Trauma and embodiment

Hillary McBride draws on psychology and theology to encourage us to befriend our bodies.

“Let me begin by saying that I came to theory because I was hurting,” writes bell hooks, who died recently, at the beginning of “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” her groundbreaking essay that became a chapter in Teaching to Transgress. “I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within me.” I read those lines 20 years ago, in graduate school, and they felt like a revelation. While I don’t remember exactly why they resonated so much with me, a young White woman with a surplus of privilege and a dearth of hurt, I could not stop thinking about them. The idea that theorizing about our circumstances could be a “location for healing” seemed radically hopeful and entirely new.

Hillary McBride’s academic interest in embodiment was fueled by pain—in her case, disordered eating, allergies, and two car accidents in short succession. Writing with a measure of chagrin about the fact that her research grew out of her own experience as a White woman struggling with body image, she says she eventually “started to see how my body was not only hurting because of oppressive systems; it was also benefiting from them.” A psychologist specializing in trauma therapy, McBride has schooled herself in macro-level understandings of how systems rank bodies, of all the isms that act on bodies in different but interlocking ways. The result is a book that is exceedingly nuanced and elegantly written, if also at points self-conscious.

Embodiment as a term can tip toward the realm of jargon, and before reading this book, I was on the verge of dismissing it. Everyone from theologians to influencers is talking about embodied living; there’s even something called “embodied marketing.” I sometimes wonder whether embodiment discourse is so yoked to privilege that it can’t exist outside of 5Rhythms classes and integrative embodiment retreats in the Berkshires.