Bringing It Back to the Body

Bringing It Back to the Body June 29, 2018

Teaching a class about the body is, obviously, an embodied experience. I found a great way to highlight that, even as I was frantically trying to import knowledge into my students’ brains.

Photo by The Climate Reality Project from Unsplash. In public domain.

Providing a strange but much-needed contrast to my giant lecture class last semester was my small seminar class titled The Body and Society. I had to take a completely different approach (and flipping between the two no doubt accounted for some of the reason I was so frazzled all semester), but I found something that really worked: bringing it back to the body.

See, being a body scholar is weird. It’s just inherently strange to use words and concepts and theories to try to understand the nature of embodiment, the construction of mind-body dualism, the differential representation of bodies in folklore and culture, the medicalization of bodies… you get the idea. Accounting for the body is body a mental and embodied process, but often the mental side takes precedence, as is often the case in a somatophobic society.

Because I’m a nerd who likes alliteration, I structured the course into five main units: an initial unit explaining key concepts and frameworks (embodiment, mind/body dualism, gender/sex/sexuality, race and ethnicity, disability and trauma) followed by units I (sometimes cheekily) titled Beautiful Bodies, Birthing Bodies, Bad Bodies, and Bizarre Bodies. We covered everything from tattoos and trance dancing to hysteria and circus freaks/enfreakment. And of course I worked in syphilis. Since this was an anthropology class, we did a few fieldwork papers as well as research papers.

I had a great group of students who were willing to come with me on a journey about the body in various cultures, including our own, and I think it helps that my course was an elective so they already arrived with some buy-in. But there were three things I did that I think improved the course greatly:

  1. Regular embodiment exercises in class
  2. Selectively sharing personal narratives
  3. Employing the phrase “bring it back to the body”

Regarding the embodiment exercises, I cautioned my students on the first day that we would be doing the occasional move-our-bodies thing in class that might feel awkward or weird, but that I would take care of them and would try not to put them in a situation that was really uncomfortable, triggering, inappropriate, or dangerous. So, on day one, that meant we walked around the classroom with me calling out prompts to pay attention to how we were walking: what touched down first, your toes or heels? What happens if you straighten or bend your knees more than usual? And so on. Then we stood around and reflected on the experience. And yes, it was awkward, but it led to some new realizations.

I wasn’t able to include an embodied exercise in every class session; sometimes we had too much material to get through. Sometimes I didn’t want to interrupt a guest speaker (and I managed to convince 4 people to come talk to my class that semester! I feel very accomplished at my persuasive skills, haha, and no doubt my students benefited from hearing from someone other than me). But we did these exercises more often than not. Notable ones include:

  • Using the Health Privilege activity to teach with physical movement how privilege impacts us
  • Getting us up to do a simple stretch in the middle of a long lecture
  • Teaching a hand/wrist movement called a floreo in our belly dance unit (because I figured that would be less threatening than the more wiggly moves, though I also taught how to do a belly roll while everyone was seated and I think that was a hit because it was so challenging in a concrete and non-threatening way, since no one could see them try it)
  • Teaching how to spin while spotting vs. not spotting during our unit on trance dances and spirit possession
  • Using a guided meditation involving breathing and connecting with each of your senses after a heavy lecture on trauma

These were all pretty successful, and I got the feeling that my students would have liked more of these exercises. I’ll see what comes up on evals!

Regarding personal sharing, I always try to be strategic about that in classes I teach. It’s obviously not The Me Show, but knowing a little about me as a person both helps humanize me as an academic and also helps situate the class in terms of why I planned it the way I did. So in our unit on fatphobia, I talked a bit about my own weight struggles, including mentioning how according to the BMI (which is bunk), I’m overweight despite being in some of the best shape of my life. And I think that because I was open to talking about myself a bit, students felt comfortable sharing about their lives. I had a handful of athletes, for example, who reacted very strongly to the feminist classic “Throwing Like a Girl” by Iris Marion Young, and we had a great conversation about the experiences of female athletes.

Regarding the phrase, “bring(ing) it back to the body,” that became my verbal touchstone for reminding everyone that this was a class on bodies, and we always had to consider how what we were talking about impacts, or is impacted by, the human body. Talking about the history of slavery in building up the U.S.? Bring it back to the body. Conversing about mental health stigma? Bring it back to the body. Sex addiction and hypersexuality? Bring it back to the body.

What I wanted my students to grasp – and what both the embodiment exercises and the reminder to bring it back to the body helped with – was that our bodies mediate our social existence as well as our physical existence. All the data we take in comes through our senses, and those sense are impacted both by our environments and upbringings as well as how we categorize the senses philosophically. Our worldviews tell us whose senses are sharper, and whose/which are to be believed. And so on. None of this is neutral. None of this is given. Bodies are political, in the same way that desires are, and studying them can tell us a lot about how power works in this world.

See also: The Body in Folklore Keynote

Not every class will have an easy-on-the-ears phrase that encapsulates the courses’s themes quite so tidily. But this worked so well that I’m tempted to come up with similar phrases for each class I teach, to see if I can create a catch phrase that helps remind students of our main goals for being there.

In my mind, it’s a deeply feminist act to foreground the body in academic spaces. People who are perceived to be more embodied – women, people of color, trans people, sex workers, and so on – are often looked down upon, thanks in part to somatophobia. Teaching about embodied stigma and deviance is one of my modes of academic activism, because I’m training future doctors, social workers, educators, and citizens to have these ideas on their radar every time they interact with others, both personally and professionally.

So yeah. That was a perk of the last semester. To preen for a moment, I feel like I’m extraordinarily good at getting people to consider bodies and embodiment, which I believe is a much-needed area of dialogue and education. It’s interdisciplinary, it’s relevant to everyone, and best of all, it’s fun and fulfilling to consider.

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