Tag Archives: body issues

Why we’re afraid to be in our bodies

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It is with good reason that many of us don’t feel safe in our bodies.

Don’t know how ya’ll were raised up, but in the Southern Baptist family I grew up in, the body– especially the female body– was dirty, shameful, yucky, gross.  The fact that we are even on this planet means we did something wrong: Earth is a punishment.  The body would lead you astray, I was taught.  The body is corrupt and vile.
These ideas come from gross misinterpretations of Eden.  I’ve done a lot of pondering and questioning about how much more is in those stories in Genesis than most of us are told.  One article is here.  Whether or not you were raised in a church, if you’re in the West, these misconceptions impact how you see yourself, the planet, and your body.  Looking at these stories with my own eyes instead of accepting  (then rejecting) the interpretations I was raised with have gone a long way in my recovery and my relationship with my body.

Last week we worked with the Heart Chakra at Mood Management Monday .  One of the things that can block the Heart Chakra (and often the root of heart, circulatory, and lung issues) is holding on to anger and resentment.  Physical abuse, betrayal, unprocessed grief, shaming, and abandonment are all traumas that can impact the healthy functioning of our heart centers.  Once able to do that, though, our strength in finally grasping the lessons the heart center hold for us– forgiveness, unconditional love, letting go, trust, and compassion–is powerful indeed.

It was only after I mourned my loss of innocence that I realized that there’s no choice involved in optimism, enthusiasm, trust, and all the other components of child-like wonder if I’ve not experienced every reason to be pessimistic, withdrawn, and cynical.

As I started writing this, I’d prepared the materials for Monday’s class on the throat chakra since we’ll be travelling until Monday.  After running into this article about 21 Women holding signs of things their abusers have said to them, as well as this article about 21 Men holding signs of things their rapists said and standing in this soft spot between the heart and the throat- I knew I had address this very real reason why we run from our bodies– and why we have such a hard time talking about why so we can find our way back home to our bodies.   For more information about the project the pictures are from, check out Project Unbreakable

Bad things have happened here

Bad things have happened to far too many of our bodies.  1 in 3 women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime.  Numbers concerning men aren’t very reliable as so few men come forward to report their assaults.

No one believes me or cares what happened

Regardless of sex or gender, many people are met with disbelief, shaming messages, or even outright ridicule when they do come out and tell their story.   Its striking how many of the men that were sexually assaulted were called girls.  As much as I could write an entire post about all the ways calling someone a girl as an insult is completely f-ed up, here we can easily see how its used to shame, gain control over someone, and how it supports rape culture.  By calling these men (or then boys) girls, there is the idea that they are there to be fucked.  Literally and figuratively.  They are to be used and abused.  They are to keep silent about that abuse.

I’m not sure what happened.  They said I wanted it.  Did I?

I was molested as a child several times before my mom’s husband molested me.  Both my parents were alcoholics- my dad the sort that stayed gone and was cheating on the people he was cheating with, my mom the sort that wallowed in anger and bitterness.  Positive attention was a rare and exotic creature at my house.  Like all children, I desperately needed attention.  Like all girls, I was taught that being coy and sexy was the way to get it from men.  I didn’t know what it meant.  I was just acting the way I’d been taught.  I would be happy when I was getting attention, then scared and confused when it went to this dark muffled place where grownups would breathe weird.

The confusion continued into jr. high.  There was a junior that I had such a huge crush on- he was on the cross country team.  We’d stopped on the way home from a meet one day to make out.  I wanted to kiss him. That I wanted.  I didn’t want to be orally raped.  It smelled weird and looked weird and made me gag.  He said I wanted it, even though he was pushing my head down and keeping it down.  He said that I was sending signals.  That my mouth was so pretty he couldn’t help himself.

Being raised in an abusive home, my abusers projected their intentions on me all the time.  I didn’t know what I thought anymore and to this day have to work not to automatically assume the worst about something I’ve done or where my motives are.  Hard habit to break after spending my childhood wondering whether or not I had had the bad intentions my mom and grandma said I did.  I didn’t think I did, but it kinda made sense for me to… and now that they said it…
So did it work the same with boys?  Had I been asking for it by being so pretty?  Had  wanting to kiss like that meant I wanted all of it?  I wasn’t sure.  These are the things I thought about as I hoped and waited for him to call me later…

My body got me in to this mess to begin with

Every person that molested, assaulted, or raped me told me that I was so pretty they couldn’t help themselves.  I am not alone in this.  It is the double-bind women are put in:  worthless if they’re not fuckable, in danger if they are.  Unconsciously, I put on weight to protect myself.  To weed out those that would use me and those that would love me for who I am. It didn’t work to protect me any more than conservative floral dresses, following “the rules” or even hijab did, but it seems to be the security attempt that I have the hardest time shaking.  Its easy to think its my body’s fault I had those experiences.  Having a female body is a liability.  Having a hot female body is “asking for it.”

My body- my female body- was a big part of the reason I didn’t feel safe on this planet.

My mind was horrified, but my body reacted to it.  It betrayed me.

I am not alone in these sorts of stories.  In my years of teaching, I had many students disclose their stories to me.  Stories of confusion and ambivalence.  The more conservative the upbringing, the more confusion and ambivalence.  Normal, healthy sexual desire is pathologized in girls in America.  You’re a slut for even thinking about it.  Peggy Orenstein addresses this beautifully in her book School Girls, and ties it to our high teen pregnancy rates.  Its better to be “caught unawares” than to be the slut that thinks about it beforehand and takes contraception.  “How can you say no if you’re not allowed to say yes?” she asks.  Though the book was written in the early 90s, the recent discourse on contraception shows us that we haven’t moved forward much on this issue, and have more in common with Iran and Saudi Arabia in our approach and attitudes than the rest of the Western world.

Yet there are times when there is no ambivalence.  We don’t want it.  We know that.  But our bodies reacted anyway.  Sometimes even had orgasm.  The sense of betrayal by the body is deep and intense.  How could it have done that?  There is an assumption that the body’s reaction equals complicity.

 

 

Sexual development gets hijacked

If there’s a history of abuse, this becomes even more complicated.  The molestation shapes your sexuality.  That’s one of the many damages that sexual abuse does- it hijacks the child’s sexual development.  Instead of exploring their sexuality in their own way at their own pace, that development is steered by their abuser.  Porn can also hijack the sexual development. It is often used by abusers, which is why exposure to porn is listed as sexual abuse in the literature.

In many of my relationships, the sex was good- I was an equal player and my needs and desires were valued and met.  As a young woman, I took control of that, though.  If I wasn’t satisfied, I took over.  I didn’t wait for him to know what he was doing in order for me to be satisfied.  Yet in one of my major relationships, he didn’t want me to move, so I became passive physically.  Since I couldn’t use my body the way I wanted to, I went into my head.  A very strange and scary fantasy world began to take shape.  If any of those fantasies ever played out, I would be TERRIFIED.  It would be horrific.  But that’s what went through my head during those 5 years while my body laid still in whatever position.  My mind sexualized the lack of agency and fed it back to me to get off.  I’m still working to de-energize some of that.

I can’t talk about it

There are so many layers of input from our home environments, media depiction, religious upbringing, cultural mores– so many of which are conflicting and confusing, their very intention seems to be to gaslight us and knock us off center.  Added to the mix are all the emotions– all of which uncomfortable–that go with it.  Its hard to talk about it.  Its hard to find the words.  The experience is so wretchedly steeped in shame and fear and excruciating horrific vulnerability that its very difficult to stay in it long enough to even try to find words, let alone articulate all the layers upon layers upon layers that take us to the core of who we are.

Its too stuffy in here- I can’t breathe.

Its hard to talk about.  I’ve been like popcorn out of my chair since the Knowing that I had to write about this hit. I’ve got a million things to do.  We should be leaving in an hour.  I can write in on the road…

but I know I need to write it now.  I need to sit in this place of discomfort.  Breathe space enough for whatever needs to come up to come up.  Otherwise it stays stuck and and I end up acting like a robot- reacting to triggers- instead of the human being I am who has free will.

Breathe space around it. Whatever it is.

Air is the element of the heart chakra.  When difficult emotions or memories surface, they can feel suffocating- so of course the instinct is to do anything to get away from it.  Its where addiction starts.  Its often the core of procrastination.  We’ll shove the emotions down, and do anything to get away from them.

Breathe some space around them instead.  With every breathe, give them a little more space so they’re not up in your face anymore.  It will still be uncomfortable, but you’ll be able to breathe.  Keep breathing, and hear what they have to say.  Our emotions have good information to share with us, and listening to them is key to a healthy body and relationships with others.

1399803_600528526661954_549979472_oListen & Release

Emotions don’t want to hijack us and pull us into a deep dark pit and hold us hostage for months or even years, regardless of what our egos tell us when they begin to bubble up to the surface.  They just want to speak their piece and be heard– just like we do.  When they are fully felt, they leave.  Its that simple.  Its not easy, but it is simple.

When we deny them their voice, not only do we re-create the experience that sparked them until we do finally fully feel and release them, but they live in our bodies and cause all sorts of problems.  I’m also convinced that our physical metabolism is closely linked to our emotional metabolism.  If we’re holding on to emotions, we will hold on to fat no matter how well you eat or how much you exercise.

Befriend the body

During a trauma, there is too much going on for us to process all of it in the moment.  We are marvelous creatures with mechanisms built into our psyches and bodies to keep our fuses from completely overloading and blowing up.  The emotions we can’t process in the moment are stored until we have the ability and tools to be able to deal with them.  The body remembers everything.  There are times when we check out, but the body is still there- going through all of it, taking the hit for us until we’re able to sort things out and let it go.

It does this in addition to all of its daily chores of sifting through the air to get our oxygen, the blood to gain nutrients and release toxins, protecting us from invaders external and internal perpetually.  If you’re alive, your body is working overtime for you.

It really is our best friend.  Always here for us.  Always providing and helping us.  Like any friendship, there will be times when things are difficult or we don’t understand them.  Like any relationship, we have to learn to listen and strive to be compassionate, understanding, and just in our dealings.

Though the body was the locus of much of the pain, it is also the portal to release the pain.

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My body is not a problem to solve.

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When I was still living in Memphis, there was a woman, Barbara I met through the International Education  department that I bonded with immediately.  Neither of us were stick figures, and often complained to each other about the unsolicited “helpful advice” we got from strangers.  Both of us ate healthily and went to the gym at least 5 times a week, yet people made assumptions and felt compelled to shove metaphorical pamphlets in our hand about eating and exercise like those fundamentalists that stand on the corner on Bourbon Street and tell people the error of their drunken ways.  

One of my friends, T, never got such advice, though she was one of the most unhealthy people I knew.  I parked in the farthest parking lot so I could get at least a mile in just walking to and from my car, while she got several parking tickets a month for trying to park as close as possible to her classes.  She would have driven her car into an elevator if they’d let her.  She smoked 2 packs a day, had double cheeseburgers for dinner regularly and never exercised.  But she was a size 5 or something, so no one ever gave her a lecture about how they were “concerned for her health”… she met the beauty ideal, and that was all that mattered.

 

One night at a party, someone started their health-preaching at Barbara and she replied, “My body is not a topic of conversation.” When they kept on, she walked away.  I was stunned. And in awe.  How did she do that???  As compelled as people were to give me health advice, I was compelled to tell them all that I already did– far more than they suggested.  I did not sit on my butt all day eating twinkies, as they seemed to think.  It is not a simple formula- bodies are complex and far more goes into metabolism than most people care to think about.  

It bothered me deeply that people walked around thinking I was lazy.  That they insisted on holding on to simplistic ideas that don’t really work in the real world.  That they were judging me unfairly– based on a beauty standard that is only attainable with photoshop, rather than the health concern bullshit they claimed was their primary motivation.  It really, really REALLY bothered me.  So I was stunned that Barbara could shut them down that quickly and not set them straight.  That she could take her body off the table completely and not even engage in the topic.

As much as I resented that my body rather than my writing, my painting, my cooking, or my intellect were the focus of so many people’s view of me, I couldn’t drop it any more than they could.  I didn’t know how to take it off the table.  Three years in hijab would teach me how many years later, but that’s another story for another post.

What Barbara understood all those years ago that I’ve just picked up recently is articulated beautifully by Michele Lisenbury Christensen in her work on the elements of Masculine and Feminine Power.  To listen to her speak on the topic, check out the Shero’s School for Revolutionaries.   Regardless of our sex (or gender for that matter) we need a balance of the masculine and feminine to be healthy and truly functional, yet our society is heavily swayed towards the masculine.  

One of the paradigms she discusses is Providing  (masculine) & Nurturing  (feminine).  This pertains to the way we relate to others.  I would add that it also applies to how we relate to ourselves.  In explaining, Michele asked: “Do I hold you as a problem to be fixed, or a person?  

“Are resources needed here?  Or listening? Holding?

She went on to discuss how distorted Providing is that mean voice in our head that provides perpetual commentary, criticism, and “suggestions for improvement”.  I realize that it was my full identification with that mean voice in my head in my 20s that compelled me to engage with people in a topic I didn’t think should be brought up to begin with– my body.  Interesting that for the decade I was in The Netherlands–where its considered incredibly rude to talk about someone’s body or presume about their personal habits– no one talked about my body and weight came off.  I no longer felt fat, I no longer focused on the fat, so the fat went away.  I often wondered- in this land where I was on the short side of average instead of a looming Amazon woman 3 heads taller than most other women– if I’d grown up there if I ever would have developed the body image issues that led to the weight gain.  I thought I was fat, so I eventually became fat.  A little weight gain in my pre-eclampsic pregnancy, and others began to agree with me.  I took that on, and the weight came on even more.  The harder I worked to get rid of it, the more my metabolism slowed and the more stubborn the weight was.  Like the child told they will go nowhere losing all ambition, my body resolved to the fat label put upon it. 

 

We are so trained to do something.  All the time.  With everything.  We have great difficulty just being with something.   It bleeds into every area of our lives, and damages our relationships and erodes our peace of mind. Our Puritan heritage preaches that its not okay to let things just Be.  Its lazy.  Its permissive.  Its the door to chaos.  Anarchy.  Society will totally crumble if we’re not ever-vigilant.  If we don’t judge often and quickly, and condemn accordingly.  The papers are full of it, the news is full of it, and our heads are full of it. 

Thing is, its a lie.  A big fat hairy puss-filled seething boil of a lie.  It doesn’t make us better.  It deepens our shame and makes us worse.  It is the thing that takes us away from what we want directly into what we say we won’t tolerate. Pounding on a treadmill because we think we’re fat will keep us fat.  Loving our body and moving it in ways that bring us joy will bring us to Health.

Its work learning to be with your body.  Learning to be with your emotions.  Not analyze, not fix, not work on or improve, just Be.  Whether or not you were raised in a religion, bad churching has informed every part of our society.  We have this idea that if you’re doing it right, life will be easy.  If your life has difficulty, then you must have done something wrong.  I don’t know how that idea came from a religion with a guy being persecuted by both the fundamentalists of his own religion and the colonialist government in place to the point of dying the death saved only for traitors and terrorists, but it did.   So we pathologize all sorts of things that are perfectly normal, and in fact necessary for our development.  We think if we’re uncomfortable, there must be something wrong.  We numb by analyzing, diverting attention, eating, drinking, -holicism– anything really to avoid just being in our bodies and just feeling our emotions. 

Its caused a deficit of empathy in our society.  We don’t want to feel bad, so we default to distorted Providing instead of Nurturing.  We view everything and everyone– including ourselves and our emotions–as problems to be fixed rather than creatures to be held.  Its backwards.  Maybe there is a problem, maybe resources are needed, but if the connection isn’t made with the Being first, then the solutions applied will be oppressive rather empowering, and they will eventually backfire. 

My body reminded me of this in its latest letter to me.   Its voice is the exact opposite from the voice in my head: its loving and supportive.  There is a gentle strength that is so soothing and enlivening. Though I was raised in an environment where we went to church 5 times a week, my relationship with my body is my first real experience with agape.  At the time of the letter, I’d been focusing too intently on the symbolic meaning of things and it was getting stressful as I strove to figure it all out. “I appreciate your commitment to listening to me and learning my language” she said, ” but I am not a puzzle to be solved.  I am not a problem to be fixed.  Just love me. Listen to me, and we’ll figure it out as we go along.  You’re smart and you’re listening.  Don’t worry that you’ll miss it. I’ll let you know.”

Remember the same in your own walk and development.  As you’re learning to listen and working on the relationship you have with your body and your emotions, release the drive to do something with what comes up– create space where it can just be first.  So often, just allowing it to Be is the solution…