Thursday, October 26, 2017

How we talk about bodies matters

Because I am restarting this blog to talk about healing justice, I am starting with some fundamental pieces that feel, for me, like the underbelly foundation in how we hold this work. They are not offered as the capital T "truth" but rather like poetry, like ceremony, like song. I want to be in conversation with you, with the connection of all life. I am most interested in how these words resonate in your life, in your body, in how you experience your breath.

We didn’t ask for it. We didn’t create it, but it’s true. Every time we talk about bodies and healing, we are in relationship to histories and beliefs about what is normal and what is not. These histories and beliefs carry invisible assumptions as heavy as gravity.


Many of our people had some belief or practice that saw their kin with different physical bodies or different ways of expressing or different experiences of their senses as evil or possessed by spirits or a danger to the community as a whole. Not all of our people believed this. Some saw those who were different as gifts, as beings in closer relationship to the sacred. But those European histories that first colonized this land and created the mainstream beliefs that define healthcare and religion and politics come from histories of torturing, killing or separating those who were seen as physically, emotionally or mentally different. It wasn’t and isn’t only European histories that had violent ways of dealing with difference. For the purpose of talking about culture in the US, I am writing here about Eurocentrism but please learn and know your own histories. Very few of us come from people who knew how to love radical difference within our intimate spaces, even before we were colonized.

As scientific ways of thinking began to define European culture in the 1800s, this added a new layer of defining the body. Now the science of anatomy, of medicine, of health and wellness began to define “normal” and “abnormal” and to create public policies for managing society along these lines. Who was and is defined as normal shifted over time but most often it included people with physical impairments including cognitive differences, gender non-conforming people, those seen as delinquent or deviant or criminal, and those who are raced as not white. Eugenics developed along with the theory of evolution as a respected science focused on creating the “perfect” race.

This is not a history that is finished. The collective trauma of murdering our own kin because someone defines them as inferior is unfinished and shows up again and again as policies that define any person as diseased and therefore not worth having control over the meaning of their own life. This includes how conversations about assisted suicide unfold, racialized beliefs about who is more violent and who is smarter and who is more generous, how healthcare policies are defined and how healthcare expenses are treated, how accessibility to public and private spaces is supported or dismissed, the obsession with super fit bodies, making assumptions about gender and experience based on the genitalia or our perception of the body in front of us, the use of the words crazy or insane or foolish to dismiss anyone you disagree with, the invisibility of mental health struggles, the assumption of a certain kind of neurotypical cognitionl, the physical and mental and emotional assumptions made in movement spaces where liberatory political work demands long hours of physical and mental energy, and in every space where people talk about healing.

I have heard many different healers use words like “whole” when referring to where someone’s body needs to be. I have heard many healers talk with community members about the outcomes of doing healing work: feeling better, feeling more connected, being stronger, better, faster, just like Superman. I struggle with this whenever I talk about healing - and usually try to only talk about trauma as disconnection and healing as connection - and to then be clear that what connection feels like is defined by the person who wants to heal and NOT by anyone else.

Eli Clare talks about much of this in his book, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. If you identify as a healer or healing practitioner, read this. Now. Assume that even as you are doing powerful work in support of the person you show up for, you are also re-entrenching a history of ableism that slides its way into every sentence that you speak, every assumption that you make. All trauma is collective and as people who care about healing justice, we don’t get to claim our own work as healers without directly attending to disability justice.

There is work to do. Deep work that is dealing directly with how histories of violence are held in the cells of the body. There is also deep work to do about not holding on to what the idea of transformation or liberation looks like. There is deep work to do as healers about not assuming what is normal or valuable and what is not. And there is deep work to do about separating the many different ways that a life experiences itself and allowing that life to define for itself and within relationship to its chosen communities how it wants to define healing.


I make mistakes every single day. In the morning before I practice and when I pray, I ask for help in showing up in the best way that honors the sovereignty of the individual and collective lives in front of me while also working to stop the histories that negatively impact their sense of possibility. As healers or people committed to healing justice, let’s spend the rest of our lives doing a better job of not getting in their way because of the violent histories about wellness and bodies that inform the very practices that we use in support of their liberation.




The image at the top of this page is of a slime mold, the first multicellular reproductive organisms or our shared first mother. When a slime mold is split into parts, it finds its ways back to reform together. And when a slime mold learns, it learns instantaneously, outside of linear time.

4 comments:

Caspian Wirth-Petrik said...

I cherish the clarity and heart of trauma being disconnection and healing connection in the ways that each of us knows this in our bodies. Thank you for the book recommendation as well and the lessons from mold.

Caspian Wirth-Petrik said...

Thank you for the poetry, ceremony, and song.

Susan said...

Caspian, thank you so much for your comments! I just got so excited to have comments here. I truly appreciate it.

Mkali Hashiki said...

I heard Betty Martin say this once when asked what is healing: “Gaining access to more of ourselves.” I believe trauma (of all kinds) cuts us off from part of ourselves, so healing or integrating trauma is gaining or regaining that access. Thank you for the book rec!