What does embodiment mean? And what is it like to be embodied?
These are questions I hadn’t spent much time thinking about until a recent discussion with others on this topic. And in that discussion, one interesting point came up related to Christmas.
Namely, even if you don’t believe in the story of Jesus’s birth, it’s intriguing to consider the idea of a god choosing to become embodied in human form. And if you think about that, does it change how you think about and relate to your own body?
I’d never quite considered it that way, but it did make me take stock of how I think about my body. After all, if a human body is worthy of being inhabited by a divine presence, isn’t it something I should honor and treasure and respect?
Not that I felt that way when I was younger – quite the opposite. I had no kind feelings for my body when I was struggling with weight. For me, honor and respect were the last things I felt when I saw the numbers on the scale creep steadily upward – 160, 180, 200, 240, 259. I felt betrayed by it, hating it every time I had to buy new clothes, climb a flight of stairs, put on a seatbelt, wedge myself behind too-small desks, feel my thighs chafe raw, saw my image in a mirror or reflected in someone else’s eyes.
The message I got, loud and clear, was that the only bodies worthy of honor and respect were the thin ones. Others need not apply. After all, what spark of divine would choose to inhabit a body as mine?
Even when I discovered the old goddess figures, of women like me whose breasts, stomach, and hips rounded them out into something like a sphere, I couldn’t accept my body as part of me. Those images came too late, and they were not enough to hold back the tide of other images and beliefs. Maybe if I had found them sooner, or if they had been reinforced somehow by others, but it was not to be.
Most of the time I could successfully ignore my body, until something specific would remind me – and nothing did that more effectively than going to Baxter State Park every summer and seeing Mt. Katahdin and know it was practically as far outside my reach as the moon.
The irony is that these days, hiking is one of the times I feel most embodied, with no separation between my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves – I simply am, a unified being.
Unlike my earlier years, though, the emotion that rises when I hike is not despair, self-disgust, or anguish. It is simple joy, and also pride and respect for my body and its capabilities.
So if I think about embodiment now, I can imagine that a human body is worthy of housing something sacred. Even though I don’t believe in an external divine presence, I can consider the spark of consciousness within me as sacred, whatever it is that allows me to be, to feel and think and act. And my body is unquestionably part of that.
Furthermore, I would not want to go back to my earlier division, to think of myself only as a head encumbered by this unwieldy flesh. The flesh is part of what brings pleasure, with a touch or a favorite scent or delicious food or the sounds of music and laughter. If I were a god or goddess, existing only as some intangible force, I can well imagine that this would be worth experiencing.
I do wish I could have found ways to better accept and connect with my younger body, but at least I have that peace now. And I hope that each child born, today or any other day, is able to recognize the wonder and worth of their body, even when it’s not exactly the way we’d want it, and find a way to honor it as part of their whole being.
And for all of us who are no longer children, may we, too, take joy in what our bodies bring, and find ways to celebrate them all year.