wAGING change was on hiatus during the month of January due to website updates. Thank you for checking in with us again for our February 2021 segments: Embodied Aging & Intimate Lives
When was the last time you skipped?
Skipped in the hop-step, happy way children sometimes move themselves through the world?
Over the recent isolated, family-distant winter holiday season, my spouse and I spent some time with two close friends in our COVID bubble, and one evening decided to see if we could skip around a circle in the house. I don’t recall what led to this questionable decision, but I do recall very clearly what resulted from it – the hardest belly laughs most of us have had in the last year, and a strong sense of disbelief that WE WERE SO BAD AT SKIPPING! We all mused that it had been around 40 to 50 years since the last time we could recall having tried to skip and yet, none of us initially thought we wouldn’t be able to just do it. Skip as we skipped when we were happy-go-lucky five-year-olds, full-of-ourselves seven-year-olds, coolly maturing ten-year-olds. Why did our tennis-playing, golfing, hiking bodies not retain this skill? How could we not embody our inner skipper?
Much has been written about aging bodies, and observable changes to the body are points of reference for our path through time – gray hair, wrinkles, skin changes, stooped posture. Beyond this focus on how the body appears, however, what if we paid more attention to what the body performs? Note I did not say how the body performs, but what we perform. It is a common narrative that how our body performs inevitably declines in older age, but UK researchers Gillieard and Higgs1 point to possibilities for moving away from this preoccupation. They suggest that the concepts of embodied identities and embodied practices offer a way to understand how bodies represent complex identities crafted through social time and space, as well as performance of self in response to context. In other words, it becomes less useful to look at a body and label it as old, but more important to consider how the body moved through time and space and how the inhabitant of the body interprets that passage.
Here’s my down-home take on these academic concepts. The photo below is of my mother’s hand resting on the water pump handle outside her greenhouse. I took the photo four years ago on her 92nd birthday, as she toured me through the latest victories of the greenest thumb I know.
If you look closely, you can undoubtedly see the outward signs of aging….but look closer and notice how her hand rests on the handle as if it were an extension of her body. This hand has rested on that spot hundreds of times, brought forth the source of the well and used it to nurture the growth of other living things. This body performs master gardening; this body has moved through the world as a mother, a nurse, a weaver, a military spouse, and a widow, alternately embracing and resisting those roles in rural, foreign, congregate and isolated contexts. It is old, but what did it do to age? It cared, and nurtured, and argued, and created, and at one point – in a playful, social context that called it forth – it skipped.
1Gilleard, C. & Higgs, P. (2015). Aging, Embodiment and the Somatic Turn. Age Culture Humanities 2015:2, 17-33.
©2021 WomackJL: Professor OS&OT/Allied Health Sciences/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill