The way we are perceived by others affects our embodied experience.
Other people’s reactions to what we are, contributes to the way we feel about ourselves. If someone sketches me, I may perceive myself slightly differently after seeing myself in pencil on a page.
Many people associate the self with the ‘mind’ or the ‘soul’, and may feel the need to change their physical body to express their ‘self’. This obviously represents a Cartesian Dualist perspective because the mind/soul is seen as separate from the physical body. The ‘inside’ as separate from the ‘outside’. The body used as representative of what is invisible to others (our individual embodied experience).
Surely, from an embodied perspective the self and body are one. Embodiment is everything we experience, yet for many people, a differentiation still exists between what they feel they are on the ‘inside’, and what they are on the ‘outside’. Usually this manifests itself as a dissatisfaction with the way one’s body appears, but also occurs vice versa. This is influenced by cultural norms and pressures in many societies and a language that is geared towards the separation of the physical and the conscious. This attitude has a huge amount of power over individuals and their perceptions of themselves.
Aaron Parkhurst discusses the trend of skin whitening in Emirati women. He mentions the very complex reasons behind the practice but also states that, “When access to education is limited, the body – relative to the mind – becomes a more important basis for identity
as well as a source of power.” (Edmonds. 2007, 378).
Skin whitening products could be viewed as a way to change your embodied experience. If people of different skin tones are treated differently (which they are), changing the way people perceive you could radically change your social lived experience in some societies. This shows how ideas of power over oneself and over others affects embodied identity. Of course, many other factors are at play in situations like this, such as gender, but I believe that perceptions of self and body as being separate are deeply ingrained in ideas about ‘where’ identity is located for many people.
Another demonstration of the power others have in determining our own embodied experience is shown in this quote from Hull (1997) in Ingold’s, “The Perception of the Environment”.
“Because I cannot see, I cannot be seen . . . It would make no difference if my whole face disappeared. Being invisible to others, I become invisible to myself ’. It requires a real effort of will, if you are blind, to remind yourself that you can still be seen.”
Embodied feeling seems to be more relevant to Hull than his physical image, because the only reason he remembers he can be seen, is because he knows other people can see him. I don’t want to make assumptions about how identity is conceptualised for blind people, because I am not blind, but from this quote it seems as though Hull may not think of his physical image as as much a part of his identity as his sensory experience. We’d have to ask him to be able to know if he has a dualist perspective on his identity or more of an embodied identity.
It would be interesting to see how alterations in sensory perception affect how we think of our identity. I can understand why someone who has been blind from birth would have a completely different perception of their identity/self than someone who has recently turned blind. Different societies who have different perceptions of the mind and body would also vary greatly in the way they consider their ‘self’ in relation to their physical or embodied body.
I used to think about my mind and body in a dualism. We are fed lines like “It’s not what’s on the outside that matters, it’s what’s on the inside,” from a young age, and it influences us. Of course there is no right answer. But after learning about the workings of the brain, and after writing this blog, I believe that my perception of my ‘self’ comes from my embodied experience as a whole rather than from conceptualisations of ‘inner’ consciousness and ‘outer’ physicality.
But i’ll let you make up your own mind…
Ingold, T. (2011). The perception of the environment. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Parkhurst, Aaron. (2013) Excerpt from Chapter 5: Wearting White,
Bottled Identity (235-260) In Genes and Djinn: Anxiety and Identity in SE