Physical Biographies: Sensations of the Moving Body

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When Listening Is Hard to Hear

The voice of my body, once almost inaudible, grew to the pitch of a hospital siren when we were trying to conceive. I didn’t know how to mute the voice that spoke of every motion in my womb, the different scent of sweat approaching my menstrual cycle, the sharp thuds in my breast alerting to the approaching blood. I was attuned to each twinge in my womb, believing it was a sign of pregnancy. I’d imagine the sperm scrambling up my cervix and diving into my fallopian tubes so vividly that it was like I had BBC Bitesize biology videos playing in my mind.  Every motion was a sign of fertility, until the blood came. And when it came, it didn’t just mean my womb was emptying itself, it meant death of another egg, it meant there was no baby.

Trying to make a baby DIY style with a donor shifted the boundaries of physical intimacy between me and my wife, who inseminated me with a Calpol syringe and periodically checked my cervix with a plastic vaginal spec from eBay.  Our desperation to conceive devoured any logical though. We were practically ravenous to become parents: every male face –the chain-smoking brother-in-law with six kids or the pre university work colleague– became ‘potential’ donors.

The boundaries within my body shifted too, they blurred. Once, I felt a tug inside my right ovary, and the motion made me jolt and immediately think, I’m pregnant. I was certain about this, but I still needed to see two pink lines. I did, a week later. Although, nine weeks after the positive test, I didn’t feel pregnant anymore; an energy of dullness grew from my abdomen. My wife felt it too.

An ultrasound scan confirmed there was no longer a heartbeat.

When I choose to listen and trust the nuances of my body, they become lyrical. I hear their frequencies, subtle shifts, and stories, yet, when that energy moves into interpretation, the meaning of the sensation gets lost in translation. Because the pulls of what the body wants/desires vs physical and gut knowing exist in a complex paradigm, attempting to fathom what interoceptive sensations really mean is complicated. For example, I sensed/felt/perceived an energy which, at my core, made me think I wasn’t pregnant anymore, but I convinced myself I was until the facts were presented to me. When we do not want something to be true, we have a great capacity to deny our bodily sensations.

Listening to the body means learning how to shake off the incoming data of social expectations, desire, normality, and centre ourselves in sensation, trusting the self.

As a somatic movement facilitator and dancer, I depend on personal intimacy to move and shape my body in visually desirable ways, to hear my own inner movements, and respond to the energy of others in a reciprocal relationship. Throughout this essay, I will explore how the language of the body can be more intimate than sharing words, and how this depth of intimacy can be uncomfortable or threatening, depending on a person’s lived experiences and identities.

 

Moving the Body with Intimacy

I hadn’t spoken a word, yet you understood everything I said. I heard you breathe in response, an exhale rushing over your lips, running into the air before returning. The half-moon of my face pressed onto your upper back absorbing the flow of lungs expanding and contracting, the oxygen swimming between us. My right arm reached into space, past your ribs, I curled fingers in a slow dance of stretch and surrender, playing with the folds of bones closing, closing, then opening. You wrapped a hand over mine, gently covering, and then releasing. The warmth lasted on the back of my hand like a print in the snow. That gesture was everything I needed.

Dancing and moving with another person or group of people can be seen as a ritual practice. All over the world, dance animates or accompanies celebration, marking ritual, release, or the acquisition of ecstasy. When we share physical space, we begin to understand the flesh body, how it reaches, how it tells stories by being, moving, and twisting. We get to know each other’s patterns, energy, and histories, giving us a sense of each other. Everything that has happened to us is kept inside our bodies, and when learn other bodies, we also learn their histories.

 The parameters of my body delineate where I meet the world, and where the world is kept inside of me.  The surface of my body is a map, muscles the landscape, this flesh having arrived before words.

Have you ever met someone on the dance floor, moved in the intimacy of their kinesphere, touched the warmth of their skin before knowing their name? Have you ever entangled yourself in the wordless space of fingertips touching fingertips, eyes meeting eyes? Dance is a form of communion. We begin to know each other through movement, a knowing that is, essentially, not of word.

 

The Body Can’t Do the Things It Does Not Remember

The privilege of listening to the body requires certain conditions: a suitable environment, safety, and trust. When we are invited into restorative spaces with a facilitator, we need to be offered a mutual authenticity that allows us to relax and feel a sense of safety. Some of our lived experiences may disrupt the way movement can be beneficial; for example, if we are from the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) community, our bodies may feel restricted or alert in the presence of a non BIPOC facilitator. To be vulnerable, we need to believe that the facilitator’s arms are strong enough to hold us. Because the body of colour has been a site of oppression for decades and generations, the dynamics of race continue to affect how our bodies are met and received in the world (Menakam, 2019).

Belonging to both African and White British heritage, I am light skinned, and I move through the world occupying a dual space. I recognise that my light skin offers me certain privileges, affecting how I am seen.  But for me, my skin is typically the first thing I’m aware of when I enter a space: if I’m the only brown body. This affects my relationship to the space: am I at home, am I safe, am I welcome? If a body has not felt safe in spaces where they’ve been a minority, they cannot remember how to feel safe. Safety cannot be taken for granted; it can only grow by learning to trust the self, then the other. It is this practice by which the body can learn the things it has not remembered. And then it can do the things it newly knows.

 

On Being Vulnerable, On Being Seen

To share a memory is to put a body into words – Sara Ahmed

I didn’t know how to hide myself on the dance floor, my body became an open book, a map of history I’d previously buried. I saw a person seeing me, felt the contents of myself laid open. In one way the connection felt warming, in another, I experienced fear about what they could see in me, as if my core was unworthy, revealing a dark truth. I chose to continue moving, the more I moved the less I was able to hide. I kept unravelling myself on the studio floor, kept meeting other’s souls through eyes, learning to see them as they see me. Moment by moment, the fear subsided, each time the fear of being truly vulnerable, of being truly seen a little less heavy.

 Once I heard the word intimacy broken down into the phrase: in-to-me-see. The separation of the sounds created a new definition, and intimacy meant exactly this: seeing into me. We know that humans are innately wired for connection, and intimacy through physical relationship is the origin story of our developmental history. Essentially, our indigenous language is movement, our first means of connection. Nevertheless, humans struggle with intimacy, and we find connection complex. Sometimes listening to the body poses challenges because the body we have might not be the right fit. We might resent the sex we inherited or were assigned, or the abilities of our bodies, or that the body is in chronic pain. This misalignment can pose a barrier to self-connection and queries the function of somatic awareness. When feeling uncomfortable in our skin, we may enlarge the minute moments of comfort or joy in the body and dwell with them. These moments of ease are the landmarks of interoceptive discovery, part of the work of learning the body from within. Reclamation of the somatic body and waking to a multitude of senses can reveal that the body is attached to pain, memory, trauma, and discomfort. When we begin to listen, we hear the stories the body has remembered, and this can be painful. When the body reveals something, it is usually because it wants to be witnessed. I urge the witnessing to be acknowledged because it is within the revelations of heartache that we open to heal.

I abandon myself, switch off the thud in my chest, turn away from the sweat misting on my hands, and bury the voice of my gut. Do you remember the last time you said ‘yes’ when you meant ‘no’? When your whole body repelled against the thing offered, and still you permitted it? These are the moments we harm ourselves, deny the truth, and store the consequence of pain in our cells. We have to learn to dig the graves of our past discomfort, set the aching free, shake it off. Shake it all off.

 

Mixed Body/Brown Body

Most of my life I have been interested in my own ancestry. This is largely because my paternal father, who is mixed heritage, was adopted, meaning any affiliation with my West African roots began and ended with him.  Additionally, I never lived with both of my parents together, and when with my father, I felt a connection to our shared brownness. Living with my mother and white siblings, I developed a contrasting awareness of them and me.  The difference in my body was notable: I had a sense of belonging with my father, and with my mother, my attention was often focused on our external environments.

As an adult, I explored my mixed heritage identity in combination with the history I learned. I viewed my body as a site of opposing DNA, essentially the colonised and the coloniser. Coloniser = white body supremacy, taking anything, they desired.  Colonised = those who were subject to the forcible rape of their culture, heritage, land, and women’s bodies. This view is simplistic, but it is a place I occupied.  Now, I no longer inhabit a place of contradiction with my brown body, but I still notice it against white walls in white institutions. I notice it in the circle of white faces. I am familiar with the sensations of not feeling at home, I am accustomed to existing on the margins and am learning to exist more fully inside my skin.

 

Body Biography

Bodies are the place where everything begins and everything ends. The fierce intimacy of existing becomes a multifaceted phenomenon. The type of closeness we feel to another can be expressed through the physical, intimate relationship of our bodies in proximity, doing things like sharing food or a kiss. However, closeness by proximity does not always imply connection or denote the absence of loneliness. Closeness occurs when a connection is felt through trust between bodies, authenticity in relationships, and safety to exist as we are.  We are wired to find comfort in each other, but because BIPOC bodies experience a complex history of disproportionate violence, our bodies may inherit an alertness to safety ques in body language. And although most of our bodies are anatomically similar, the social construction of race has divided how we view bodies different from out own.

There is an extensive history of experience residing just under our skin. By listening, we can learn our own stories, tell those stories through shapes and movements, and then, perhaps, with words. By expanding the reach of our hands, regulating our nervous systems, together we can grow in our ability to connect.

I urge you to move a little closer, be a little louder, listen a little harder. Move in ways that release joy in your world.

 

References cited

Menakem, R. (2021) My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and Bodies. London: Penguin Books.

Ahmed, S. (2017) Living a feminist Life. Duke University Press Books.

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