4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Week Four: Talking with our Peers

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?

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Week Three: Listening to Desire

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?

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Week Two: Vacation (The Body Positive New Year Challenge)

Sunday: cooked food to freeze for lunches/ dinners in January
Monday: went to the gym first thing in the morning
Tuesday: shopped for and purchased a bathing suit
Wednesday: wore a bathing suit as I packed and cleaned
Thursday: left for vacation!

I took a break from tracking daily body positive actions over my vacation. But I did not stop exploring body positive habits and feelings! Actually, I found vacation to be a fabulous way to reconnect with myself physically.

Mostly, just feeling more relaxed and happy makes my body more easy to listen to and makes me more eager to respond accordingly. I ate when I felt hungry and didn’t eat when I didn’t want to. I showered twice a day and dressed nicely — well, given the clothes that I packed. I slept, but did not track my hours; I walked, but did not track my miles. I lived in my body instead of in my head.

I could do all these things because I was on vacation. How can I bring this connection with myself back to my working life? That’s always a question for me when I enter a new year or a new semester. How soon am I going to get stressed out and unhealthy again?

I think I need to drop the false division I’m making between relaxed and stressed. I didn’t get stressed over vacation — oh my. But I said to myself, “I’m on vacation, so it’s okay, I’ll work it out.” I felt entitled to relax and enjoy my vacation, so I focused on it.

I hope this New Year’s resolution will help me bring that sense of being entitled to joy and relaxation into my everyday awareness. Through small and large daily actions, I’ll tell myself that I deserve to take care of myself and enjoy being in my body here and now even as I push myself and get stressed and strive to accomplish and achieve.

Let the challenge continue!

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Kid-Tested, Teacher-Approved

The Boston Public Health Commission has come out with a great new innovation in sex positive music — the Sound Relationships Nutrition Label. Playing off the idea of a food nutrition label, this one serves as a worksheet for assessing the messages that a song sends about relationships. They even had teenagers rate the current most popular 100 songs and published a top 10 list of popular songs with unhealthy and healthy messages.

I took these 10 songs and made a mix CD that I gave to my sixth-grade students as part of their end of the semester president. I hope they’re listening to it and enjoying it right now — and absorbing lots of positive messages! (I really liked the CD myself.)

I do understand that they might not be enjoying every song. But I told them that they’d have a chance in January to nominate their favorite songs for our next team mix CD.

What they don’t know is that in order to nominate a song, they will have to analyze the song lyrics using the BPHC’s Sound Relationships Nutrition Label.

I’m really looking forward to engaging my students in exploring the effects of the music we listen to and dance to. I’m still working out the details of the process to make sure that my students meet the learning objectives and also feel fully engaged and excited. Additionally, you need to figure out how much I want to adjust the Sound Relationships Nutrition Label in order to make it age-appropriate for sixth-graders and the extent to which we have and have not discussed healthy relationships so far.

What characteristics do you look for in songs that make them feel healthy, positive, or simply like something that want to internalize? What criteria would you use in choosing which songs to play for children? How would you explain to children and adolescents how to analyze messages in the media and make healthy choices about media consumption?

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

The Body Positive New Year Challenge, Week One: Dressing Up

Sunday: self-massaged my tight leg muscles using oils
Monday: told a friend about the challenge
Tuesday: went to work dressed ready to dance
Wednesday: gave my students non-food items as prizes and gifts
Thursday: cried, briefly, in the morning
Friday: read a book about healing trauma in and through the body
Saturday: wrote my blog posts about the challenge

The first few days of this challenge were quite exciting, but it definitely became more difficult to think of what to do as the week went on and my attention drifted elsewhere.

My most body positive day was Tuesday, when I went to work dressed ready to dance. I really dressed up because my students had a major presentation that evening, but I realized in the morning that I really enjoyed moving my hips in that outfit. I felt good the whole day not because I was actually dancing, but because even walking reminded me of my body is amazing ability to dance and how much I enjoy it.

How do your clothes affect how you feel about your body? How do your feelings about your body affect the choices you make about what to wear? When is dressing up a body positive action, and when does trying to dress a certain way contribute to negative feelings about our bodies?

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

My Body Positive New Year Challenge

I was reading feministing.com and came across a post about New Year’s resolutions to start dieting. The blogger pointed out that many of us also set New Year’s resolutions to love our bodies for what they are and to enjoy our various curves and appetites. I took notes from the comments on that post with suggestions about how to set and keep such a resolution.

Now, I’m going to do it! Body positivity is an essential element in sex-positivity. Learning to love and listen to our bodies is intricately related to our embracing of a healthy sexuality, though different and separate in many ways. As I document my progress in this body positive challenge through a series of posts on this blog, I hope to explore that connection between body image and sexual health.

For now, here’s an outline of my definition of this challenge:

• Every day, do one thing that supports a positive connection to my body.
• What I do each day must be unique, although I expect patterns to develop and similarities to be clear.
• What I do each day must be something active and/or interactive — simply having a thought or feeling will not suffice.

My personal goals are to experience less physical pain, develop healthier habits, and have more energy. On the blog, I hope this challenge provides me with an opportunity to explore different ways we can initiate promoting body positivity and sex positivity in our individual lives and to open a discussion of the benefits and challenges of embarking on this process.

If you have any ideas about actions or steps that I can take as part of this challenge, please post a comment!

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Dancing for Sexual Health

Responding to a question about my last post, paraphrased as: What is positive, empowering dance music, and what makes it much more fun to dance to than misogynistic, degrading dance music?

Some reasons I love dancing:

• I get to move my body, and that feels fantastic.
• What matters is that my body moves, not how big or small or curvy or tall it is.
• I can’t fail; the harder I try and the more energy I put into it, the better I’m doing, by definition.
• I get to emote: As I move, aggression and frustration exit my body, and the joy and celebration expressed by my movement enter deeper into my body, and I can feel that joy and celebration.
• I get to act: I’m very much in my own body, and yet I get to perform by acting out the lyrics I hear. I am myself, yet I have this opportunity to connect with characters and feelings outside myself. I feel a part of something.

Among favorite positive-coping pastimes, dancing stands out because it does not involve verbally expressing my feelings or any direct conversation with another person. I’m not journaling, I’m not talking to friends, and I’m not blogging. I’m not expressing myself through words, which is the best way to ensure that I have direct control over what is expressed about me in that moment. Instead, I’m more fluidly a part of the moment and a member of the scene. This silent membership leaves me vulnerable. When I’m not speaking, the “scene” has much more power to define who I am and what I’m expressing, especially given my way of participating in this particular scene, as outlined above.

A sketch of my experience while dancing to music with a great beat but denigrating lyrics: I pick up the beat, and start dancing. I recognize the lyrics, and start singing along. I’m moving, and smiling, and beginning to perform fabulously. But the lyrics I’m singing aren’t fabulous. Maybe I’m singing about how great it is to watch my big butt move while I dance. Or maybe I’m singing out my desire to get some stranger into bed that night. But wait, this isn’t my body and my desire, right? I’m just inadvertently singing along. My facilitator at the MVP training made the following argument: The singers don’t know who you are, personally, and that you wouldn’t actually say such a thing. No, the singers don’t know you at all. But they do sing about you. Yes, if you’re dancing along to their song, they are signing about you. And just as I dance and sing the anger and frustration out of my body, I’m dancing and singing these negative, hurtful messages right into my body. I’m internalizing them, quite literally, whether I’d like to or not. And that’s when I start thinking about my body as a vehicle for sex and attraction instead of joy and celebration. And that’s when I start worrying about whether I’m doing it right, whether I’m impressing others in the right way, whether I’m adequately sexy but not too much so, whether I’m wearing the right clothes or shoes or earrings. And that’s when it does matter how my body is shaped in comparison with everyone else’s, because that’s what the lyrics tell me. I’m getting insecure and being objectified and as the lyrics move on and on, it sounds more and more like I’m dancing in order to show how attractive I am rather than dancing for my own joy and celebration. Is this about dancing, or is this about thinness and availability and sex?

A sketch of my experience while dancing to positive, empowering music: The music backs up the exact reasons I like dancing. The lyrics emphasize emotional expression, personal rights, and the complexity of relationships. In acting out the lyrics, I celebrate characters and feelings that resonate with who I am and what I believe in. Expressing those lyrics confirms my personal desires, and I’m thrilled to imagine that these lyrics are about me and my life. I emote. Some songs help me express feelings of upset, anger or sorrow. Other songs help me seek joy. I celebrate my beliefs, my friendships and my body as I smile at the people I’m with, dancing sometimes with them and sometimes with myself. But I’m always dancing for myself, not for an onlookers or dance partners. Other people’s gaze and opinions need not provide me with validation. I find inner validation in how great it feels to move. I feel warm, happy and successful. I feel optimistic. I feel stronger and more ready to take on life the following day. I feel more connected to myself, my body and the people I’m with in positive, emotional ways. When I wake up the next day, I look up the lyrics from my favorite songs the previous night so I can memorize them, and sing them to myself when I need an extra moment of coping during the week. And maybe while I’m signing the song to myself, I’ll close my eyes and picture myself dancing to those lyrics in order to return, for the moment, to the scene of release and joy as celebration courses throughout my body.

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Don’t you wish your music were hot like this?

Many teenagers love hip hop music, understandably. Dancing, especially to those great beats, helps us loosen up, express ourselves, and celebrate. But all this fun may be at quite a high price. Whether or not the content of popular hip hop music helps or hurts teenagers has been the subject of much heated debate. Granted, the content of hip hop music varies widely. Much of hip hop is decidedly positive and proactive. But the other kind of hip hop—the materialist, drug-promoting, women-degrading hip hop—permeates radio, television and the internet. While it’s hard to demonstrate a direct causal relationship between hip hop and sexual violence, this music most surely negatively affects adolescent sexual health.

This issue is an offshoot of a broader question that frequents psychological and educational debates: Does violence in the media lead to violence by adolescents? James Garbarino, in his book Lost Boys, answers yes, it does. After enumerating the increasing incidents of violence involved in children’s television and video games, he cites studies that show that children’s use of these media accounts for a significant portion of the variance in children’s violence. While exposure to violent media does not cause violence per se, it is one of many major factors influencing children to behave in violent ways. If television and video games have this measurable affect on children, music most likely can promote negative behavior as well.

The connection between music content and listener behavior can be experienced at many parties and clubs. At the Mentors in Violence Prevention training I attended over the summer, we discussed how we would respond if a friend played such denigrating and sexist popular music at a house party. Really? Many of us in the room had been in the exact same situation before and had not said a thing. Why would we complain about such a common occurrence? Why would we deny ourselves the opportunity to dance and party with our friends without causing a fuss? Over time, our initial resistance gave way to a challenging discussion about what it feels like to dance to such music. Even if we try not to attend to the words, we still hear them and feel them. The words affect the way in which we portray our bodies, our sexualities, and our relationships with each other. Like Garbarino found in his study, the lyrics may not be the single determining factor of our behavior or our thoughts, but they certainly are one significant factor out of many. Besides, it can be much more fun to dance to positive, empowering music.

I have to face the popularity and attraction of hip hop directly right now at my job. In my past position as a health education teacher, I made it part of my curriculum to discuss song lyrics openly and to push students to find music that is both positive and enjoyable and popular. But I’m in a very different position this year as one out of several leaders at an afterschool program, and a new staff member at that. As part of our daily routine, the students come to the cafeteria afterschool for a snack before they start their homework. To make the transition fun and casual, we have music playing. And we want them to like the music, so it’s hip hop. However, I’ve noticed over the first few weeks that there are only one or two songs that we play. Does the veteran leader in charge of music pick only songs she considers positive? We haven’t discussed it at all.

Music plays a role in many other aspects of our program as well, so we need more than two songs that we condone! The positive-music CDs I made in my last job are now two years old, so finding the current positive-and-popular music would mean starting the project from the beginning. I need to find a way to discuss the issue with my coworkers—while presenting myself as both discerning and fun-loving! I value joy and dance and celebration, but we cannot compromise values such as respect, peace and health.

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Weighing in on the Weight Debate

Pediatricians discuss in New York Times this week how best to address weight with their patients. I’ve heard health and physical education staff debate without resolution how to communicate with students and parents about BMI measurements. Who knows how to do this effectively, supporting students’ health and well-being without spawning lifelong obsessions and insecurities? In her memoir Moose, Stephanie Klein recalls her childhood experience seeing weight management specialists and attending fat camps. She also poignantly illustrates how the cycle of weight loss and gain continued through college and adulthood to hurt her self-esteem, her relationships, and her family.

 

I believe that the values of transformative sex ed can inform how we address weight with children. I also believe that we have a lot of work to do before we can meet this challenge head-on. Furthermore, we will best cope with this epidemic of disordered eating if we can in turn allow our dealing with it to transform our thinking about bodies and relationships.

 

Teenagers must access positive feelings about their body in order to achieve a strong sense of sexual health and agency. As long as teens face an onslaught of messages criticizing their bodies and making them feel physically bad or unworthy, they will lack a basic motivation for taking care of their bodies and for choosing respect and safety over degradation in danger.

Distorted body image also grossly distorts the ways in which we relate to each other. Klein details how body hatred so painfully alienated her from her romantic partners. We need a new way of thinking about bodies that can serve as a basis for stronger, healthier, and safer relationships.

I don’t have the answers on this one, but searching for answers is essential. Any ideas?

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

My analysis

What happens when we put the body at the center of our analysis? What can we learn about our own personal challenges? What can we learn about our relationships? Moreover, how can such an analytical process help us to transform our society?

My analysis centers around the body. All of the issues I address and care about bring me back to the body, and the importance of our having bodies and our having our own power over our own bodies. Through my body, I experienced myself and the world. By hearing about my embodied experience, you can understand my plight.

I learned many different radical critiques that use slightly different lenses for analyzing and critiquing the world’s inequalities. Is it all really about who has the most money? Is it all really about who has the most power over others? I think it’s about who has the most power over their own body and over the bodies of others.

My analysis uses the plight of our bodies as a lens for critiquing our society. In advocating for healthy, happy, safe, self-asserted, consensually involved bodies, we can sort through the myriad of oppressions that afflict our world.

We begin and end in our bodies. We feel our bodies constantly. We relate to each other with our bodies, through our bodies, in our bodies.

I’m not trying to make a concluding point in just this one entry. I’m trying to make a starting point. When we started from our bodies, where can that take us?