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What Does It Mean to Decolonize Your Body?

How engaging with more of your full self supports healing

The impacts of living in a colonized body, one that has long felt the impacts of systemic oppression, are usually not obvious.

Maybe you’re in a meeting with colleagues, the room is full, and the usual suspects are leading the conversation. You’re taking notes and trying to look interested while your head is otherwise occupied. You’re thinking about lunch. You’re noticing the dynamics in the room. You see how personalities shift depending on who is present.

Then you feel it.

You don’t want to feel it.

You try to push it down, distract yourself with a doodle in your notebook and assurance that this will simply go away. It gets worse. The acorn in your throat grows, your heart pounds, and you know your options are clear, you can (a) ignore what you’re feeling or (b) follow your gut and say something.

But there’s a risk. Others may invalidate your ideas, dismiss you, or worse.

When this sensation in your body arises, you notice something else happens too. There’s a voice that you hate to admit exists. It says: “If you say anything, you better get it perfect.”

How is it possible that colonization, an event most of us have not actively lived through, could still be impacting our lives and bodies? It is because the values of the colonial project are still very much in place.

The voice that shows up when your body is indicating that it’s time to be heard, offer an observation, or make a request is the voice of the colonized self. That voice has one job to do: Keep you small. It wants to keep you small so you keep doing what it wants you to do. This voice was forged by the multiheaded monster that encompasses the colonial project.

This is the voice of the patriarchy.

This is the voice of capitalism.

This is the voice of white supremacy.

We are physically and energetically shaped by the environments we live in. In embodiment work, we call this your “somatic shape.” Your shape is essentially your go-to practices and ways of being for navigating life.

Your shape is informed by where you live, your family dynamics, the community you grew up in, the institutions you engage with, social norms, and political and historical forces.

Systems of oppression have a direct impact on our shape. Many bodies, especially women and femme bodies, are shaped to believe that they can prove their worth by not being “needy,” doing everything “right,” and being “hard” workers.    

This narrative impacts how we are in our bodies. We learn that to prove ourselves we must:

  • Disconnect from our messy, feeling bodies
  • Lead with our heads, such as the operating, strategic, and analytical parts of ourselves and prioritize speed and productivity.
  • Always be “on” and leaning over ourselves toward our screens, phones, or whatever is around the corner.
  • Quiet what feels vulnerable and alone, and not ask for help.
  • Grip and control situations to avoid mistakes.
  • Extend beyond our capacity and avoid showing our need for rest and downtime.  

Beginning in a practice of decolonization means doing the opposite of how we’ve been conditioned to relate to ourselves and our bodies. It means including more of who we really are more of the time and understanding that as we do so we will invariably encounter forces both internally and externally determined to keep us hustling and small.   

Rather than disconnecting from the body and feelings, a process of decolonization understands the body as a wealth of information. Connecting to the sensations of your body means understanding these aches, pains, buzzings, and the like as forms of communication.  

This communication comes into your daily life as a valued resource in your decision-making.

For example, in the situation above, that acorn in your throat is a form of communication. Rather than problematizing this sensation or hoping it will simply go away, being in a practice of decolonization invites understanding that what’s happening in your body is worth paying attention to.  

What does that acorn know? What is that acorn showing you? Do you have a point to make? Do you see a problem that no one else is recognizing? Do you need to ask for something to be better supported?

That voice that shows up alongside the acorn is also worth paying attention to you. But rather than following it, you might ask, how far back does this voice go? Where did I learn that I better not make a mistake? Furthermore, do I believe this?  What do I know? What do I truly believe?

Then, where do those beliefs live in your body? Where does your trust that you deserve to be heard just as you are, reside in you? What about your belief that more people who inhabit bodies like yours be in positions of power?

Just like learning to ride a bike, our ability to notice what is happening in our bodies grows with practice.

What we sense allows us to move forward with more discernment. We can choose to follow the part of ourselves that is conditioned by the status quo to operate within a narrow margin, or we can take a risk and choose to allow a little more of ourselves into the room.

What I’ve found about making these choices in my own life is that brave action inspires more brave action. We might be surprised by who shows up to support, champion, or advance the truth our decolonized body has brought to us.

Living in a decolonized body means learning to live in partnership rather than at war with ourselves. This doesn’t mean we will no longer feel those acorns. We still live in a society structured by the values of colonialism. Rather, that when we do, we’ll know how to relate to what our bodies are presenting with care and how to operate more of the time from our true values.

About The Author
Kelsey Blackwell

Kelsey is a cultural somatics practitioner, facilitator, and author. She is a certified InterPlay leader, Strozzi certified somatic coach, and holds a master’s degree in publishing from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her new book is Decolonizing the Body: Healing, Body-Centered Practices for Women of Color to Reclaim Confidence, Dignity, and Self-Worth.