“No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church.”- Ephesians 5:29
“Breathe in slowly, hold the breath for one second, then exhale slowly,” says the psychologist.
It is my fourth appointment with her. Up till now our sessions have been intellectual, verbal– honed in on my brain and the memories, thoughts, emotions, traumas, and coping mechanisms that live there.
“Notice where there’s tension in your body,” says Dr. K, in a quiet, sing-song voice. “Breathe in, hold, breathe out.”
It’s not the first time in my life I’ve done breathing exercises like this. I sit with my eyes obediently shut, shift my legs a little, wondering if I’m noticing the tension in the correct way (yep, the part of my brain that worries about getting things right never shuts up). I breathe in, wondering if I should be able to expand my chest further. I let my breath out, too swiftly, I think.
“Breathe in, hold, breathe out.”
And then I feel the tears welling behind my closed eyelids.
“You can open your eyes when you’re ready,” says Dr. K. after a minute’s worth of breathing. “How do you feel?”
“Like crying,” I murmur, and the tears keep coming, and I have to reach for a kleenex from the box thoughtfully placed next to the couch.
And we talk about the tears, what the act of stopping and connecting with my body through the simplest action– intentional breathing– brought to the surface. That conflict, that one-off remark that I thought I was over, thought I’d swept tidily away, was still there, aching, bleeding underneath, and my body was giving sanctuary to that pain.
The body keeps score.
It’s something Dr. K. said to me in our very first session, and I’ve been mulling it over, mulling over bodies in general, my body in particular.
I don’t know if it’s even possible to be a female in the USA and not have a complicated relationship with your body. Before we even have a sense of self, thanks to advertising we are flooded with images that depict a certain standard for female bodies, a benchmark, as it were: this is how a woman ought to look.* And then there are the more specialized messages we will receive individually from our own families and communities, whether directly or indirectly. One such message I heard as a young pre-teen was “thin is best.” Family members would remark approvingly or enviously about how skinny I was, about how I didn’t gain weight no matter what I ate. I would hear others make self-disparaging comments about not being thin. The core message I internalized about female bodies was that the most important thing was to be thin. Being slender was what made my body good.
In retrospect I’m kind of amazed that I didn’t develop an eating disorder. Maybe it’s because I always felt thin enough, as a teen. There was a month when I was nineteen when I had so much mental and emotional stress in my life that I couldn’t eat– I had no appetite, and it was hard to force myself to eat even half of my normal food intake. But the message about thin bodies was so deeply ingrained that I remember thinking to myself, “Well, at least I’ll stay skinny.” My first concern was not how I could care for the body that was literally sending out SOS signals that something was wrong– all I could think was that having no appetite would keep me skinny, and a skinny body is a good body.
There are other messages girls get about their bodies, of course. It is rarely about what is said and much more about what is implied. Underneath messages of submission, we often hear, “Women have no right to physical boundaries”, and thus many women and girls feel they have no choice but to acquiesce to whatever ways in which their husbands, boyfriends, bosses, pastors, or teachers wish to use their bodies. A very popular message in the evangelical subculture is “the female body is a dangerous temptation to men.” Hence, it is a woman’s fault for not covering up enough if a man lusts after her. This goes hand in hand with the message to young girls, “your virginity is the most valuable thing about your body”, leading to the lectures about a non-virgin girl being like chewed gum. For the evangelical wives, the message is clear– “you had better keep looking the way you did when you got married, or it’s your own fault if your husband strays into affairs or porn use, because you didn’t stay beautiful for him.” It doesn’t matter about illness or pregnancies or the wear-and-tear of parenting or aging– you have a moral obligation to be a smoking hot wife– and somehow smoking hot always means looking like somebody on a TV show.
There are hundreds of different messages that females in our culture hear on a daily basis, and in one way or another they all seem to be related to the core idea that our bodies are wrong somehow. We are steadily fed the idea that our spirit’s relationship with our bodies is an adversarial one.
Before our session ends, Dr. K. says that she wants me to practice talking to my body. “You feel like your body has betrayed you in many ways,” she says. “What would it look like to thank your body for all that it has carried you through? What would it look like to tell your body that you are present with it, that you want to begin healing?”
I’m a weird mix of intellectual hippie, and the hippie part of me is all about Dr. K.’s proposition. There’s also something in me that is hanging back, skeptical. Maybe, though, the resistance isn’t stemming from my intellect– maybe it’s just that I’ve been so well-trained in that adversarial relationship with my body that it’s a massive paradigm shift to pay attention to my body with an attitude of love and acceptance and gratitude. The attitudes of discontent, disapproval, fault-finding, exasperation, and antagonism towards my body are well-worn. At best I’ve had a resigned tolerance towards it– like the crazy relative that you just learn how to put up with because they’re part of the family. To view my body with kindness and gentleness, to learn to see it as something inherently good, to be grateful to it for carrying me through my life, to stop believing that my body has betrayed me and instead see with compassion its imperfect attempts to cope with trauma– that’s going to take practice.
Our bodies keep score. Our bodies absorb those countless negative messages. Our bodies harbor trauma. We feel our emotions, especially our negative emotions, in our bodies. (My fear starts in my legs, for example.) Our bodies are not just appendages tethering our brains to existence, though we might treat them as such, and bemoan the necessity of feeding them and cleaning them and caring for them. To quote my friend Julianne, “It’s not our intellect or our minds that give us dignity or worth as a person– that would mean that a severely disabled person had no value. It’s the fact that we’re these living, breathing bodies, that deserve to be cared for.” I had to chew on that for LONG time, because what I’ve always valued most about myself is my mind. I have been far, far too apt at a subconscious level to rate other people based on their intellectual ability. But it’s gnostic philosophy that values mind over matter. At the center of Christianity is an embodied God, a God who values human flesh so much that God became it. My self is my body, every bit as much as it is my mind.
What would it look like for me– for you– to internalize that message? What does it look like to listen to our bodies, not with impatience or annoyance, but with compassion and respect and trust? What does it look like to honor our bodies? And to teach our children to do the same? My daughter Muriel is not quite two, but I know that modeling honor for our bodies is not something just for the future– it begins now.
For me, it begins with not speaking disparagingly of my own body or of other peoples’. It begins with a family habit of respecting each other’s physical boundaries, so that when someone says “stop it” when they’ve had enough tickling or hugs or rough-housing, we stop. It begins with teaching our kids the correct names for the parts of their body, so that they know their whole bodies are good and there’s no part that’s shameful or dirty. (And yes, that means that Sean will run around the house yelling, “PENIS EYEBALL!!” Because he’s four. And penis eyeballs are evidently hilarious.) It begins with learning how our bodies work, and celebrating all the amazing things that our bodies can do. It begins with respecting the messages our bodies give us about needing to rest or eat or be active or be still. It begins with not treating my children like robots, and remembering that their brains are developmentally incapable of integrating their emotions with their bodies the mature way adults can do. (I struggle A LOT with this one– I’m the mom yelling ‘STOP IT’ at Sean when he’s in the middle of a full-blown meltdown– as if a four-year-old boy with huge feelings could just switch them off, and switch off his body’s response to them, like a light-switch. You’d think that I, of all people, would remember this. Sigh. I’m working on it.)
I fail at a lot of these things a lot of the time. But I know that it’s worth it to keep chipping away at the old habits and thought patterns, to keep fumbling with the new ones. I have a long way to go before believing that my body is good and worthy of compassion and honor and kindness becomes more than just an intellectual proposition which I assent to in my mind. We carry our beliefs in our bodies, too, and it will take a lot more fumbling and chipping before Love Thy Self becomes embodied in me. But when I look at my children, especially at my daughter, I know in my heart that it is worth all the work. These children whom my body carried and birthed and nursed, that even now my body works every day to care for, these children deserve to grow up knowing how valuable and honorable their bodies are. I know I can’t protect them from all the negative messages, no matter how hard I try. But I can strive to weave the good messages into their lives, so that they will see the negative messages for the toxic crap they are. To fight the darkness, we can light a candle. And another. And then another. Till someday, maybe, the flame will cover the whole world.
My thanks to my friend Julianne Van’t Land (juliannevantland.com) for our conversations about embodiment and getting me started on this train of thought.
*I will say that I am thrilled to be seeing a slow shift in the advertising world away from the 5 foot 9 inch 115 pound size C-cup models that have always dominated advertising for women. The ads that I get on social media frequently feature women of all shapes and sizes. This is a step in the right direction!!