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Embodying the Health At Every Size® Model

by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA

I just taught a weekend course entitled “Embodiment as Transformative Practice.” It was an incredible privilege to have the opportunity to participate in a 10-hour inquiry into embodiment with a group of engaged students. At this moment, I feel like I have the best job in the world.

The Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, Japan, believed to be the largest intersection in the world.

Right now, it feels impossible to write about another topic, so mindful of the subject matter of this blog, I thought I would talk about the intersection of embodiment and the HAES® model. This intersection turns about to be very large indeed. This is not some obscure country crossroads—this is the Shibuya Crossing. I will define my terms and describe my experiences with “embodying” HAES concepts, and then you can see whether this resonates with your own experiences.

Understanding “embodiment”

Embodiment is one of those concepts, such as “love” or “God,” that can be defined with words, but cannot truly be understood without experience. Dictionary definitions of the word “embody” are thus only somewhat helpful, suggesting that to embody something is to give it a corporeal form, or to make it concrete and capable of being perceived. From body-mind psychotherapist Susan Aposhyan, we receive a more nuanced definition: “the moment to moment process by which human beings may allow our awareness to enhance the flow of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and energies through our bodily selves.”

I am interested in embodiment as an experience – not as an abstract concept. So Aposhyan’s description of a “moment-to-moment process” seems spot on to me. It has a “here and now” quality. But there is something off about the rest of her definition. To me, awareness does not “enhance” the flow; the flow of sensations and feelings is present, all the time, affecting us whether or not we pay attention. Embodiment is simply the process of tuning into the flow, bringing our awareness to experience.

Embodiment means coming into intimacy with ourselves at the nexus of mind, body, and spirit. It’s how we can take that abstract idea of “mind/body/spirit” and make it concrete.

Embodiment as practice

In our waking moments, most of us have (at least) three types of experiences. Sometimes, we are on “automatic pilot.” We often walk, do dishes, eat, take a shower, even drive without attending to the process. We also have times that we might describe as being “in our heads”—times when we (for example) become lost in thought, watch the TV in a trance, or sit at the computer unaware of our surroundings. In the third category of experiences, we bring awareness and attention to our bodily experiences: this is what I would describe as “embodiment” of self.

I am not suggesting that anyone should seek out this third category all the time—I’m not even sure if that would be desirable. However, I would submit that increased awareness of the flow of thoughts, emotions, energies, and sensations in our bodies enhances our quality of life and is a source of human wisdom, growth, creativity, and transformation. Western culture may be the only tradition on earth that does not easily recognize this:

If you cannot find it in your own body, you will not find it elsewhere.

– The Upanishads

So, what I mean by “embodiment” is very simple in some ways, and yet remarkably difficult to cultivate as a practice. I have spent years experimenting with ways to enhance the capacity to experience this awareness and attention. Sometimes it’s amazing. I have learned that my body is a truly glorious place to live. Regardless of aches and pains or bodily challenges, this is home. And sometimes it’s difficult. Cultivating embodiment can bring up entrenched emotional patterns and traumas. I have learned that it’s OK to ask for help with this, and I have also learned that it’s OK to retreat if I need to, to titrate the experience in order to take care of myself. But I keep coming back, because it’s worth it.

Intersection of embodiment and HAES concepts

Why am I talking about embodiment in a HAES blog? A better question might be, why aren’t we talking about embodiment all the time? Many of us interpret the HAES model in slightly different ways, but I think the core concepts hold across interpretations. For me, incorporating HAES concepts into how I live my life has been a profoundly embodied experience. Here are ASDAH’s HAES principles and a first take on how embodiment relates to each.

HAES PrinciplesEmbodiment
Accepting and respecting the diversity of body shapes and sizes.My own journey of acceptance of my larger body has been a deeply embodied one, and I believe this is true for many others. By coming into intimacy with my bodily self, I have come home. Judgment about size or shape no longer predominates in my experience of my body or of anyone else’s.
Recognizing that health and well-being are multi-dimensional and that they include physical, social, spiritual, occupational, emotional, and intellectual aspects.The practice of embodiment is how I have learned to concretize abstract concepts of multi-dimensionality, such as the familiar “mind/body/spirit” formulation.
Promoting all aspects of health and well-being for people of all sizes.Coming into awareness of the “flow” as described above promotes well-being regardless of size, health status, or any other characteristic health care providers might use to categorize us. Embodiment is not a panacea, and cannot substitute for other forms of health promotion, but is a central facet of well-being.
Promoting eating in a manner which balances individual nutritional needs, hunger, satiety, appetite, and pleasure.Many HAES practitioners advocate for “intuitive eating” or “mindful eating” practices. These are profoundly embodied practices in which we trust the wisdom of our bodies and cultivate the capacity to access that wisdom.
Promoting individually appropriate, enjoyable, life-enhancing physical activity, rather than exercise that is focused on a goal of weight loss.HAES practitioners often advocate for “joyful movement” or “intuitive exercise.” Our bodies want to move and rest, in turn; bringing awareness enhances these experiences and can lead to a profound sense of joy in our bodies.

I recognize that the table above may frustrate some of you; many health professionals are trained to expect an “evidence-based” approach for claims about health and wellness. To some degree, the “proof” is in the experience, but perhaps I can provide a more evidence-based approach to some of these ideas in future posts. For now, it seems important simply to name what I believe many of us experience when we really try to live (embody) the HAES model. I am sure that many readers have their own experiences to draw upon, and I hope you will comment freely to continue the conversation.

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