Embodied Living in Disembodied Times

By Margaret Noel

E M B O D I M E N T | Experiencing the world and ourselves through our body leading to a felt sense of being at home in our bodies and enjoyment of our embodied existence (Launeanu & Kwee, 2018). 

Each and every day, we are bombarded with various messages about how we should look: thinner, but not too skinny, more muscular, but not bulky, strive for washboard abs, an hourglass figure, the messages go on and on (Latiff et al., 2018). These messages may come from the media, our friends, even from our parents and role models (Latiff et al., 2018). We have become so accustomed to these messages about how we should look that when we finally dare to look at our bodies, we invariably see them as “not good enough”, as something to be shaped and molded; an object that we critique, try to change, and ultimately dislike (Tantleff-Dunn et al., 2011). In response to this overload of messages, we diet, we do the latest workouts, we buy the best supplements and we look in the mirror, still unsatisfied (Tantleff-Dunn et al., 2011). With all these messages telling us what we should be and should look like, we’re bound to be lacking somewhere: “normative body discontent” (Tantleff-Dunn et al., 2011, p. 392) replaces our spontaneous, joyful embodied experience. And it is in the lacking and discontent that we begin to loathe our bodies that don’t fit these so called “norms” we’ve been told they should (Tantleff et al., 2011). What is even worse is that we start loathing ourselves for not being able to shape our bodies into that desired object promoted by media, peers or role models (Grogan, 2016).

But what if we together said “no” to these oppressive norms and “yes” to ourselves as embodied beings and to our bodies the way they are? What if we stopped seeing our bodies as objects to be changed into an impossible ideal and instead as part of ourselves that we carry through life with us, changing and evolving just as we do as human beings? What if instead of judging our bodies and pointing out their flaws, we started to treat them as we would treat our friends and started to appreciate what our bodies do for us, even admire them! 

Sound crazy or impossible? Research shows that when we engage with activities that emphasize the richness of our embodied experience and make us more attuned to our bodies and body wisdom, versus seeing them as objects, we strengthen the connection between the mind and the body, which promotes positive embodiment and appreciation for our body, for ourselves (Launeanu & Kwee, 2018).

What is Embodiment?

Embodiment has become such a buzz word in our society, yet the term is so foreign to many of us. What does it really mean to live in our bodies? Where do we start? If these are the thoughts running through your mind, you are not alone. In a society that prides itself on objectification, embodiment likely isn’t common in our vocabulary, nor our experience.

Embodiment is a framework within existential analysis that views the mind and body as one interconnected unit, constantly influencing each other and providing feedback to one another (Allan, 2005; Launeanu & Kwee, 2018; Piran & Teall, 2012). Instead of seeing the body from the outside as an object to be scrutinized, embodiment focuses on the internal, lived experience within each person’s body from a physical, psychological and spiritual perspective (Launeanu & Kwee, 2018). Some examples of this perspective include a focus on the sensual body and the enjoyment of food, art, nature, and the pleasures of the senses through our bodies; a focus on the emotional body in that we experience the wisdom of our emotions within our bodies (i.e. gut-wrenching pain, nervousness, warmth and happiness, fear, sadness); a focus on our relational bodies given that we relate to others with our bodies in how we look each other in the eye, greet, hug, or embrace one another; and a focus on our bodies as a source of activity or life through activities such as dance, movement, gardening, sculpturing, or art (Launeanu & Kwee, 2018). These perspectives focus on the joy, wisdom, creativity, and connection experienced through the body and ultimately view the body as something each and every one of us possesses that is “good” (Launeanu & Kwee, 2018). 

The Pandemic of Disembodiment and Loneliness 

I do realize however, the implicit irony in the statements above, given our current context. In fact, all across the globe, we are experiencing a pandemic of disembodiment and loneliness. In not being able to see love, in the explicit barriers placed through physical distancing and the implicit barriers of wearing masks and not being able to see the full expressions of another. This is not to say that the protocols are not necessary and critical for our own physical safety; they are. But instead to recognize the effects they are perpetuating. 

The increase in zoom meetings, the fear of leaving the house. The fear of walking too close to someone on the street. The threat our own bodies potentially may be posing to others in carrying a virus we may not even know that we are carrying. Canceled plans, reduced interactions, and reduced opportunities to share space with another. The many joyful embodied experiences we have grown accustomed to such as gatherings, workplaces, the simplicity of standing in a crowd; places where we previously found community have been cut off. And in cutting off these experiences, we are experiencing the loss internally. The loss that promotes our disconnect from being able to sense, to trust, to tap into the wisdom of the self. The loss in freedom of our own physicality. This loss that essentially confronts us with the totality of our own existence. 

In recognizing that there is a physical threat to our health, we are confronted with the fact that we are not invincible. That our time on this earth is not everlasting. That our bodies are temporary. Transitory. Fragile. And yet this loss and this confrontation present a unique opportunity. The opportunity to tune in to how we are feeling. To make a conscious effort to recognize and honor the discomfort. To make space for it. To increase our connection with ourselves despite how disconnected we may be feeling from others. And to recognize, what is truly important, what is meaningful, and are we living the lives we wish to be living? 

Interested in learning more? Follow “Befriending the Body” podcast on Spotify:

https://open.spotify.com/show/4vb2Y9I5QIIlV026AAYGWy?si=3_J5DsWHS9GvaNmyis94jQ

Author Bio

Margaret Noel (she, her, hers) is a first-year student in the MA, Counselling Psychology program at the University of British Columbia and a former varsity athlete who competed in Track and Field and Cross Country at SFU. Her interest in embodiment and body image stems from her own experience healing her relationship to her body through the practice of embodiment. Along with her colleague, Mihaela Launeanu, PhD, RCC, she is a Co-founder of the podcast “Befriending the Body” that raises awareness about body culture, provides education about how body image ideals are adopted and manifested into our lives, and provides offerings for individuals to embrace an embodied way of living. 

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