At my very core I am an existentialist, which often means that I am perceived by those around me as dark and cynical when I take it for granted that suffering is an inherent part of living. However, what being an existentialist really means to me is that ultimately I believe in freedom and choice. Existential thinkers and therapists believe that freedom is a fundamental part of living.
I have had the most interesting conversations with women inside the therapy room and outside of it about their sense of freedom. This is more than the objective freedoms they are allowed or disallowed based on laws and cultural norms. This sense of freedom is mainly about how free they feel they are in the world.
For me a major shift in my understanding and experience of my freedom was through the idea of embodiment. Turn my world upside down type of shift. Allow me to take you through it.
Embodiment is the experience of living in and inhabiting our bodies. Like it or not, in this life, in this world, we can only exist in a body and that is the body that we are given. We can only experience the world through it. Our body is our way of knowing the world. Our senses inform us of what is happening around us. Our body acts as our medium of asserting ourselves in the world, and finding space for ourselves in it.
So, if everything is experienced through the body, then so are Freedom and its counterpart Limitation.
It is therefore important for us to understand how we experience our bodies and how we inhabit them.
From a very young age little girls are exposed directly or indirectly to the objectification of women. While little boys are learning to take pride in their bodies and see it as their means of dominating nature and their environments, little girls’ bodies are treated like dolls to be cared for and looked at. While boys learn to venture out and gain mastery over their skills in the world, often girls are taught that the value of their body is in its shape and what it looks like. Girls receive complements on how long their hair has grown, while boys are encouraged to run faster or throw harder.
It is not my intention to generalise this as the experience of ALL boys and girls but it is common enough practice for it to be described as a shared experience of girls and later on women, one that without doubt, has its exceptions. I do also take notice of the ways in which men are now treating their bodies as objects, as they focus on shaping it and sculpting it in ways that fit the societal standards of attractiveness.
Simone de Beauvoir described how women are taught a restricted use of space, that there’s an invisible sphere surrounding us restricting our motion. Women are groomed to take up little space in the way they move, they take small strides and sit cross-legged. Iris Marion Young describes in her article Throwing Like a Girl, how the female body is experienced “as a mere thing — a fragile thing, which must be picked up and coaxed into movement, a thing that exists as looked at and acted upon.”
But should a set of chromosomes dictate how a body should be used? What makes a female’s legs or arms any different from that of a man? They both have the same set of muscles, structure, and of course common use or purpose. The physical world doesn’t set these Limitations but rather our gendered socialization.
Athletes, artists, musicians and other women who use their bodies in ways that transcend its objectification are paving the way for the rest of us. They are showing us a different way of inhabiting our bodies, one that is more free and therefore opens up our experience of freedom.
What would you do with your body if you used it in a way that transcends its objectification? De Beauvoir suggests to “let her swim, climb mountain peaks, pilot an airplane, battle the elements, take risks, go for adventure, and she will not feel toward the world that timidity”
I’ m taking up carpentry ;)