“Everything we know, everything we do, and everything we are is mediated by the body.”
– Joan C. Chrisler and Ingrid Johnston-Robledo, Woman’s Embodied Self: Feminist Perspectives on Identity and Image
Embodiment is a concept originating with the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who noted that we experience our humanity through and with our bodies. This is not an isolated experience but one that is impacted by interactions with others. The embodied self is a psychospiritual concept that hosts existential questions of “Who am I? What am I? Where does my value lay?”
In addition, we experience our bodies in a cultural context. Body parts and experiences may be objectified (e.g., breasts, buttocks) or medicalized (e.g., pregnancy). Furthermore, there appears to be social sanction around when a body or body part is acceptable and when it is not, and the resolve is a lifelong relationship of self-projects and self-loathing. For example, Marilyn Yalom, a feminist author and cultural historian, described the psychosocial and political history of the breast in her book A History of the Breast. As stated in the book’s blurb:
Through the centuries, the breast has been laden with hugely powerful and contradictory meanings. There is the “good breast” of reverence and life, the breast that nourishes infants and entire communities, as depicted in ancient idols, fifteenth-century Italian Madonnas, and representations of equality in the French Revolution. Then there is the “bad breast” of Ezekiel’s wanton harlots, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, and the torpedo-breasted dominatrix, symbolizing enticement and aggression.
Therefore, there are sociocultural prescriptions to the body, including that of gender. In their 1987 article “Doing Gender,” Candace West and Don Zimmerman argue that gender is a performance that people “do” that is based on social norms. A person may choose to perform gender in a normative way (cisgender), with their preferred gender that may differ from the one assigned at birth (transgender) or in a way that feels more genuine.
Our relationship with our bodies is complex. It is informed by society’s view of our bodies. The size, shape, skin color and hair texture inform our experiences, along with the gender we perform. Additionally, illness and injury to the body affects our image of self in the context of society’s understanding of ableness. An attempt to “fit in” to normative standards may result in efforts to alter our physical appearance or disregard and disconnect from our embodied self.
Our relationship with our bodies can be fraught with neglect and dissociation as we learn to ignore the many messages it sends to us. We ignore the hunger and push through lunch. We hold our bladder until we are dizzy with urge. We shiver or sweat, ignoring the clear signals. We pull all-nighters when our body is begging for rest. We discount and dismiss the value of our physicality and dissociate from our embodied self.
The embodied self can be experienced in a positive or negative manner, and it is strongly related to self-esteem, self-image, and one’s satisfaction with personal and sexual intimacy. A positive sense of an embodied self is associated with autonomy, functionality, joy and fulfillment. However, chronic illness, disability and accidents, and negative social sanctions can result in a sense of disembodiment. For example, a former track athlete loses his legs during combat, the neurological impact of a stroke leaves a brilliant novelist unable to write a sentence, or a 17-year-old African American girl asks her parents for plastic surgery to “make her nose more normal” (i.e., conform to an unrealistic, Western beauty standard).
In my own research, I encountered a 35-year-old woman who had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and she described her body after a complete double mastectomy and oophorectomy in the following way:
I felt like a freak. I had lost my hair from the chemotherapy. What was left from my 34C cups were scars and lopsided breasts with tattooed nipples. I didn’t recognize the body in the mirror.
After someone experiences a sense of disembodiment, the sociocultural context of healthism (e.g., I have cancer.), medicalism (e.g., my body is subject to scans and treatments making it a medical object), sexism (e.g., I am a female but now I do not have breasts and reproductive organs), ageism (e.g., I am only 35 but my treatments caused me to have early menopause) and ableism (e.g., I cannot do the things other 35-year-old women can do) further challenges their ability to reconnect with their body.
Reconnection to self
Researchers Niva Piran and Tanya Teall describe positive embodiment in their article “The developmental theory of embodiment” as one with “agency, self-care, and joyfulness.” Therefore, healthy connection, reconnection and adaptation to the body requires the experience of physical and mental liberation and social empowerment. This has implications when working with marginalized populations. For example, the 17-year-old African American girl who wanted to change her appearance due to negative social constructs must cultivate an appreciation and a liberation of her embodied self.
Learning to adapt to the alterations of the body is greatly impacted by the previous connection to body. If a person’s self-worth was associated to the objectification of body as beautiful, then a disfigurement may attack one’s self-worth — “I am not ‘pretty’ therefore I am no longer valuable.” However, befriending the body in a way that affords compassion can be empowering. For example, the metastatic breast cancer survivor previously mentioned said during counseling,
I don’t want lopsided breasts and tattooed nipples. I am a seventh-degree black belt in karate. I want to remove these false pretenses and replace them with a tattoo of a warrior’s breast plate. This is how I see my body now. This is empowering!
Counselors can encourage clients to engage in physical approaches such as yoga, breathwork, martial arts or free-form dancing (e.g., Nia — a holistic fitness practice that combines dance, martial arts and mindfulness) to help them reconnect to their physicality. And because being in nature is a multisensory approach to engaging the body, counselors can recommend clients to spend time in the natural world either in green spaces (e.g., forests, parks) or blue spaces (e.g., oceans, lakes, rivers).
Reconnection to others
A chronic diagnosis or injury can alter not only one’s physicality but also their social connections. The new diagnosis and treatment often test previous social supports and challenge friendships. For example, the combat vet who returned with a double amputation of his legs noticed his priorities were different from his civilian friends. “I was struggling to learn how to walk,” he recalled, “and they [his friends] were complaining about gas prices. We just didn’t have anything in common any longer.”
Clients can reconnect with their embodied self by finding others who share similar experiences and bodily appearances. I connected the combat vet with other soldiers with amputations who also identified as athletes and trained regularly. The physical connection to his body in an empowering way was part of his healing.
In addition to social supports, it is important to become reacquainted to intimate partners. This can be a difficult task because few clinicians or providers invite discussion around sexual and personal intimacy in the recovery process. However, it is important to begin this exploration to discover new and creative ways to experience the new body in a sensual and sexually satisfying way. Counselors can begin the dialogue by normalizing and validating that when we are disconnected from our bodies we are often disconnected from others and this lack of intimacy crosses into our personal and sexual intimacy behavior. Counselors can also provide insight into this connection and refer to sex therapists and sexologists when needed.
Reconnection to sacredness
Counselors can help clients learn to experience their bodies in the present moment by bringing their attention to their physicality in the here and now. When we fully embrace and experience this physicality of our bodies, we allow for opportunities of awe and wonder. The first snowflake melting on our tongue. The smell of homemade gingerbread. Crossing the finish line of that first 5K race. Reaching the highest peak of a hike and overlooking the terrain below. Pausing a moment after a strong paddle to the middle of a lake. The pain and pleasure of birth and then skin-to-skin contact that warms this precious body.
Our bodies are beautifully made, and our embodied experiences can be transcendent. Rediscovering the body in this way is not only empowering but also sacred.
Role of mental health providers
As mental health providers, we have the privilege of entering this vulnerable world of recovery and rediscovery. We can validate and normalize the incredible losses (both visible and invisible). We can create a space for the tasks of grief.
In addition to addressing the grief and loss, we can cultivate a bottom-up approach to recovery. Rather than emphasize the cognitive reprisal of the experience and the resulting new body, we can create a multisensory therapeutic space that emphasizes the physical self, the embodied self.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online master’s in clinical counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.