangerously, I have been told that my profound atheism – my refusal to believe in any benevolent force or that anything happens for a reason – is due to my lack of connection with my body.
I have also been told that my activism is “too intellectual” and shows that I am “stuck in my head” rather than attuned to my body.
This has led me to experience some pretty significant self-doubt and distrust of my body.
If I feel as if my entire body is screaming at me when I try to walk faster than a particular speed or go running, I must just not be listening closely enough, right? If I feel pain and panic upon meditating for a long period of time, that is “all in my head” and my mind must be playing tricks on me. If I think my body wants McDonald’s instead of kale and brown rice, boy must I be wrong!
If I read the news on any given day in 2020 and cannot bring myself to feel a connection with any sort of higher power, it must be because I’m not connecting deeply enough with my body’s internal sense of gratitude.
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My experience of eating disorder recovery has largely centered around redefining what embodiment means for myself.
This means not only rejecting Cartesian/dualist notions of the body as an object to be subjugated, but also departing from notions of embodiment as free from intellectual analysis, activist and political pursuits, personal values, or neurodivergence.
This past week, I have been attending workshops at The Embodiment Conference, a virtual event that offers presentations on many different practices and philosophies within the field of embodiment and somatics.
One workshop I attended, entitled “Power, Oppression, and Embodiment,” presented by Prentis Hemphill, who has served as the Healing Justice Director for Black Lives Matter, highlighted the inextricable link between oppression and embodiment.
Oppression has a significant impact on our embodied experience, and embodiment practices need to be used in service of combating oppressive ideologies and structures, not reinforcing them.Oppression has a significant impact on our embodied experience, and embodiment practices need to be used in service of combating oppressive ideologies and structures, not reinforcing them. Click To Tweet
When I asked the presenter how to combat the sentiment within embodied spaces that political and activist endeavours are “too intellectual” or “in one’s head,” they responded, “The brain is a part of the body, so being intellectual is embodied!” They also described the way oppression affects our bodies in real, tangible, material ways that need to be discussed.
For me, this presentation opened up a great deal of space for me to explore what embodiment might mean as a neurodivergent, disabled, atheist person in eating disorder recovery.
My experiences with these identities have profoundly affected my lived, embodied experience, from the way my heart beats rapidly and my limbs tremble when I hear ableist microaggressions, to the nausea and headaches I experience due to my anxiety about being denied employment due to these identities, to the real, tangible emotional and physical impact of the food restriction I enacted out of my fear of the social consequences of weight gain.
Fighting for disability justice and body liberation are embodiment practices for me; these objectives are what my body wants and needs.
Learning from the fields of neurodiversity, critical disability studies, Health At Every Size, and fat studies is embodiment; the knowledge produced in these fields truly nourishes my being. And my rejection of the idea that “everything happens for a reason” is not due to a lack of connection with my body; it is something that every fibre of my being (and I truly believe this to be literal) demands.
To me, embodiment also has come to mean living my life as a neurodivergent, disabled person in eating disorder recovery and respecting what my body wants to do without questioning whether I “should” want to do that or trying to force myself to conform with external pressures.
Embodiment means stimming and fidgeting, eating processed foods and soda, speaking angrily and bluntly when it is called for, and creating profound connections through social media and technology of all kinds.
For me, embodiment often means mindlessness.
As someone who spends far too much time scrutinizing and analyzing my actions, choices, and appearance, my body sometimes needs a break, and mindless TV watching and social media scrolling does just the trick.
Embodiment is writing this article. Embodiment is declining to worship the “natural” and demonize the “artificial”; it is gratitude for and integration with all of the technologies that shape my lived experience and make my day-to-day life more comfortable.
At its core, embodiment means refusing to alienate or objectify any part of myself as something that needs to be eliminated or subjugated, and accepting myself – my whole self – for who I am.Embodiment means refusing to alienate or objectify any part of myself as something that needs to be eliminated or subjugated, and accepting myself – my whole self – for who I am. Click To Tweet
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Emily Cutler is a Jewish, queer, disabled graduate student living in Tampa, Florida. She is passionate about creating a world in which people of all sizes and abilities are valued. In addition to her graduate studies, Emily provides training and consultancy on mental health, suicide prevention, peer support, disability advocacy, and the Health At Every Size paradigm.
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