Physical Literacy as Body Positivity

How many of us reading this are completely comfortable in our own skin? Chances are that the large majority of readers are not. I bet its pretty easy to think of something about your body that you don’t like; for some of us there is a list more readily in mind than for others. I don’t want you to think about that right now though. Right now I want you to pretend like we live in the world that Alok Vaid-Menon is fighting for. A world where we aren’t so obsessed with our Western, Colonial, white supremacist, gender binary-ed beauty standard and its neat categories that you either pass or fail; a world where we are free to narrate our own bodies, where we don’t have to change or prove anything.

Right now I want you to think of at least 5 cool things that your body does. An easy one is the fact that you can read this. That takes small cones and rods in your eyes to register what you are seeing, nerves to transmit that information and for your brain to have an understanding of the language I am writing to you in. There, three things! When you think of all the physical processes that go into each and every movement we make through this world it can be pretty astounding. We could all spend a lot more time appreciating our own physiology.

I bet this isn’t a list you make often to yourself, especially not when reading most anything from the internet. The media shows ideals for each stereotype and anything beyond that is ignored, or better yet, erased. This is absurd given that there is such a glorious variety of body types, abilities and identities. It’s exhausting to constantly be criticizing yourself and trying to fit a mould. It takes up head space and energy I would much rather be spending on something, nay anything else.

Within our society we have become very good at picking ourselves apart, but we’re still terrible at piecing ourselves back together. We aren’t taking care of ourselves the way we could be. This is problematic when it comes to our health (be it physical, mental or sexual.) When we dislike, distrust or feel disgust towards our bodies, certain things happen – we don’t take care of ourselves, we destroy ourselves, and we don’t stand up for ourselves and what we deserve.

In the language of health educators, we call the knowledge we have of our bodies ‘physical literacy’. Someone who is physically literate can move with confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in different environments. It benefits the development of the entire person through skills, knowledge and attitudes and can help prevent injuries. Plenty of this information can be learned in schools. Physical education is important for young people to become confident in their bodies abilities. Unfortunately there is a massive component of this missing in most cases, that component being sexual and reproductive health.

I got the bare basics, most of which was veiled with fear. While the education system is slowly changing, it is still leaving many people to fend for themselves. People in general, but especially women, are not taught to be in touch and at home in our own bodies. Any one who is outside of the gender binary or who doesn’t fit the neat moulds labelled ‘male’ and ‘female’ that produce all of the movie stars and models are left with something to loath and something to prove. There’s a constant battle to be masculine enough, feminine enough, beautiful enough. It’s been made much easier to destroy any image of self-confidence than it is to create a healthy relationship with your body.

If we are never taught the inner workings of our bodies how are we supposed to know what we find pleasurable, and what we don’t. Most importantly, how are we supposed to communicate these things we’ve never discovered. In Lee Hunter’s article ‘Desiring Consent’ the author puts it very plainly, ‘culture does not encourage us to communicate about our bodies and how we relate sexually to one another, much less about whether we are having healthy, fun, fulfilling sex.’

Even before we get to a place where we are negotiating consent and how we relate to others, our bodies can hold all sorts of surprises and scary things for those who aren’t prepared with knowledge. I’ve heard many people, both cis and trans describe the process of puberty as ‘my body betraying me’. This doesn’t necessarily mean hating the body you were born with outright and wanting a different one all together, it’s more that your body is betraying the long list that society drills into our brains of ways you must be perfect. Growing hair, crackling voices and new appendages sprouting from your chest can all be terrifying, especially if you’re not informed or aware of what to expect as puberty unfolds. Especially because for many, puberty is a departure from what is labelled as desirable.

As if all of this were not enough, our bodies can also be sights of trauma. Trauma, for the sake of what we are talking about here is anything you wish to define it as. The self loathing you feel because your body doesn’t fit an ideal that has been fed to you, the pain you carry from past abuse or assault, the physical pain that manifests from anxiety, your exhaustion that keeps you in bed all day because you don’t have the energy to go out in the world. All of our emotions, especially the hard ones, manifest within our bodies. Anxiety as an example, can cause nausea, weight loss or gain, hair loss, nervous habits such as nail biting, hair picking etc., physical pain in your jaw, shoulders, neck, back, hips etc. The list goes on an on of ways our bodies can self destruct without our knowledge or active participation. If you don’t like to associate your body with yourself, this can make these problems even more insurmountable.

The best piece of knowledge that you can be armed with is that your body is nobodies but your own. Accepting this means recognizing your journey as an individual who cannot be compared to others. It also allows the empowerment that comes with being the narrator of that journey. Each person is going to have different preferences for everything. You will learn that doing some things makes you feel great while others make you feel awful. Pay attention to the signals your body gives you when you eat, when you bathe, when you use different substances (medical or recreational) and when you engage physically with others (sexually or platonically).

There are entire rehab facilities, courses and books on how to change this, for some it will be harder than others. Self-love and body acceptance is crucial for our health. Being more physically literate can help your relationship with yourself, with others, your health and more. You, every single one of you, deserves to feel loved – this begins with an understanding that we are not perfect and an acceptance of that fact. This doesn’t mean you have to love every part of you. You will still harbour frustration towards certain parts or facts of your body. Instead of focusing on those, focus on the things that make you feel good, and what you can do to feel better. It has been proven many times, especially for women, queer and trans folks, that our medical system does not always help us. What a revolution we could have if we accepted our bodies enough to help ourselves.

(If you liked this and want more information, this blog could very easily become a series with all the information I found whilst pondering this. Let me know if that is something you’d be interested in!)