Tag Archives: body

Penance and the disembodied

There are a number of concepts that I picked up early in life that make it hard to be embodied. As they were part of the environment of my youth, I expect it wasn’t just me.

Rather than thinking of food as being necessary fuel for the body, or a means to health and vitality, or a pleasure, eating seemed like a bad thing. Hunger – a perfectly natural bodily process – was something to rise above. Food should be eaten slowly, with care and tidiness, not gobbled up with enthusiasm. Second helpings should not be sought. Physical exercise was a penance you could do for having eaten food.

The notion that a person could enjoy their body, their food, their physical activity came to me rather later in life than was ideal. For too long, it seemed like the life of the mind, and perhaps the spirit were the only things worth worrying about and that all bodily things were there to be ignored, transcended or beaten into submission. A desire to be disembodied, not present.

It’s difficult to get into any kind of physical activity when you see it as punishment. You do it to atone for transgression, but not with joy, or for its own sake. If food is a vice, and burning off the calories is a necessary toll to pay, there’s no life of the body in this.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on thinking differently – learning to see food as necessary fuel. As a consequence, my fat and protein consumption have gone up. Increasing the oil in my diet has been hard, going against everything I’ve been taught, but ironically it seems to help with the weight loss. I’ve started using physical activity rather than sugar to keep my brain working through the day. My sugar craving has reduced dramatically, my focus has increased dramatically. By paying attention to my body and working with it, I’ve changed.

The key thing in all of this has been starting to treat my body, with its various feelings, cravings, urges and needs, as fundamentally acceptable. Not as something bad that needs controlling and punishing. Not as something that must do penance for feeling good. Meeting my body on its own terms and finding what it can do, and what helps it, rather than the simple obsession with being thin at any cost. Thin at any cost is something that will disembody you, although many of us have metabolisms that decline to be thin even under considerable pressure.

My animal self is not something I need to control or transcend. The life of my mind does not require it – in fact I think better when I treat my body with greater kindness. My spiritual life does not require me to transcend my body, either. I can have a spiritual life in which it’s ok to show up, skin, hunger and all.

Body as landscape

The body as landscape is an obvious thing to explore in earth-orientated meditations. It’s something I’m wary of, because of the relationship between the female body and landscape in certain kinds of writing and attitude. For the colonial explorer, the exotic, unconquered landscape was something to be entered and used. Penetrated. Exploited. Abuse of the land and abuse of the feminine often go together, and using feminine language for landscapes is part of this process.

At the same time, we’ve a long history of seeing the feminine as closer to nature – not as a compliment, but to make clear that wild, intuitive womanhood is inferior to logical, reasoning masculinity. These gender assumptions harm everyone. Thought and feeling, logic and intuition are available to all of us, we should all have the right to them. It’s not a case of being one or the other.

Currently my midriff looks like the surface of the moon – pale and cratered, while my thighs look like the consequence of mediaeval ploughing. I note that the usual woman/world language doesn’t do this so much. The parallels are usually made to evoke richness and beauty, and not the damage and despoiling intended to follow. In my case it’s just the consequence of weight loss – another paradigm where the language is all about beauty, skipping over the truth of an often unsettling process of transition.

I note that the current vogue in female ‘beauty’ is deforestation. I note the parallel.

Life with a body

It’s only in the last year or so that I started questioning what my body is for. It’s taken me until now to realise that I was unconsciously holding a belief that the important things revolve being either use or ornament. I’ve spent my life to date treating my body as something that exists to please or appease other people, not as something that is mine.

There’s a lot of pressure on women to focus on looking the part. We’ve been taught that thin matters – not fit, not healthy, certainly not muscular because muscles are all too often deemed ugly on women. We should paint our faces, blocking our pores, we should wear shoes we can barely walk in that will ultimately deform our feet, we should alter ourselves with surgery, botox, pull out most of our hair and so on. None of this is about being well, feeling good or being happy, it’s about being held up to impossible and unnatural standards.

My body is here to serve – and that’s an idea that I’ve had to wrestle with considerably. Notions of wife and mother cast us as giving to the point of self sacrifice. Too many workplaces would use our bodies to the point of sickness and exhaustion. We’re poisoning ourselves with car fumes.

I can’t speak to the male experience, or any non-binary experiences. While I don’t emotionally identify with being female, I’ve realised that expectations around what happens with my apparently-female body have had a huge impact on me.

What if the point of a body isn’t to look good for other people? What if the point is to live, feel, do…? What if the person who should most benefit from my body is in fact me? What if I’m not here to be used, not obliged to give whenever asked? It opens up worlds of possibilities.

I spent a lot of years trying, and failing to be thin. I’ve always been odd looking, smearing makeup on this face doesn’t change me into something conventional. I’ve been used, and been complicit in being used because I never thought there was more than that. Years of living in a space where it’s not about use and ornament and I get to be a person, has really opened things up for me. I start to ask what this body needs, what would feel good, what I would enjoy… these are the keys to an as yet undiscovered country.

Pathologising the female

As far as I can make out, the default body for medicine, is male. I’ve never seen a model of the human internal organs and digestive system that included a womb. Womb diagrams are separate. I have no idea how my body differs from the obviously male default. But that’s not the whole of it. Things that the female body does, in its natural, normal working form, are treated as problems to be solved. Symptoms that must be treated to get our aberrant bodies back in line with the normal (male) body.

Menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, and everything that happens around them, are talked about in terms of symptoms, and symptom control. Morning sickness and the desire to control it, led us to drugs that damaged babies not so very far back in human history. I found my queasiness really helpful, I must note. I followed and trusted my nose, ate nothing that my face reacted badly to, and never threw up until just before I went into labour. Not a bad track record!

Of course this is related to the way in which women as contributors are traditionally judged on male terms. To get into education, workplaces, equal rights, we’ve largely had to agree to fit in with male standards. Those ‘male standards’ are all about being able to work all day, without distractions of body, children, emotion, or other commitments. There’s a lot of men this won’t suit either – anyone physically or cognitively different from the narrow bandwidth of acceptability. It boils down to being good little cogs in the machine, working to make money for others.

I can’t speak to the male experience, but I know with certainty that a biologically female body is not designed to be a good little cog in the machine. Every month I go through a period of radical bullshit intolerance (aka pmt). When I bleed, anything that isn’t right becomes obvious. My willingness to tolerate stupid, pointless, tedious things, unreasonable people and unfair conditions goes straight out the window. It’s a monthly reality check that I have come to value and take seriously.

Alongside this, there are plenty of stats out there to show that when the inherently aberrant female body rocks up with a problem, it’s less likely to be taken seriously. Women reporting abdominal pain aren’t treated the same way as men (I don’t have the stats to hand, but they’re out there, the internet is your friend). The female heart attack does not involve exactly the same symptom set as the male heart attack. One is widely known, the other is not. The standard perception of autism spectrum, behaviours is the male experience. Female autistic experience is different and again not widely known. Over and over again, the female experience of things is largely ignored while the male experience becomes the pattern for what’s normal, and when you are sick and no one takes your symptoms seriously, that’s a very, very serious problem.

Psychologically, we pathologies the female (I did this one at uni, again, the information is out there and I don’t have details to hand).  Get people to list male and female traits in columns. Then get them to list healthy and unhealthy adult traits in columns. The correlation of male/strong/resilient/logical/rational/healthy and female/neurotic/weak/irrational/unhealthy will emerge. Not because it’s true, but because it’s what we believe.

Measuring female bodies by male standards can only ever make female bodies look like deviations from the norm. This needs to change.

More heart attack info here – http://www.nhs.uk/news/2012/02February/Pages/heart-attack-symptoms-gender.aspx

Exploring the mysteries of pain

The human body is a complex thing, affected by everything it encounters. Thus when something is a bit off, working out what, and why, is no small task. I’ve been struggling with pain and stiffness for years, and experimenting with different ways of living and being to try and alleviate it.

There are a number of factors that, without any doubt, increase how much pain I experience: Insufficient or poor quality sleep. Not enough oil in my diet. Something going awry with my gut leading to loss of electrolytes and oils. Stress, anxiety and depression. Cold. Any kind of jarring physical activity. Airbeds.

Some of those rather imply their solutions! I do what I can, but life can conspire against me. One of the major problems is gut function – an issue I’ve had for more than a decade. I became vegetarian again when I realised that meat (or, I suspect, preservatives in meat) were intolerable to my gut. In the last year or so, I’ve realised that refined carbohydrates also increase my risk of gut-fail. With a switch to mostly brown flours, rice and pasta, I’ve found that my digestive system behaves itself a good deal better, and my overall pain levels have come down as a consequence. How anyone else’s body would respond, I can’t say.

I’ve learned to be much more alert to what my body is exposed to – sound, light, air quality, motion, temperature… these are not things I always have control over. However, quieter, gentler environments help me with staying calm, and that in turn helps with pain.

I’ve been giving a lot more deliberate thought to issues of when to rest, and when to push. There are times when I need to push, and I believe in testing my limits. I want to maintain as much fitness, strength and flexibility as I can, so I have to balance pushing my body against keeping it comfortable. I think I’m doing quite well with this, and overall my energy levels are up.

This time a year ago, one late night in a week was ambitious. Now, if I’m careful about getting early nights the rest of the time, I can have two late nights. By late nights, I mean not going to bed before 10pm. I’m always in bed before midnight.

At this autumn’s Contemplative Druidry day, I was able to sit, stand, move and be still as various activities required and I was reasonably comfortable throughout. I remember how last year I needed to sit on the floor so as to be able to fidget more easily to reduce discomfort. A year on and I hurt less, and I have more stamina, which encourages me to think that I’m getting more things right than not.

I don’t have much hope that I can get myself to a state of being pain free, but if I can keep the pain at tolerable levels, and be able to keep doing the things I most want to do – that’ll do. For the first time in a good fourteen years, the idea of being pain free at least some of the time, no longer seems totally preposterous.

Working with an uncooperative body

I’ve been in pain for years, and had come to think of it as normal. I know that lack of sleep, insufficient  oil, stress, using regular air beds, and being cold all make it a lot worse, and I’ve managed it as best I can based on this. At the same time, I’ve had dire burnouts every six to eight weeks for something like a decade. Deep pits of depression, related to exhaustion. Every time I’ve dealt with it by getting back up and at it.

This July wasn’t especially dramatic as a crash – pain, emotional dysfunction, loss of energy and willpower, despair – all the usual. What changed was that I just couldn’t face the process of getting up and doing it all again and trying to hold out for as long as I could before the next crash. My best efforts of recent years have only widened the gap between crashes, not solved them.

I made a radical decision to start putting my body first. To start paying close attention to what hurts, and when I’m tired, and acting on that rather than pushing through it. This has meant things like going to bed when I’m tired, no matter what time it is, asking my family to cover for me, saying ‘no’ to things. I’ve put down some voluntary work that had become stressful. Alongside acting to reduce pain, I’m looking at ways to build strength, flexibility and resilience, ways to get more emotional outlets that help me stay resilient, and reducing stress. I need more things in my life that enable me to feel good, and fewer things that leave me feeling shitty and I’m reorganising accordingly.

I have no idea what the consequences of doing this will be. Fewer reasons for anxiety will certainly help, and more rest, reducing exhaustion should help counter the depression. At a deeper level, the decision to put care for my body much higher on my list is about changing my relationship with myself, and not practicing self-harm or self-hatred as part of normal life. There have been plenty of times when I’ve pushed my exhausted body to keep doing things by inwardly hurling abuse and criticism at myself. On the really bad days, it’s self hatred that has kept me moving, reminders of how useless and worthless I am and how I need to get my sorry arse in gear and justify my existence. This too, I am putting down.

The decision to be kinder to myself is a decision to treat myself as an acceptable human being with the same needs and rights as any other human being. I’m not expecting this to magically solve all my problems, but it might give me the means to better deal with the days when I really hurt, or really have no spoons, and I have come to the conclusion that I’d give anyone else the chance to heal if they can and manage things better, and I ought to extend that to me. This year I have started saying ‘I matter’ – which feels radical, and dangerous, but I’m saying it anyway. My body is something I’ve called uncooperative, but I think it is my mind that needs to change, accommodating my limitations and not adding to what’s already difficult.

Dancing my way back

I’ve been feeling a bit lost of late, perhaps for some time – I’m not sure when it started. As a consequence I’ve been looking for the things that help me feel more coherent and recognisable to myself. As a young person, I danced a lot. Ballet lessons from age four to fourteen (I couldn’t handle the point work) tap lessons, ceilidh dancing through my teens, goth night-clubbing and jumping up at down to bands. I danced a lot, and I could, and would, dance all night. Slowly, the spoon shortage (which also began in my teens) kicked in. Pain, tiredness and lack of opportunities have combined for some years now and I stopped being a person who dances.

The year I was pregnant, I carried so much water I could barely waddle, and as the inflated mother of a young child, the scope to dance disappeared, and I let it go. There have been odd occasions of dancing, but it stopped being a reliable feature.

This winter, dancing was on my new year’s resolutions list. Thus far I’ve not done a vast amount – I danced a bit at a Roving Crows gig and it was clear that my older, stiffer, under-spooned body could no longer tolerate jumping about like a demented pixie for hours at a time. I was going to have to relearn, and do something different.

I’ve been experimenting a lot with how I move my body. In the past, I mostly danced from the feet, a lunatic faux-Irish-jig if you will. The rest of my body following where the jumping and stomping led. So I’ve started thinking about all the areas of my body that can dance – knees, hips, spine, arms, hands. I don’t move my head about much, as there are balance issues there. My moshing days are clearly over, and anyway that stuff hurts too much. If I let go of the idea of dancing as rhythm, and treat it as making shapes sympathetic to the music, everything opens up for me, and I can move in ways that don’t wipe me out after the first song. If I want speed, my arms can express that.

With a background in ballet, and a few terms of studying Tai Chi in my distant past, I have some habits of movement. It’s all about soft curves, and there are all kinds of rules from those traditions that I default to, so I’ve been challenging myself to move differently. I wouldn’t previously have stuck any part of myself out in an angular way – elbows and knees, stomach and arse. I’ve previously danced with soft hands, but I can use fists, flat palms and spiky gestures for expression, and again this opens up the range of movement available to me, so I can make it interesting. If my body is very stiff, then a less smooth approach is easier.

I’ve found running harmony singing groups that one of two things can happen. Either you get safe, comfortable, affirming harmonies, or you get spiky exciting ones. It’s dawned on me that the same is true of dance – that I can have safe, graceful flow, or the challenging spiky stuff, but nothing wrong, nothing bad. Being taught to dance, for me, meant growing up thinking about moving my body as something for other people to watch and judge, but that simply doesn’t have to be the size of it.

Not only am I re-dedicating to dancing, but I’m shooting for once a month now. I have a better sense of self when I dance, it releases me emotionally, and I feel like someone I can make sense of. It doesn’t have to hurt, or exhaust me, and, it turns out, I can go into a dance space already sore and tired, and move in ways that do not leave me feeling worse. It’s a set of discoveries I’m very excited about.

Bodies in close proximity

I’m odd about matters of touch. The majority of people I prefer to have a good four feet away from me, and I hate being touched by strangers or touched unexpectedly. Where I have deep bonds with people, I am a very tactile person.

I don’t like fleeting contact with strangers. I find it emotionally disturbing and disorientating and generally not worth it. If I’m going to invest in touching someone, and dropping my defences to do that, I want it to be moving towards deeper, soulful connection. I tend to find that my first physical encounters with other people are awkward and weird. It probably means I am awkward and weird to deal with initially.

I find it takes time. I need to learn how my body relates to the other person’s. There’s simple physical components here – height differences, and establishing what feels right and appropriate and what doesn’t. I may need to talk about it. There’s also the unpredictable body responses – sometimes my body reaction is to want to hug close and tight, and those people are usually really important to me.

There seems to be an assumption out there that we just magically know how to make contact with each other. This is especially true in romantic encounters. So, I’m going to put a hand up and say I really have no idea how to do this, not the first time. Give me a dozen times, a hundred, a thousand, and I will be able to move through your personal space with more grace and poise and touch in ways that work for both parties. For each person I encounter, it’ a process, and usually a slow one. I wish it was normal to talk more about these things, but many people shy away from it. I’m going to change that where I need to.

Body wisdom

When I make head-based decisions about people, those decisions are all about keeping said people happy. Head decisions keep me calm, neutral, co-operative and generally easy to be around.

The responses that come from my body are a whole other thing. Most people I prefer to have at least three feet away from me. People who are welcome to stand and stay in my personal space are few. These are also the people I’m happy to be touched by.

I’ve made head decisions all too recently to stand still and silent while people I did not want touching me insisted on doing so. There comes a point when you establish that someone just won’t take no for an answer, and that the easiest way out seems to be to acquiesce. It’s not a logic I like, and I know full well where its logical extremes take a person.

Then at the other end of my range there are the other people, and there aren’t that many of them. People where my body reaction is to want to hug fiercely. I make head decisions not to follow through on this, sometimes – because it might be too much.

There’s a handful of Mary Oliver lines I keep coming back to. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves’. I don’t actually like the head decisions I make about people, most of the time. When I have acted on those felt reactions, and either backed off or moved closer accordingly, of late the outcomes have been good.

What is called for, is some kind of negotiation, where both parties are taking the time and care to find out what’s available. No assumptions. No demands. One soft animal body paying careful attention to another.

A soft animal body

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.”

A favourite quote, taken from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. I like the acceptance, and the allowance in the idea of ‘the soft animal of your body’. I like the permission to love, and the sense that this, and only this, is truly important.

I love this quote because it challenges me, because it is at odds with everything I am, everything I do, because I can see the beauty in it, but I’m a long way from living there.

What would it mean to accept my body as a soft animal? I’m kinder to soft animals than I am to myself. I’m not tolerant of my own bodily softness, seeing is as excess, as inherently unacceptable. The softness that is innately female I have a very complex relationship with, to say the least. To see the honest animal of myself, to see the mammal – accepting that mammals are furry, and they wrinkle over time, they hurt, and break and bleed if you aren’t careful with them. To see that mammal and honour it, would be a thing. As someone who honours nature, I’m pretty useless at doing that insofar as nature manifests in my own skin.

Love what it loves. Of course I love, and I’ve never tried to stop myself doing that, but I hide it. I try not to bother anyone with it, because I expect it to be an affront, something unwelcome. Rounds of seeing the disappointment in the faces of people when I’ve said ‘I love you’. Dealing with rejections from people who wanted me for sex but did not want anything of my heart, and felt pressured by the giving of it. Unreasonable, excessive, too much. I haven’t learned not to say it, but I’ve learned to be afraid of saying it.

The soft animal of my body, if it were some other animal body would turn up warm and friendly, to curl around legs, snuggle upon laps, offering warmth and its soft furry presence to comfort and soothe. I would be a cat, to purr soft affirmations into the bodies of others. This body doesn’t really lend itself to doing that.

I wonder what it would feel like to consider myself acceptable as a soft animal that loves what it loves.

Humans are not reliably kind to soft animal bodies – human or otherwise. Not to our own, not to each other’s not to the other soft animals we share this world with. How often do we treat things as though we expect them to be stone, and then claim to be surprised when they bleed and cry?