My push towards liberated care.
In the U.S., most often when you seek primary care, you're not being treated for a primary cause.
At 21, I was in an extremely challenging period of my life: I had just graduated college and moved to New York with nothing but a small part-time salary to sustain me; I was lonely, scared, insecure, and frequently sick. To say the least, my nervous system was in crisis, and I ended up going to CityMD about 15 times that year to little avail.
At 25, I went to a gynecologist for a simple STD panel and instead found myself on the receiving end of repeated misgendering and harsh shame over my number of sexual partners. I had been recently exploring polyamory and wanted to know how to do it safely, yet no explanation seemed to cease the patronizing comments.
At 28, I went to the dentist for the first time in years. Brushing my teeth is one of the first habits to go when I’m struggling with depression. Following the dentist’s uncomfortable small talk, he started to lecture me on the health of my teeth and lack of habits, going so far as to suggest several times I was lazy. What wasn’t mentioned was any discussion of my well-being: I had been in a really low place, barely able to make it out of bed, let alone brush my teeth, and now the professional advice I received was, “Don’t be lazy.”
I really wish it were that simple. The true leading cause of poor health in marginalized bodies, such as mine, isn’t laziness, but instead is the stark reality that our social-emotional and economic needs are not being met in this current system.
What these three providers failed to understand and/or empathize with is: I’m Afro-Latine, I’m Queer, I'm Disabled, and so much more—a collection of intersecting identities integral to who I am but deemed perverse or problematic in our wider society.
For oppressed people, decolonizing health care isn’t a political stance–it’s necessary for our survival.
Identities, and the world in which they exist, need to be taken into account when treating patients.
Within the American medical system, we’re always made to feel like we're solely responsible for our own poor health. This can have a range of effects given the identities at play; according to the author and medical researcher Harriet A. Washington, “...despite the heavy emphasis on genetic ailments among Blacks, fewer than 0.5 percent of Black deaths—that’s less than one death in two hundred—can be attributed to hereditary disorders such as sickle-cell anemia. A closer look at the troubling numbers reveals that Blacks are dying not of exotic, incurable, poorly understood illnesses nor of genetic diseases that target only them, but rather from common ailments that are more often prevented and treated among whites than among Blacks.”
Beyond the Black community, LGBTQIA+ patients experience insufficient care. The Society of Behavioral Medicine argues, “Due to concerns about discrimination and/or expected lack of understanding from providers, LGBTQIA+ individuals may not discuss their sexual orientation and gender identity information with their health care provider even if this information is relevant to their care.” For one reason or another, practitioners consistently fall short to meet the needs of wide swaths of the population. Biases around sexuality, race, and more influence a lack of relationship building between patient and provider, and can contribute to a lack of empathy that leads to people being judged, gaslit, and disregarded. Poor health outcomes can manifest as a consequence.
This conscious and unconscious othering forces many patients with little to no resources to bear responsibility for their health in a world actively working against them. To reduce the harm caused by care providers (and the society we live in at large), every person must be treated for the humanity they embody: the total sum of our needs—mind, body, and soul—must be tended to.
Fundamentally speaking, Embodied Care speaks to a return to our origin. Origins of love, integrity, and belonging. Embodiment is an act of decolonization.
“Decolonising the body involves healing the effects of gendered racism on the body-spirit and constructing an identity that allows one to be self-defining and self-naming, ” as noted in Decolonising the Body: Restoring Sacred Vitality by Alannah Earl Young and Denise Nadeau. The U.S. medical system, however, is a descendant of colonial violence that functions off of the disembodiment of marginalized bodies. This attack on embodiment proceeded our country’s founding, with mass genocide of the Indigenous Peoples, and was instrumental to its development through the enslavement of Africans. Its very foundations are dependent on violence, erasure, and displacement.
The delusion of white supremacy as justification for the atrocities against Native and Black people has been the engine for creating all systems in the U.S.—medical, educational, government, economic, etc. The engineering of the New World has historically been dependent on Black and Indigenous peoples’ death and suffering.
As noted in Reckoning with Histories of Medical Racism and Violence in the USA, Ayah Nuriddin, Graham Mooney, and Alexandre R. White wrote, “Enslaved Black people's bodies were exploited for the development of some aspects of U.S. medical education in the 19th century. Medical schools relied on enslaved Black bodies as ‘anatomical material’ and recruited students in southern states by advertising its abundance...American medical education relied on the theft, dissection, and display of bodies, many of whom were Black.”
Nothing has liberated me more than the Embodied Care Movement.
It is due to this long history, that Embodied Care is imperative to restoring balance and justice in health care. In my personal experience as a Transgender person, a colonized person, and a survivor of abuse, it feels incredibly hard for me to be in my body.
My experience at doctors’ offices led me to search for different modalities of care that align with and affirm my whole person, intersecting identities, and nuanced experiences; moreover—thanks to my middle-class upbringing and exposure to alternative medicines in my youth—I was able to connect to healers across various fields. Now, as a young adult experiencing poverty, I have lost access to the care that works for me because I cannot afford it. However, not all of us have the privilege of even being exposed to such modalities, let alone the capacity to afford them. It is imperative that accessibility is just as essential a part of care as treatment.
Out of everything I have tried, nothing has liberated me more than the Embodied Care Movement—and I believe that Embodied Care can liberate us all.
Within Embodied Care, especially the Responsive Body pedagogy founded by body liberation activist and radical human being Holly Johnston, I’ve been made to feel like my health matters on a community level. Holly defines Responsive Body as “...an embodied process for encountering the body's inherent capacity as a response system for transformation and healing. Through guided movement, dialogue, and hands-on body-to-body-work, we explore how our bodies can speak directly to us, move us through challenges, and be a deep resource for recovery.”
In encouraging my body to be the leader in my healing, my humanity is acknowledged, my needs are explored, and my lack of infrastructural support is identified. I’m able to access and attune myself to all of the wisdom and intelligence that my body holds; additionally, my body begins to trust that it is a reception site for love and care.
This is often not the case for marginalized people seeking aid from the traditional U.S. health care system. Rather than leaving the doctor's office feeling empowered, many people leave full of shame and lacking hope. We leave the doctor's office, and the health issues our bodies signaled to us continue to pile on and shift because our bodies weren’t trusted, and the root cause of our issues was not identified. Many of us begin to avoid doctor visits because we don’t believe our concerns will be taken seriously. Yet within embodied care, people are recognized as whole individuals being failed by a system, rather than broken individuals that are fundamentally insufficient.
In a Responsive Body testimonial, Elizabeth Chitty articulates, “Holly doesn’t merely ask that you show up to the session and allow her to ‘fix’ you. Instead, she opens the door so that you might journey down a new path of empowerment, where you have the strength to believe in and show up for your own healing and growth, and that you realize one day that you were never broken, to begin with.” My body knows that its potential for healing expands when I'm met with love and empathized with, and most importantly when I’m able to potentiate liberation in my body. If I’m able to sense and feel freedom, I’m able to believe it's possible on multiple levels.
The tenants of the Embodied Care Movement.
So what is The Embodied Care Movement, exactly? Embodied Care is an acknowledgment of the body as a responsive and transformative entity. Examples of Embodiment Practices as acknowledged by conventional medicine include dance or movement, visualization, body mapping, sensory awareness, somatic relational activity, and muscle relaxation. Other forms of Embodied Care also include: ancestral veneration, cultural practices, sacred ceremony, communing with loved ones, eating delicious food, spending time in nature, sex, stimming, singing/vocalizing, and more. To truly understand the Embodied Care Movement, we must understand that Embodied Care is a response to an epidemic of disembodiment. Trauma, whether personal, systemic, or generational, is known to cause dissociation and disconnection from our bodies. The values and practices upheld in medical spaces reinforce this disconnect. Embodied Care is antithetical to this, and can be broken down into three main parts:
- Embodied: To be embodied is to be dynamically alive—to understand that all parts that make us who we are can be found in the body. It is the integration of the mind, the body, the soul, and the environment in which we live, and a deep understanding that If we feel socially isolated, that shows up in the body. If we experience emotional neglect, that shows up in the body. If we’ve inherited generational trauma, that shows up in the body. From this place, we can be present with our pain, joy, emptiness, truth, loneliness, and yearning, and allow these feelings to be our teachers. By understanding this integration, we are able to know how feelings of love, belonging, self-assurance, and purpose affect us. Our healers can support our bodies in leading us to more environments, and people that cultivate these feelings and empower us to heal. Practicing embodiment is to be in a committed and intimate relationship to our bodies’ feelings, needs, and sensations. By allowing the intelligence and resilience of the body to unfold, we acknowledge pain as a catalyst for transformation. To be embodied is to be connected to ourselves, our ancestors, all living beings, and the world which we inhabit. Embodiment is relationship and community building, enabling each of us to experience and be witnessed in the wholeness and complexity of our being.
- Care: Care is the response to embodiment; if we feel the truth of our own humanity, we are more ready to acknowledge the humanity in others. Being embodied allows us to feel and sense the care we need, which encourages us to be somatically responsive and attuned to the needs of others. It is the flame that ignites the soul, composed of empathy, purpose, and responsiveness. Care is begging you to give a shit. This is not the cursory script, “Did you eat your vegetables? What’s your BMI? Are you exercising?” etc. But more importantly, care is about personal responsiveness to questions like “Is your environment supportive, is your nervous system activated? Do you feel loved? Do you feel like you belong?” To provide adequate care for people, we have to address all aspects of their human condition. We must make sure that the environment they are in when receiving care is one that they feel comfortable in, and be informed of their relevant histories. It requires being present with the current state of their bodies and ensuring we are culturally competent enough to see them in their fullness, which may require working through and interrogating biases. We must empower and allow them to be leaders in their health journey (i.e. listening to patients when they articulate their concerns and asking intentional questions when needed). With this intention, we are able to listen and respond to people in need with integrity and passion. Care is both a feeling and an action that must be in alignment with the truth and integrity of the patient.
- Movement: Movement in this context is explained as a somatic relationship between caregiver and receiver. It is an animating energy that signals expression and discovery. It also speaks to archetypes of futurity. It is both a somatic AND a progressive element of the future, or of moving forward. The “movement” in Embodied Care speaks to transformation: a shifting of our understanding of care. Through movement, we’re able to address and identify issues within medicine and revolutionize care. Movement as an active force within the body reminds us of our own capacity for transformation and to express who we are and what we need as it changes.
How I practice the Embodied Care Movement in my life.
The Embodied Care Movement is powerful because it is a practice where we can combine scientific precision with ancestral wisdom to support our bodies’ capacity for growth and change.
It is effective because it is expansive. The movement acknowledges a deep and intimate knowledge of the body that is rooted in research, discovery, and intuition. When I feel into the true healing force that lies in Embodied Care, what I find is love. Love is the vibration that flows through my most healing experiences. Whether that is moving and being given body-to-body contact with Holly in Responsive Body sessions, communing with my Taino elder through sacred ancestral rituals, and singing my grandmother’s song around the campfire. It is love as an integral force that facilitates healing on a deep level.
Gender dysphoria, racial/cultural microaggressions, triggers, and untreated chronic physical pain lead me to abandon my body to cope every day. Even with multiple sessions of Responsive Body, it’s been hard for me to allow myself to fully return home to this vessel. Especially since repeated states of financial and emotional crisis leave me unable to access consistent care.
The truth is, it will take years of somatic therapy for my body to trust that it’s safe to be present with my pain. I have experienced shame, gaslighting, and dismissal at the doctor’s office, as well as on a broader societal level, for simply being who I am. The message that the world repeatedly gives oppressed people is that our lives don’t have value.
Facing the depth of pain I’ve experienced, even with lighter skin and a middle-class upbringing, I must acknowledge how much more violent the world is for those with darker skin, and fewer resources. It is through the portal of my pain that I can recognize how all people deserve to grow up in a world that validates their essence, empowers them to have agency over their own bodies and livelihoods, and provides them with adequate resources and care.
A call to Embodied Care is a call to acknowledge and reckon with the damage and violence that has affected so many people in the U.S. The movement is a call to potentiate new realities of joy, belonging, and reclamation of self. It is a call to action to be present and responsive to our humanity (to be in our beingness) and to be moved and committed to addressing human suffering at large.
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