Dr. Hillary McBride on Living an Embodied Life

Our culture is obsessed with bodies. From Instagram influencers who push diet pills to entire magazines dedicated to men’s health, we have a lot to say about the way we look. But when we talk about bodies, what specifically mean the outward appearance. But what if we realized that our bodies were more than a physical vessel?

Dr. Hillary McBride addresses this issue in her new book, The Wisdom of Your Body. McBride, a licensed psychologist and award-winning researcher, explores the broken and unhealthy ideas we have inherited about our body and how embodiment can lead us to find healing, wholeness and connection. McBride spoke with RELEVANT Associate Editor Emily Brown about embodied living and how recognizing the way our body is connected to emotions and spirituality gives us a holistic view of ourselves.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Emily Brown: Why do you think it’s important that people understand that your body is more than something physical?

Dr. Hillary McBride: I think it allows us to fully inhabit ourselves. I think it is about coming home to ourselves more fully, and actually living with more nuance, more richness, more depth. So much of our existence is in the body, and yet we have relegated our sense of identity to this tiny little piece of tissue in our frontal lobe that’s responsible for conscious thought. We think that that’s where most of us exists, and we’re missing the rest of it.

I think the secondary piece of that is, we need to undo systems that have disconnected us from our body, and the only way to do that is to come into ourselves more fully. I think that embodiment is a way that we undo some of the damage of patriarchal culture, of colonization, of fatphobia, of white supremacy, sexism and so many other things. I think that embodiment is part of how we create a more just and loving world. 

Can you explain what you mean when you say “embodiment?”

I like the definition that really comes from the academic sphere. Merleau-Ponty and Niva Piran, their work has really influenced me and my understanding of this, so I’ll borrow from their definition heavily, that says, “Embodiment is the lived and felt experience of being a body — not just having a body, but being a body — and then how that experience is shaped by our engagement with the social world around us.”

So to be a body is not a solitary or isolated experience. It’s something that is worked out, nuanced and shaped by the social spheres that we’re in, that tell us about which bodies are good or not, how to show up in our space physically, et cetera. 

One of the chapters of your book explores how the body stores trauma and stress, which I think is a really interesting concept a lot of people aren’t aware of. Can you explain a few ways that trauma and stress tend to manifest itself in our bodies without us realizing it?

The first way to understand how trauma is stored in the body is to flesh out our conceptualization of what memory is.

When we think about memory, most of us think about the lists that we make in our mind that we use to then help us go grocery shopping. We think about this list with categories and items that we could remember and recite. That’s actually only one very specific kind of memory.

Our nervous system in our body has the ability to form a memory associated with procedures and emotion and implicit experiences. So what that means is that our body is storing memory that doesn’t actually have anything to do with language or specific time stamped memories.

One of the ways that it does that is it codes sensory information based on our current surroundings, and locks those together with the intensity of the response that we had when we encountered something. An example might be we smell something, and then we have a scary experience, and because those things are together, next time we smell that thing, our body’s going to queue up all of the intensity, we need to get out of there so that if we’re in danger, like we were the time before, we don’t get hurt because we didn’t see it coming.

It can also work in terms of having a more pleasurable embodied experience, but primarily, our body is really good at trying to keep us alive. Sometimes we have these experiences where we’re really worked up about something, and we think it’s about the thing in front of us. And most of the time, it’s not about the thing in front of us; it’s about what the thing in front of us reminds us of. But our body doesn’t remind us in a linear cognitive way. It reminds us in a felt, experiential, unconscious way.

How can knowing that people might have these traumas or stress living in their body make us more sensitive?

I think being sensitive to people’s reactions and not personalizing them — in a way that we think we have to get defensive — is really important.

I think I’ve learned a lot from Black women in the activist space, who are talking about tone policing. The way that white culture problematizes Black women’s anger, we need to remember that that’s not necessarily something we need to get defensive about. We actually get to say, “There’s something important happening here. And if I’m not rushing into assuming that this is about me, necessarily, then I can hold space for your anger. I can hold space for all of the ways that you have been silenced in the past instead of rushing into silence you.”

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So I think that’s one application of it; anticipating things, reading body language, talking about things ahead of time, giving people consent to go into a traumatic area of conversation or whatnot. 

I kind of want to switch gears a little bit, because there’s another part of your book that I really want to talk to you about. It’s the chapter on the spirit side of the body. You share this one idea that, in the Church, we are taught that the flesh is the enemy of the spirit and you talk about how hearing that message can make us have this negative view of our bodies.

How can Christians change our language to make sure we’re not spreading these negative body ideas?

So much of the way that we have constructed this mind-body dualism in the Church has had a really significant, negative influence on culture at large.

Most of our cultures, whether you like to believe it or not now, were influenced deeply by theological ideas and interpretation of scripture, and that was deeply wrapped up in colonization, white supremacy and all of the other narratives that go along with that.

So I think one of the changes that we can do is start to develop a more critical hermeneutic of scripture. Reading the text with an understanding of what’s going on culturally for the writers and the interpreters — I just think that’s a really important piece of this Be aware of how it is interpreted and so many of us read our own biases into Scripture.

If we can be aware of our assumptions, and how those are impacting our reading, we can start to see how there are things that we’re seeing in the texts that aren’t necessarily there, and that’s shaping the stories that we tell about bodies in our faith communities.

Maybe an antidote to this as well is remembering that the incarnation is at the center of the Christian faith. There is no way for us to see that bodies are bad, while also seeing that the whole premise of this faith rests on God taking on flesh, God becoming enfleshed in a body. And so these ideas are fundamentally incompatible with the idea that the body’s bad, but the spirit is good. Jesus, who is without sin, is in a body! That means that maybe we’re misunderstanding, or maybe there’s something more complex going on here in those ideas that are being fleshed out in Scripture. 


Hillary McBride’s The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection through Embodied Living is available now.

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