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Know thy body, know thy self

A former Miss Canada encourages us to explore, experience and deeply understand our physical bodies.

March 26th, 2024

Tara Teng, now an Embodiment Coach, lives on the unceded traditional territories of the Kwantlen, Matsqui, Katzie and Semiahmoo First Nations.

Through her past experiences as a pageant queen, a biracial woman and a Christian, Tara Teng examines the complicated manifestations of body shame in society, and guides readers to align with their true selves.


By Carellin Brooks

Years ago, the facilitator of a communications group I attended gave us an exercise: Every night for a week when you get into bed, thank the different parts of your body for the specific things they do for you.

On the first night, I did the obvious: thanks to my legs for holding me up, to my arms for hugging my loved ones, etcetera. What else, I wondered, could I possibly thank my body for in the nights that followed?

As I persevered with the exercise, I discovered that my body didn’t just help with physical tasks: it enabled me to perform every single act in my day. This should’ve been blindingly obvious, but when I lay down to consider it, I realized I’d been unthinkingly treating my physical self as, at best, a beast of burden. If it didn’t perform as I wanted, I got angry. If it did, I ignored it until the next time I needed something.

I wish I could say that this distanced and transactional relationship to my body was unique to me, but author Tara Teng, a former Miss Canada, knows otherwise. Raised in a conservative Christian household and church community, Teng and her young female peers were eyeballed by older women in the church to make sure their bodies weren’t exposed in ways that might cause boys to sin.

Experiencing her body only in terms of how it might lead males astray is only one of the harms that Teng describes in this book. “Othered” bodies – the ones we don’t see onscreen or on the page – can internalize their invisibility. Racism and other forms of societal harm have, as we know from research, real effects on bodies, such as the doubled maternal mortality rate for indigenous versus white mothers in Canada. Those who experience trauma in their bodies can turn to substance abuse, overeating or other forms of destructive self-soothing to shut out the painful reality of what they felt.

How can we defuse the effects of harms like these in a healthier way? The common answer is to reexperience those feelings physically, which is easier said than done. Teng, now a somatic practitioner, encourages her clients, and us through this book, to explore, experience and more deeply understand our physical bodies. Yes, this means bringing out the mirror and taking a good look at our vulvas, if you didn’t catch the second wave of feminism. It also includes embodied meditation, comprehensive sexual consent (including with ourselves) and other self-guided practices Teng includes at the end of each chapter.

Tara Teng with her book.

It is no surprise that freeing ourselves from the shame that it is all too easy to intuit from cultural messages and internalize, leads to knock-on effects. Taking up space in the world, saying no, defining our own needs rather than waiting for a partner or boss to magically understand and provide for them: all these things become newly possible when we slow down and deeply understand our own embodied experiences.

Teng sees our relationship with our bodies as a relationship with the world writ small, and it’s hard to argue with her. If we prioritize relationships that feel right in our bodies, maybe we won’t search for distraction and a cure for our ennui by browsing big-box stores, but will instead enjoy more meaningful purchases, ones where we are able to meet the makers. Perhaps we will start to understand our relationships with other humans and with the earth as sacred. Heck, we might even tear ourselves from the almighty screens that currently define our lives.

This is not a breezy read, although it is written simply and clearly. Teng’s book contains some hard and haunting stories from her advocacy for sex trafficked women, work she took up after her Miss Canada gig. It links our current physically-distanced, emotionally-muted “normal” with capitalism, colonialism, slavery and other ills of the world where we live – probably not news to anyone who has ever fought for social justice, but worth restating nonetheless.

What if, this book asks, we could return to the way we felt before we learned to judge ourselves, to decide what we deserved and to punish ourselves for not measuring up to society’s body ideals? This is the revolution Tara Teng has in mind. And if honouring our own pleasure and focusing on joy is the key to that revolution, I suspect many readers will be eager to come along for the ride. 9781459752863

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Carellin Brooks lives in a settler’s abled and cisgender lesbian body on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh). Her most recent book of poetry, Learned, contrasts her mid-1990s education at Oxford University and the lessons of the body she learned concurrently with London’s leather dykes.

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