Coming Home to Embodiment

Reviewing: The Wisdom of Your Body by Hillary McBride

My relationship with my body is a living thing. At the age of 37 it feels warm and familiar and conversational, but it is also a relationship that has been through the trenches—animosity and frustration in my teens, disconnection and estrangement in my 20s and early 30s. It is a relationship informed by comments directed at my body, but also messages about bodies in general, and influences that may not seem directly connected to embodiment at all—my desires as shaped by living under late-stage capitalism, my academic focus, narratives of what it means to be transgender and what it means to be successful and what it means to be human.

I say “relationship” because I experience my body as having its own personality, its own means of communication, that is a part of me but also not the “me” I experience as the subject in conversations with my body. Working with my body in this way has been healing because it gives me the chance to affirmatively claim my body as someone I want to be in relationship with—not just because I have to, but because I have learned to see the way we can nurture each other and cultivate a sense of belonging within the system of self, whether or not we are being affirmed or held by those outside of it. So in some ways it may seem that I would disagree with psychologist and researcher Hillary McBride’s fundamental lens in this book: the idea that you ARE your body. And I do find that lens a little challenging—for some of us, particularly with complicating factors like dysphoria, it may not feel particularly liberating.

But at the same time, I’ve tried the approach of “self as mind” as a strategy for gender self-determination, and it didn’t really offer me honest ways to process my pain and work through the complexities of embodied experience. It also tended to mask the pain of living as a neurodivergent person in a brutal capitalist world so that I didn’t see how burnt out I was, nor how much I relied on others’ approval, until my body was actually screaming at me. Although I’d frame it more as “I am, through my body,” engaging in practices similar to the ones McBride explores here helped me to re-engage with my body, but also to connect with my own truth, recover from mental exhaustion, and experience the world as an integrated system, a “self” with multiple ways to communicate, sense, process, create, and recover.

This book is quite a gem, as it brings together threads from an array of disciplines that you would otherwise have to discover on your own, with really accessible explanations and a focus on starting right where you are, working with your body and not simply trying to mentally understand or explain it. McBride offers practical tools and relatable stories from her own experiences both working with clients and personally struggling with disordered eating and a traumatic car accident. But she also centers the cultural context for why embodiment can be so hard, showing how the worldview of a separate body and mind serves exploitative agendas. And throughout, she provides examples for how to have the kind of conversations with the body I’ve found so helpful, as a gentle way to build and repair relationship.

What is particularly notable about this book in comparison to others I’ve read on the topic is that while it does cover things you’ll find in a lot of feminist texts about beauty standards and body image, it gets both more philosophical and more concrete in using a somatic approach to creating a direct loving relationship with your body and exploring the body through a number of lenses, including sections on trauma, pain, sexuality, spirituality, emotional experience, and systemic oppression. McBride packs a lot in here, from emotional regulation to models of sexual response to the difference between immanence and transcendence in our understandings of the divine to epigenetics and how trauma needs to be processed in the body. She explores many different frameworks so that you can zoom in on areas of particular struggle, and the prompts and exercises at the end of each chapter go beyond surface-level. While I love a lot of the authors she sources and would recommend their books for a deeper dive, it’s nice to have a one-stop shop!

You’re going to get a real sense of how our culture normalizes war with the body, and how important it is to simply learn to listen to your body’s story. What trauma is your body holding? Does it desire pleasure? Movement? Touch? What does that desire look like for your specific body? This approach may be challenging for some, but as McBride writes: “Change does not happen through trying to trick ourselves out of a story we have been groomed to rehearse through our developing years. Rather, transformation happens from the ground up: when we have a new experience of ourselves and hold our attention on it long enough for it to sink in.”

While I will admit that in my personal experience, doing this work mentally did actually work somewhat—I moved from disordered eating to loving my belly, for example, largely through the “thought replacement” strategy McBride describes as ineffective—it took a very long time. And ultimately I relied on a certain degree of disembodiment to achieve the change, which ultimately caused its own problems! McBride frames embodiment as an experience of being fully alive, and in retrospect I can see how that mental approach of viewing myself as a brain in a vessel kept me from accessing some of the most beautiful parts of aliveness.

The approach McBride frames as curiosity, attention, sensation, and acceptance is a path to re-mapping self onto body that allows us access something truly divine, a kind of trust and belonging that no one can take away. Part of this is unlearning cultural scripts, but another part is learning to trust the body even if we don’t always understand it. When we see the body as a beacon trying to communicate with us, we can take that as an invitation, whether the invitation is to work with emotions in the body using some of the techniques McBride describes, to see pain as a message rather than an enemy, or to question the impact of unjust power structures in our lives.

This kind of reframe also allows us to be with what’s present, rather than focusing on goals and striving and trying to “fix” ourselves. This isn’t a book that bypasses the specifics that you might struggle with if you’re living in a marginalized body, grappling with pain and/or trauma. While McBride encourages us to come home to our bodies, she also offers ways to work with complexity and start small when we need.

While this is a solo-authored book, and thus there are limits to the perspective, McBride does make an effort to acknowledge many different experiences and the challenges they present. (For example, I felt very seen by a brief mention of how asexual spectrum folks might struggle to communicate need and desire for touch in a social context with a narrow understanding of how desire varies.) While you might also be interested in seeking out authors that go a bit narrower and more specific, I’d really recommend this book as a starting point for all sorts of people and body relationships, including coaches / therapists / healing practitioners who are looking for a good all-around recommendation for clients who are working on embodiment.

As McBride writes: “Regardless of our circumstances or what we have been told about bodies, remembering and reuniting with our bodily selves is a radical act to undo our need to earn our worth, helping us wake up to the fact that there is something sacred right here, in this moment, always present and always available. That connection to our bodily selves is available to us in every moment. We have always been embodied, but sometimes we need a gentle invitation to remember that.”

This book is that invitation.

ARC provided through NetGalley. Purchases through the above button support me as well as local independent bookstores!

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