On Gendering the Body: Thoughts for Practitioners

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We’re wrapping up transgender awareness week as I’m writing this. It’s been in the back of my mind all week, and it just occurred to me what I want to talk about. This article is geared towards practitioners of all kinds, but I think the main ideas are applicable for everyone regardless of occupation.

It feels important for me to start by saying, I’ve experienced the world in a body that has been perceived as many genders and sexes over the course of my life. I can tell you the one thing I’ve learned experiencing gender in the body I am, is that it’s not better to be perceived as being on one side of the binary or the other, regardless of the privilege you earn when you are perceived as a man or lose as a woman. Not to mention what people treat you like when you’re perceived as somewhere in the middle.  It’s all so fucked. No matter where you are on the spectrum. No one is winning.

As practitioners, we have an opportunity to begin rewriting some of the scripts. It starts with removing gendered expectations from the bodies we work with. What if gender didn’t exist, and we could all just be bodies having experiences? Think about how much safer the world would be. That’s what we can provide if we think of all bodies as more similar than they are different. And it’s true, we are all mostly similar.

While bodies come in all different shapes and sizes, human bodies are made up of the same stuff. All our structures are analogous. Regardless of gender, all bodies exist on a spectrum. No one is 100% the same in physical characteristics (our DNA is unique to us), or in lived experience.

As a species we share one great thread, this current iteration of human has been around for over 300,000 years. The experience we have of being homo sapiens ties us together. It is one of being a human body. The circumstances and experiences witnessed by each individual body make us who we are. Culture drastically informs what it is like to be a body in the world.

Gender is a product of our culture. The white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy is inherently harmful for everyone who has a body, regardless of the gender of that body. It is the source of so much of the trauma we share as a society. I would argue, it is the thing we use to divide us the most severely. It oppresses all of us, simultaneously.

Culture is constantly evolving and changing. It is informed by everything that happened in the past, our hopes for the future, and most importantly, what we believe to be true about how things are right now. It’s up to us to change it. Change happens when individuals do things differently than the way they are currently being done. We all need to do the work. Culture is created via the way we communicate with one another about what it’s like to be the world as a human body. It’s the main driver of social harmony and our ultimate resource. Language is the most important and easiest way we can change our culture and make gender equity more real, in this moment.

Gender is a data point, but it doesn’t tell us the whole story, or what it is like to experience the musculoskeletal and visceral sensations that make up a client’s interception and proprioception. It alone doesn’t tell us very much. Talking about someone as a “female” client carries so much meaning, and yet is open to so much interpretation. Instead, there are other things we can talk about that will give us information that is more useful. What is the threat level of this person? What musculoskeletal and visceral sensations are they feeling? What are they saying? What is the tone in their muscles? How are they breathing? What does their gait look like? Which side of their body is neurologically dominate? So, instead of “female client” we could say, “A client currently experiencing a high level of threat. I can tell because they are exhibiting signs of disassociation. They are utilizing trapped breathing, have low proprioception and high tone. They can’t feel their heart beat unless it is very high. Their skin gets flushed and they look down when answering direct questions.” So much more useful.

In the book “The Fragile Species”, Medical Doctor and Essayist Lewis Thomas talks about moving; how we know scientifically that movement is inherently pleasurable. How do we find that pleasure if it’s not already obvious? He says, “Perhaps the best way to feel the pleasure [of moving], if you are willing to make the sacrifice, is to shut down most of what you usually keep your mind doing on order to get through the day.” (36). Just think about how much of our energy we spend on gender performance and regulation. What if we create a pocket in the world, where everyone who comes in gets to experience life free of gender expectations? If men aren’t a certain way, and women aren’t a certain way, and everyone is safe to explore all ways of being, everyone gets to show up a little bit more the way they already are.