Body Ally

Sep 1, 2021 | 2021 Fall - Bodies

By Lila Hartelius

In January, I started charting my menstrual cycle. Every day, I write a few lines expressing thoughts and feelings that have characterized my day. For years, I’ve experienced cognitive, emotional, and physical wellness challenges that have made daily productivity and realizing my dreams and goals feel elusive. I hoped listening to my body in this way might offer insight into these difficulties and how to overcome them.

As a participant in dialogue around LGBTQ+ issues, before embarking on this daily writing practice I was already aware of the importance of promoting inclusivity wherever marginalization is at play. LGBTQ+ communities frequently engage in conversations about inclusivity, both in terms of promoting inclusion of LGBTQ+ people within broader society and in terms of improving inclusivity of diverse LGBTQ+ people within LGBTQ+ communities. So, as I began reading the book that inspired me to start charting my cycle (Wild Power—a book [which I’m still reading and absorbing] on menstrual cycle awareness as a spiritual practice)—I was sensitive to the importance of inclusivity around the question of who menstruates (because not all women menstruate or ever have, and some people who menstruate are not women—and I was pleased to discover that the book, while not placing a specific focus on it, does at least acknowledge some of these points). However, I was yet to discover that this simple cycle-tracking exercise would add another layer to how I think about inclusivity on both individual and collective levels.

Long before embarking on my monthly charting adventure, I was painfully aware of the many days I couldn’t achieve the focus, inner calm, and productivity necessary to stay abreast of tasks at hand. My agenda was often a near-illegible bramble of chaos as I struggled to tread the waters of the seemingly unpredictable shifts in my moods, energy levels, and ability to focus. I felt shamefully flawed yet simultaneously feared I simply wasn’t trying hard enough.

It’s been years since my first enthusiastic attempt at realizing my dreams and goals by chunking them down into action plans. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve abandoned those action plans. One reason for this recurrent “failing” was the monthly arrival of my period. Any self-care regime I’d enthusiastically start with the hope of achieving the well-being I longed for and felt would help me live my best life was almost systematically interrupted by Aunt Flo—because of physical pain, fatigue, or changes in mood that undermined my motivation. Self-help discourse about daily practice as essential to new habit formation translated into my all-or-nothing thinking tendencies as: “One day missed = you’ve failed on that goal; pick a new one, because you obviously don’t have the mental stamina to reach this one.” Seeing myself fall off the bandwagon repeatedly, I became increasingly discouraged and frustrated by the monthly limitations my body placed on my functioning. I came to believe I lacked the follow-through and discipline necessary to reliably achieve my goals.

Through charting my cycle, I’ve come to recognize the changing nature of my physical, cognitive, and emotional being. Experiencing day-to-day fluctuations in my energy levels, moods, and capacity to concentrate on specific tasks in specific ways doesn’t mean I’m flawed or undisciplined; it simply means I’m a multifaceted being in dynamic movement—like a kaleidoscope. Now, when I have trouble focusing or being productive, when I feel extra tired, irritable, or discouraged, I can often relate it to patterns of how I experience myself in different parts of my menstrual cycle. This helps me gain perspective, because I know that whatever difficulty I’m experiencing will likely eventually give way to a moment when a given task will feel easier. Adapting to my body’s changing rhythms supports my productivity, because it invites me to align what I’m doing at a given time with what I feel best able to do at that time. 

And even when what I’m feeling on a given day seems out of sync with the general tendencies I notice in the part of my cycle I’m in, regarding my body as my ally makes it easier to accept and adapt to whatever I’m experiencing in the moment. My self-esteem is restoring itself, and the energy I’d been investing in trying to keep up with the productivity and live-your-dream status quo is giving way to an inner authority and, with it, an inner peace.

Moving in step with my body’s shifting states also inspires me to consider my priorities in how I spend my time. If the sole purpose of allying with my body is to accomplish things I feel pressured to achieve but don’t believe in, I’m essentially working with myself to work against myself. Some of the physical, cognitive, and emotional difficulties I’ve experienced are, I’ve realized, not only about how and when I’m doing something but also about what I’m doing and why. When it comes to a personal passion or hobby, I’m much more likely to find myself engrossed in an activity for hours with the kind of focus that can often elude me in tasks I dislike or care less about. Instead of berating myself for struggling with tasks I “should” do, I’m recognizing these personal challenges as my body’s voice expressing not only its own shifting rhythms but also the song of my values, passion, purpose, and vision. Sometimes I don’t understand the lyrics, and it can feel scary to let my body sway to the music; but my ears are open, and I’m learning to listen, trust, and include my body—and my priorities—in my agenda and action plans.

Shifting from a framework of personal brokenness or inadequacy to one in which I regard my body as a source of wisdom is liberating and reaffirming. With the help of the aforementioned book (Wild Power), I’ve begun to see how much modern society imposes a relentless, one-sided set of values and beliefs about productivity that essentially tend to ignore even the very existence of the menstrual cycle and, at best, pathologize its ebbs and flows, proposing—even pressuring—to medicate it rather than listen to and honor it. The book’s authors, Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer, have begun to help me envision a world where we listen to our bodies and take them into account in all areas of our lives, whether or not we menstruate or have ever menstruated, and whatever our gender identity. I want to help dispel the shame and guilt around listening to and honoring our bodies’ rhythms, menstrual and otherwise. My hope in writing this is to inspire others to realize that such a shift is possible and that it is our birthright to tap into and reclaim the wisdom in the voices of our bodies.

The decision to regard my body as my ally has produced significant benefits in my personal life. It has also inspired me to be my own proud and enthusiastic drop of water in the ocean of a revolution seeking to dismantle toxic productivity. Yet it wasn’t until recently that I discovered a thought-provoking connection between this body-listening philosophy and the question of inclusivity as I had conceived of it within the LGBTQ+ communities I’m part of.

During a virtual brunch I attended this summer that was organized by the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network, participants were invited to consider inclusivity as a discussion prompt for breakout sessions. Through conversation with those in my breakout room, it occurred to me that the practice of inclusivity is something we can extend personally to our own bodies. The idea of including my body in the decision-making process about how I spend and organize my time suddenly became not only a process of self-acceptance and an act of resistance against toxic productivity but also a concern of diversity and a lever of inclusivity. The more inclusive we are personally toward our own bodies—by listening to them, taking them into account, and, essentially, being allies to them—the more aware we can be of our own needs and the better equipped we can thus be to seek adequate inclusivity around our needs. With minority stress being a reality for anyone with marginalized identities and experiences, I think it’s even more important for us as LGBTQ+ individuals, and as individuals who may also have other intersecting marginalized identities, to be allies to our own bodies. Minority stress is stress, and stress is a physiological phenomenon. Minority stress can and does impact mental and physical well-being. Learning—each of us—what being an ally to one’s own body means for us personally seems to me an essential component of the self-acceptance journey so many of us are on, and of the work of diversity and inclusion so many of us have been putting our hearts and souls into—sometimes to the point of burnout.

Being an ally to your body might look like charting your menstrual cycle if you have one and wish to chart it, or it might mean tracking another aspect of your embodied experience or simply checking in regularly with how you’re feeling—physically, emotionally, cognitively—and letting that awareness inform in whatever way feasible how you move through your life and the world. Whatever form it may take for each of us, I feel that being inclusive toward our own bodies has the potential to transform our lives—and our world—for the better.

Lila Hartelius is a bilingual (English & French) multidisciplinary artist and writer who is honored to have had the opportunity to be a EuroBiCon workshop leader. She loves cats, dancing, singing, improv acting, and brain-friendly approaches to anything from folding laundry to becoming an Olympic ice skater. Read more from Lila at lilahartelius.wordpress.com.

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