“When I talk about embodiment,” she said, “I ask everyone to raise their hands if they are crossing their legs. All the hands raised are from women. Why is that? Because girls and women are taught to keep their legs closed, not to open their legs.”
As I listened to my academic hero, Dr. Deborah Tolman, I immediately became conscious of my legs tightly crossed under the table. Crossed because I was nervous. Because I wanted to make a good impression, to behave appropriately, to focus. Crossed because, as she explained, I was taught that the way to make a good impression is to keep my legs shut.
Taught? Well, no one told me that directly, but these are the messages girls (like me) receive about how to behave properly, how to be a good girl, to be ladylike.
I often purposefully uncross my legs. But I find it hardest to uncross my legs at restaurants, like the one in which I had the pleasure of eating lunch with Dr. Tolman. Mostly I have trouble at restaurants because the chairs are generally a little too high for me to sit with my feet squarely on the ground, and I cross my legs because, well, partly because I’m leaning forward anyway, and partly because that posture is quite ingrained.
Ah, ingrained. Ingrained does not mean innate. Sometimes, things that now feel like they come from within us, really came initially from outside us. We take these messages that we learn growing up and the ideas become part of us, part of how we hold ourselves. That’s part of the new concept of embodiment that I’m exploring in my work at Tufts and in my conversation and correspondence with Dr. Tolman, paraphrased above.
The ways in which we hold ourselves and how we feel right inside our own bodies are drastically shaped by the social and cultural influences that impact us from day one.
And feeling “right” does not always mean feeling “good,” especially with regards to the ways in which girls and women, and how we are socialized to “be” in our own bodies. I find, with my own body, that while I impulsively cross my legs, that position often does not actually feel good. It causes my lower back to hurt a lot. My IT band tightens (and it tightens so much and so often that I know now which part of the body is called the IT band). And yet, I keep returning again and again to that position, to that crossing. Why is that?
I was shy at that lunch. Nervous, eager, listening. Would I have uncrossed my legs if I felt more brave? Or, conversely, if I had purposefully uncrossed my legs, would I have then felt more brave as a consequence? Would I have opened up, so to speak?
Honestly, on a day to day basis at this point, I generally uncross my legs in an attempt at better posture and reduced back pain. But there are other choices that I am currently exploring, in an attempt to actively influence my own experiences of embodiment.
One such area is makeup. A while back, a friend of mine shared an article that said that women who wear makeup are judged as more competent, and she asked me what I thought. My response was to decide to stop wearing makeup to the office. Not because I want to be judged as less competent, but rather because I wondered if the reason I wore makeup was that I, too, had received messages that women who wear makeup will be judged as more competent. To be honest, it feels weird on some days, and natural and easy on others, to show up at work without any makeup. I’m not committing to no makeup as a permanent lifestyle choice, but I am trying it for now. For this semester, let’s say. Because for me, knowing that I am not wearing makeup and still being able to feel present and competent really matters. I need to know for myself that I’m not dependent on a cultural standard of beauty with which I disagree. Please note, I have nothing against people who choose to wear makeup, and I often choose to wear makeup, I just need to get to the place where I feel that makeup is a choice rather than an obligation. Towards this end, I have undertaken this exploration of my own embodied experiences.
Perhaps, as a result of not wearing makeup, I am crossing my legs less often. Perhaps not.
Judith Butler wrote about the imperative to recognize all bodies as human. Today, for International Women’s Day and as a new installment of my body positive series, I write about the need to recognize all bodies as deserving.
What does “equal rights for all” mean to you? To me, having equal rights means deserving. To have a right to something means to deserve it without having to prove yourself or earn it or live up to some set standard.
Among other things, all people deserve pleasure. During the body positive challenge, I have discovered how important it is to find healthy ways to act on my body’s desire for pleasure. But I’m not always able to perceive myself as deserving of such pleasure, and neither are many people I know.
Often we use pleasure as a reward for children. As a teacher, I know it’s useful, and I’m guilty of this trap myself. Students earn candy, extra snacks, a party, or a chance to listen to music. We teach children that pleasure is a reward for hard work and success.
The media continues this lesson when it comes to gender or sexual dynamics. Men deserve pleasure if they’re rich, if they’re assertive, if they’re convincing. Women, well, women rarely deserve pleasure, but at the very least she must be thin and buxom if she wants a chance.
Equal rights for all means we all deserve pleasure, no matter how much money, weight, or homework we may have. The pursuit of equal rights for all means that we must empower each other to pursue pleasure. We must validate desire as important and informative. We must want and seek more, together.
To conclude, I return to my students — to adolescents. Instead of teaching them that pleasure is a reward doled out by others, how about teaching that pleasure is something they deserve to ask for?
Learning and teaching sexuality education has helped me connect to myself as a person among all people deserving of equal rights. Furthermore, I see sexuality education as a potential site for teaching adolescents to exercise agency — to identify how they feel and what they want, and to communicate their desires effectively. Such education includes learning to ask explicitly for consent and understanding that yes means yes and is just as valid a response as no, which means no.
In order to counter the ways in which the psychology of sexism and patriarchy prevent us from feeling deserving and accessing or equal rights, we need to turn to conversation and education amongst ourselves, with our neighbors, and especially with teenagers. Let’s empower the next generation to get theirs.
Sunday: had a conversation checking-in about physical boundaries
Monday: chose to stay in and continue to help my injury heal
Tuesday: ate a home-cooked lunch; felt it energize me at work
Wednesday: took a risk trying a new restaurant
Thursday: rolled out a yoga mat to lie on the floor in the office
Friday: lay down to sleep on the train without shame
Saturday: greeted and complemented new people without judging their appearance
I have now filled one poster on my wall with seven weeks of daily body positive acts, and I hereby pronounce the first stage of the body positive challenge to be complete!
Doing something different every day provided me with lots of ideas and allowed me to explore many facets of a body positive lifestyle. What I need next is not to do a different thing every day no but rather to do the same things every day, to learn a routine through which to honor my body. I need to feel more centered in my own life and in my own physical space.
Perhaps a future post will describe how these all fit together, but for now let me just list the gems of the seven-week experiment that was stage one, gems which I now hope to integrate into my daily life:
• get plenty of sleep
• enjoy moderate exercise
• drink tea in the morning
• focus on fruits and vegetables
• wear the clothes I most enjoy
Since I still have many new body positive acts I would like to try, I will write about one new act per week, as well as how I’m doing with maintaining the seven daily processes above.
This part of the body positive challenge is about balance. I will focus on these behaviors to go to every day to remind myself of this commitment I am making to health and a positive, loving attitude towards my body.
What am I missing, and what would you add? What do you try to integrate on a daily or weekly basis to keep yourself feeling physically centered and confident? What suggestions do you have for me as I try to maintain rhythm and balance?
Sunday: took a walk to enjoy the outdoors
Monday: attended a Pilates class
Tuesday: chose to write in my journal instead of a trip to the gym
Wednesday: purchased new exercise sneakers
Thursday: wore comfortable, casual clothes to work
Friday: cared for my foot injury
Saturday: received a lower back massage from a friend
I want to get stronger. I want to build strength in my core muscles because I believe it will lessen my back pain and because I believe it is important to be strong. I’ve read several feminist books that encourage women to build up their physical strength as an expression of personal power and ability. Valuing our capacity for strength is a feminist move.
Valuing our capacity for weakness is a feminist move as well. Although excited by my return to yoga and Pilates classes, I had quite a busy week last week in which my eagerness to attend extra classes dissipated in my concern over getting things done and the raw fact that I felt I needed to put off exercise until the weekend.
Then, I woke up Friday morning as my right foot pounded in pain. I could barely walk, let alone exercise, and I had to cope with my body’s propensity for pain and inflammation as I figured out how to be body positive in this unexpected period of weakness.
Pause for a story about a person I dated briefly my sophomore year of college. This person said that he liked me for my strength: my independence, my confidence, my ability to take care of myself.
But I didn’t feel so strong all the time. I especially didn’t feel strong that spring as Take Back the Night approached, an event on my college campus which includes a speak out by survivors of sexual violence. I had been to the event the year before, and I anticipated a flood of so-called weak feelings including fear and vulnerability. I tried to picture what it would mean to let this guy who liked me for my strength see me in such weakness.
In looking at this tension between strength and weakness, I learned to see strength more as a skill set than as a state of being. The feelings of fear and vulnerability didn’t disprove my confidence and ability to care for myself. In fact, my ability to express those negative emotions and participate actively in a caring community came from that very place of strength that my dating partner so admired.
To bring it back to the topic at hand: physical strength would be great, but taking on the challenge of building physical strength will be most holistically effective and healthy if I simultaneously prioritize that other kind of strength, strength that comes from a body positive attitude, strength that comes from confidence and self-awareness, strength that comes from a balanced perspective.
I’m not there yet. I still have my weakness, and I’m trying to face that weakness in talking about it and writing about it. Holding that weakness, carrying it, accepting it is the process of training my emotional muscles. I want to get stronger.
Sunday: finished reading Locker Room Diaries by Leslie Goodman
Monday: granted myself permission to relax (watched Glee)
Tuesday: voted in favor of my reproductive health
Wednesday: actually got things done on my to-do list
Thursday: attended a yoga class
Saturday: went to my parents’ house for family dinner
Sometimes, it’s just not about the body. Sometimes, other things are just more important. In the past, I’ve taken those more important things as opportunities to use and abuse my body, such as not exercising, sleeping, or eating while as I completed a major project or other task.
But this week I tried to take a different approach. What if those more important things helped me mediate my various physical needs and find balance in my body? I took a step back and thought about why I am doing this challenge in the first place.
I have clearly taken on this challenge because I want to develop stronger positive feelings about my body. Having positive feelings about my body is important not just because I like feeling good about myself but also because feeling and being healthy helps me do the things that I care about, for example, teaching, blogging, developing relationships, etc.
That’s why staying in on Wednesday night to work on my to do list was a body positive act. I spent a couple hours sitting at my computer, celebrating the physical and creative energy I have and getting to spend that energy on what matters to me.
Do you ever find yourself misusing your body as you stress about other things? What helps you find perspective and balance between your body and other life tasks? What motivates you to be body positive?
Sunday: started strength training
Monday: bought a sports bra
Tuesday: chose to extend my morning workout
Wednesday: took an extra-long hot shower
Thursday: taught a sex ed class in which we discussed body image
Friday: went out dancing
Saturday: lounged and pampered myself after working out
It just so happens that this week’s young adult sex ed curriculum included an activity addressing body image. I was actually really nervous about asking participants to reflect on in their history of feelings about their body — in a mixed gender setting, and only in our second session. As it happened, the participants rose to the challenge and shared quite meaningfully, given that the activity provided certain measures of anonymity.
I’ve been reflecting on why I thought that asking young adults to talk about their body image would be too much. I think what I’ve experienced at times is a certain sense of “all or nothing” in terms of how I’m expected to feel about my body. Either I’m struggling and have issues, or I’m empowered and love myself fully. But my reality includes both parts of this duality. Enjoying a healthy, positive body image is a process just as much as maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle is a process. Every day. Believing that I deserve to love my body is a part of that process, but achieving this one step doesn’t mean that I’ve already completed the journey. And that’s totally okay because I’m getting there.
My hope is that by recognizing positive body image as a process, we can help each other discuss the bumps and bonuses along the way, distancing ourselves from labels and comparison.
As part of Thursday’s class, participants wrote how they hope to feel about their bodies in the future. What does a positive body image mean to you? How would it feel, what would you say, and how would you act? What are you working towards?
Sunday: finally got a full night’s sleep
Monday: bought lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
Tuesday: grazed all day; ate what I felt I needed, when I needed it
Wednesday: wrote an email describing my body image and feelings
Thursday: enjoyed my favorite meal at my favorite restaurant
Friday: packed for a weekend away without packing any makeup
Saturday: ate dinner earlier than everyone else because I was hungry
Desire. How often do we actually get to listen to our bodies, giving ourselves and what we want right when we want it? And, when it comes to food, how often do we actually believe that listening to desire is the right way to eat? I spent a lot of this week trying to attend to my bodily desires — for rest, movement, warmth, protein, salts, vegetables, etc. and it felt good.
I teach the same methods of self-awareness in terms of sexuality: Listen to yourself, sort through your influences, identify your desires, and then ask for what you want. Having confidence in sexual desire is the basis of consensual sexual activity. Self-awareness — the ability to pause, reflect, and be true to oneself — is key both sexual consent and what we might think of as nutritional consent.
But in my experience, self-awareness plays a much different role with my nutritional choices than with my sexual choices. My schedule consistently gets in the way of my following my own physical desires. Either I can’t take a nap because it’s time to leave for work, or I don’t want to eat because I have dinner plans in an hour. The way that we commit and schedule ourselves physically complicates the process of listening to our desires.
Maybe that’s why I feel better on the weekends, particularly when I haven’t committed to meals at certain hours. Seems more natural to feed myself when I feel it’s time. But I like being social, in fact I love it and need it and thrive from it. So how can I reconcile what my body is telling me with what my calendar is telling me?