Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture Book Interview

Neva Piran, author of Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture:  The Developmental Theory of Embodiment, joined us for an interview on her book. What follows are our questions in italics, and her thoughtful responses.

In order to expose readers to the Developmental Theory of Embodiment (DTE) via your book, Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture: The Developmental Theory of Embodiment, you examined different time periods in the lives of girls and women. Can you please briefly describe the various research programs you undertook to amass your information?

As a therapist, researcher, and feminist activist in the field of body image and eating disorders for over 35 years, I have felt a deep commitment to anchor all research about embodiment in the lived experiences of girls and women. Even further, I wanted to validate, un-silence, and amplify girls and women’s voices and their reflections about their embodied lives in research dialogues where relational connections and mutuality were central, blurring the we/them boundaries. I am indebted to participants for their courage and generosity in enriching current knowledge about embodiment.

            The book includes narratives from 171 interviews with girls and women of diverse backgrounds that were conducted in three different studies: 87 interviews in a 5-year prospective study with 27 girls, 30 life history interviews with 11 young women (ages 20-28), and 54 interviews with 31 older women (ages 50-70). Interviews focused on the quality of embodied lives and the social experiences that shaped them throughout girls and women’s body journeys, from the earliest memories to the time of the interview. These studies provided a wealth of knowledge from which to weave an elongated tapestry that describes embodied journeys all the way from early childhood, through adolescence, to younger and older adulthood. A supplementary study involved a participatory action research study with students in a school.

What are “borrowed territories” and how might they impact girls and their development?

The freedom to engage with agency, competence, power, and passion in the world is central to positive embodiment. Examining lifelong embodied journeys, we often find, that childhood (barring an abusive familial environment) provides the greatest freedom for girls to act in the world with embodied agency and passion. During early childhood, girls commonly engage in a range of joyful and immersed physical activities in varied ‘physical territories’, such as schoolyards or parks and they feel relatively comfortable taking physical space. Considering relational connections, or ‘social territories’, young girls similarly feel relative freedom to express their voices passionately, with relatively minimal interference from restrictive social rules.

Enabling freedom in the physical and social territories are the permeable girl/boy boundaries during childhood, symbolized by the wide sanctioning of the ‘tomboy’ identity for pre-pubertal girls. As 9-year-old Hilary describes, the tomboy identity includes passionate and joyful involvement in physical activities, wearing comfortable clothing, acting assertively, and resisting objectification,

You’re a girl but you kind of like guy stuff.  You’d play in the mud or do something like football. When you’re a tomboy, you can play basketball, hockey, and soccer. It’s more fun. You don’t care what you look like… If the boys call us babies, we walk by them and hit their shoulders and we walk off… Girlie girls don’t play sports. They do their hair and put make-up on. They just like maybe walk around, they’ll sit with their legs crossed.

The problem with the ‘tomboy’ label for girls is that it implies that the freedom to act with agency in physical and social territories is granted only because a young girl can tread on borrowed boys’ territories. However, as our research indicates, this temporary option becomes problematized at puberty, where corsets related to embodying a girly adaptation become enforced and the tomboy identity incurs social penalties.

Please tell us about some of the “constrictions” tween-aged (9-12) girls experience?

The Developmental Theory of Embodiment suggests that the dramatic losses in tween girls’ embodiment relate to striking changes in girls’ social environment. In particular, these changes take place in three domains of social experiences: thephysicaldomain, the mentaldomain of social discourses and expectations, and the social power and relational connectionsdomain. Each of these domains includes protective (and risk) factors: physical freedom (vs. corseting), mental freedom (vs. corseting also), and social power and relational connections (vs. disempowerment and disconnection).

First, restrictions are introduced to girls’ physical freedom. As girls start to go through puberty, their access to sites of physical activities (e.g., school yards) becomes restricted due to factors such as: the lower allocation of resources to girls’ sports, the masculinization of sports, and the expectation that girls comply with sedentary ‘femininity’ norms. Even the fashionable tight and exposing clothing for tween girls restrict possibilities for physical engagement. Further, girls’ experiences of safety become encroached on through greater exposure to sexual harassment and to a spectrum of violations in the burgeoning dating scene. Moreover, as girls go through the normal bodily changes of puberty, including weight gain, the cultural idealization of pre-pubertal bodies disrupts their connection to appetite.

Second, as girls start to inhabit maturing bodies, expectations that they comply with constraining social expectations of femininity (which we label “mental corsets”) add restrictions to their embodied lives. Appearance-related femininity expectations, pubertal girls learn, involve inhabiting their bodies both as objects to be gazed at and as deficient sites that require ongoing repair. Further, comportment-related femininity expectations dictate: engagement in ‘feminine activities’ (e.g., shopping, domestic chores); acting demure or submissive (e.g., not too assertive or powerful) or being other-focused; containing appetite and sexual desire; and prioritizing sexualizing relationships with boys while competing with, or policing, other girls.

Third, pubertal girls experience problematic shifts in their access to social power and relational connections. Inhabiting pubertal bodies, they get ‘introduced’ to sexist treatment through, for example, greater gender and sexual harassment, stricter gender-related appearance expectations, inequity in the social sanctioning of male and female desires, and the social penalizing of their strengths. They consequently aim to regain social power through embodying idealized images for women, which intensifies their reliance on appearance.

This complex set of social constrictions restricts full, passionate, and active engagement with the world, and reduces pubertal girls’ experiences of embodied comfort, worth, and agency in the world.

During the early teen years, the discourse of deficiency is common. How can adults support agency in these girls?

As girls progress from the tweens phase to early adolescence (ages 13-14), their discomfort and vulnerability with their natural bodies and their desires continue. Further, energy previously directed to acting with agency in the world is now commonly channeled to approximating idealized images of beauty through body alterations. Adults can offer meaningful support at this critical age.

Adults can help nurture positive connection with the body, as well as embodied agency and competence, through enhancing protective, and minimizing risk, factors. In particular, adults should encourage young adolescent girls to continue their engagement in joyful and immersed physical activities, such as team sports, free style dance, hiking, or camping. Further, considering the negative cultural attitudes towards women’s bodies, adults are entrusted with the responsibility of providing girls with support and information that will help them appreciate and cherish the complexity of healthy physiological processes involved in maturation, understand the importance of nurturing the body through these natural processes, and trust the outcome of puberty. Adults should avoid criticizing children’s appearance characteristics. Further, adults’ guidance in self-attunement, boundaries, and assertive communication in the practice of sexual desire can also support girls as they start to navigate the domain of sexuality. It behooves adults to assure the physical safety of girls through, for example, education about sexual harassment and implementing related policies in girls’ social environments (e.g., schools).

Adults can also facilitate critical dialogues with girls about oppressive cultural messages, such as the ‘woman’s body as deficient’ discourse. For example, a critical understanding of the relationship between the social status of women and the expectation that they take little physical space (be small, thin, and pre-pubertal in appearance) can shift a girl’s shame and struggle with her maturing body to a stance of resistance and a quest for social justice. Such shifts are most powerful if validated and embraced by others, adults and peers, as a shared stance of resistance; further, girls can join online activist groups such as sparkmovement.org or LeanIn.org. In a similar vein, adults can help nurture a range of sources of social power among teen girls, related to girls’ interests, passions, and personal preferences, while de-emphasizing appearance. Ideally, adults can model embodied equity and adherence to principles of social justice at home, school, and other social settings.

In your chapter entitled, “The ‘Perfection’ of Corseting: Late Adolescence (Ages 15-17),” you present this quote. “Definitely appearance is more important than health. I think like it shouldn’t matter, but it does, no way avoiding it” (Sarah). How are young women responding to this challenge?

Sarah’s narrative about prioritizing appearance over health, a common stance among teenage girls, should not surprise us as it reflects prevalent cultural values and mores! Teenage girls are exposed daily to messages and experiences that reflect disregard for the well being of girls and women. The fashion industry sanctions and even idealizes the employment of under-aged and malnourished models; even the deaths of young models have not led to sufficient changes in this industry. Adolescent girls’ appetites and sexual desires are not validated and often criticized. The costs to girls (and women) of the ongoing preoccupation with body weight and shape, of plastic surgeries, and other body alterations are often minimized. There is little support for girls and women in addressing the spectrum of sexual violations. Women are still paid less for their labor, and girls and women perform most domestic chores, irrespective of their fatigue or other demanding tasks. Within these and other examples of disregard for girls and women’s well being, teenage girls’ neglect of their well being becomes understandable.

Sarah’s own story can clarify the way societal values shape body devaluation and neglect. Sarah is forced at the age of 14 to go on a diet, which she follows while being fully aware that it is not healthy, “I know it’s not healthy, especially the Atkins diet… but it makes you feel good, when people are like, ‘You look really good lately’.” At the same time, she is dropped from her soccer team where she was the only girl, “They made me drop out of the guy’s team, and I used to love completely getting into it” (Piran, 2017, p.150).  Later, when she is invited to join the team on a temporary basis, she is labeled “a lesbian” for playing with much power and passion, a disruptive label for her. Moreover, she feels she needs to be smaller in size because she cannot fit into fashionable clothes that she desires (“I am pissed at the company that makes them”), and also believes she needs to be smaller than guys she dates. At home, she carries an inequitable share of domestic duties, irrespective of other life demands, “He goes, Sarah, shut up and make dinner.” When she registers for a health-related course, she is asked regarding all of her food and calorie intake, “record all your foods and calories… Being told what you’re supposed to eat…”, disrupting again her opportunity to take attuned care of her body. She assigns her lack of valuing of her body and its well being to the aggregated impact of all these experiences, reflected in her lack of self-care in sexual activities,

Losing [self] respect kind of started with putting me on a diet and then calling me a lesbian and not letting me play anymore with the guys, and you lose respect for yourself, and so with the guy, what does it matter, you want it [sexual activity], you do it… I don’t say no, I just think no.”  [Piran, 2017, p.284].

Clearly, prioritizing health over appearance goals by girls is strongly tied to experiences of embodied equity within the culture at large. Feminist and anti-oppressive social goals are therefore in line with the aim of enhancing the embodied lives of diverse girls and women. Yet, considering the current social state of affairs, adults are entrusted with the challenge of countering adverse societal processes through the systematic and consistent implementation of protective factors, starting early in girls’ lives. The Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture:  The Developmental Theory of Embodiment book can help adults become familiar with girls’ social experiences, as well as with risk and protective factors.

How can we help girls and women “see” the social restrictions that are in place so they can engage in life with agency and power?

This is a very important question since girls and women’s body journeys are most often silent journeys. While particular aspects of experience, such as sexual violations or objectification, may get public attention at different times, most processes, both of disruption and of positive body connection, remain unexamined. There are limited relational forums for girls and women to name, interrogate, problematize, or cherish their experiences. Such relational dialogues are necessary to socialize girls and women’s knowledge, namely: validate their experiences and contextualize them in social processes and power structures. Girls and women can then move from a place of silence and individual struggle to a place of critical analysis and compassionate self-understanding. They, further, become mobilized to implement changes in their social environment.

Even the process of participation in the body journey research interviews commonly involved mobilizing shifts among girls and women. Here, for example, is the reflection of Jane, a woman in her 20s, who, like most girls and women, considered her abandonment of engagement in joyful physical activities at puberty to be a “natural” process,

It [interview] makes me question some of the decisions that I’ve made over the years. I wonder: was I pushed or maybe I just didn’t think consciously enough about it. I was very active until I hit puberty and then became very docile. I want to go back to that 11-year-old me and say, “smarten up”[laugh]. It didn’t feel like pressure. It felt “natural.” So, yeah, there could definitely be something there and it’s making me curious.It’s making me want to go back and figure it out myself. It made me re-define what does activity mean to me and where do I fit back into it. [Piran, 2017, p.269]

Similarly, Laya, also a woman in her 20s, shifted her embodied connection to a series of sexual harassment incidents, from stating initially that she “was never really violated; I was never sexually abused”, to recognizing the disruptive embodied impact of harassment on well being.

When I read about [in research report] being flashed and being touched in an unwanted way. Those things were hard. They were traumatic, shocking,uncomfortable, a lot of pain and sadness… I didn’t have the skills or the tools to be able to deal with it… things would happen as an adolescent and you couldn’t speak. It just was impossible at the time.

Erica, a 12-year-old girl felt more comfortable to sweat while exercising after her interview. Prior to the interviews, she restricted her physical activities, which she loved, in order not to sweat,

Interviewer: Has it [being interviewed] changed how you’ve thought about being a girl?

Erica: More secure.

Interviewer: Can you give me an example?

Erica: About the sweating thing. (laughs) It’s like I used to think, “oh, it’s gross.” It still is but I can feel better now about it because you’re like working really hard to do it and stuff. [Piran, 2017, p. 277]

As girls and women share their body experiences within a validating context, they are mobilized to pursue changes they desire.

Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture aims to support older adolescents and women in “seeing” the social restrictions that require challenging and in nurturing conditions that enhance agency and power. In turn, the book provides adult women, parents, health professionals, therapists, teachers and other school personnel, and health promotion activists, with the knowledge that can support them in validating girls’ experiences in the body domain and in enhancing girls’ embodied agency. Anchored in a series of prospective and life history interviews, the Developmental Theory of Embodiment extends beyond existing social theories of disruption in the body domain. It offers an integrated theory that also sheds light on age-specific social processes, and invites readers to reflect and look critically at their own body journeys.

Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture: The Developmental Theory of Embodiment (Paperback)
by Niva Piran

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About the author:

Niva Piran, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and professor emerita at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Dr. Piran is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Academy of Eating Disorders. She is the author of Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture: The Developmental Theory of Embodiment (2017), and co-editor of four books on body image, and the prevention and treatment of eating disorders. She is a former Body Image Consultant to the National Ballet School of Canada and Clinical Director of the Day Hospital Program for Eating Disorders at the Toronto Hospital. Dr. Piran presents internationally on the treatment and prevention of eating disorders, and on girls and women’s embodiment.

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