I learned to have a body like this: laying on a thin carpet behind a shelf of toys, a few feet from a half-dozen other twelve-year-olds doing the same. The babysitting training instructor had us each relax, our limbs extended, leading by example for how to help little ones sleep.
“Imagine your toes,” she said, her voice low and even. “Think of them becoming wet cement. They’re sinking into the floor.”
My toes became dense grey masses, sagging away from my flesh.
“Now the balls of your feet,” she murmured. “Wet cement. Heavy.”
In their new weight, the top ends of my feet dragged down, drooping thickly against the resistance of my heels.
“And into your arches. They’re sinking, becoming part of the floor.”
Wet cement enveloped me, inching its way over my heels, ankles, shins; steadily, my legs were no longer mine but part of the floor below. I thought of my toes, but they did not twitch in reaction; they felt so distant, I wondered if I could move them at all.
The sinking passed over my pelvis and into my gut, and I waited with tension for it to reach my ribs; for the instructor to say, “And now your chest is wet cement, leaden and bowed,” but she did not. She said, “You may get up now.”
We roused groggily; the feeling in my body returned. I almost wished it hadn’t. The rush of sensation wasn’t like shaking off pins and needles or dull pain; it was a complete reversal, from utter bliss and detachment to complete existence: this is my body, these are its parts, whether I choose them or not.
In the years since, I’ve returned to the exercise to calm myself. It can reach my ribs now, and further, but the cement wearies below my neck. I cannot sink my head away from the present. I cannot force my mind into the ground.
My mind does not always love my body. I want it to change, sometimes—less often than I once did. I have made my peace with it. Ever since I have settled comfortably into its confines, I am not anxious about its existence. My body does not cause me abject horror.
I’ve come to recognize this mutual tolerance my body and I maintain for one another (“body neutrality”) as a blessing. I once believed surgical alterations of the body were marks of vanity, that such procedures were nonessential, perhaps superfluous. But that is puritanical and reductive. Bodies and selves negotiate Eurocentric beauty norms, targeted social pressure, dysphoria, heteronormative models of being. To have a body can be to despise your prison of flesh, to seek avenues for the self to escape. Anything from a haircut to a tummy tuck to top surgery can have a life-altering impact on one’s experience of self.
Bodies fail our expectations; that is what it is to be embodied.
They betray us. Cells multiply that shouldn’t; synapses fail; muscles grow stiff and bones resist our movements. We might not notice right away; we might wait days or months or years before we bother to ask, bother to learn what we can or should do differently, if anything. Or we might die before we have a chance, because that is the wont of these bodies of ours.
Our perceptions of ourselves may be incongruous with the bodies we inhabit. They are flat where we want curves, rolled where we want tone, hairy where we seek silky smoothness, and balding where we desire luscious locks. They become corrupted, ill or broken or some combination thereof.
When embodied, we are responsible for the actions of our bodies. The actions may result wholly of our biology, of decisions determined by bacteria and chemicals in our brains. They may result from the state of our body, from pain or reflex or something amiss that we can’t name but find influential in our actions. We are responsible for them all.
We seek embodiment even in experiences that reside in the mind, as our minds persist to reside in our bodies. Consider the spiritual life: even the most intellectually studied spiritual experience of mind is expected to manifest in the body through tingles or tremors or trembles. Palpitations of the heart and thickness in the throat we deem as proof that a spiritual encounter is not just mental; it is physical support for experiences we cannot explain. We embody our spirituality to create meaning.
Outside of our minds, in a world that won’t pause for fantasies of embodiment, we’re reminded to care for our bodies. We must drink right, eat right, abstain from the correct substances and engage with others. We must demand much physically of our bodies, or else they will demand more physically of us; they will betray us sooner if we do not balance weight and cardio, energy and relaxation, sun exposure and blue light and all the other trappings of the world. We must discern our embodiment from these relentless instructions, hoping to escape our bodies so that we might live in them longer.
If it’s too much, if our minds can’t handle what they must perform for our bodies, we might simply rest. Allow our toes to become saturated cement and sink, still and steady, slowing our bodies so we can float free.