Why Learning Anatomy Matters

The following is excerpted from “Liberated to the Bone” by Susan Raffo, published November 2022 by AK Press. akpress.org. Graphic by Sarah Whiting

Here is how it should be: we are born and, as we grow older, we learn ways to talk about and experience what is happening within our skin as well as what is happening outside of us. Education, we all know, should support us to experience life. This means supporting us to be in deep relationship with our first and original homes: our physical bodies and the communities of life that are their shape and swirl.

Contrary to what it says at the top of the page, learning anatomy doesn’t matter. Learning the Latin names or a textbook’s idea of the correct placement of the duodenum or the third cervical vertebrae doesn’t matter. Learning anatomy as poetry, as history, as cultural understanding of physical tissue, that’s what matters. Learning anatomy as a way to be the first gathering place of the intestines (duodenum) or to feel/know/understand the throb and shape of a headache that rides low at the back of your head (third cervical nerve and so much more), that’s what matters. Learning anatomy is not about assigning facts to parts but about sensing in and becoming that anatomy. It’s about experiencing our own lives in a place of nuance and detail, completely and always connected.

Learning anatomy is, at its core, about learning about difference rather than standardization. As with communities, there are some things you can say are likely to be true about the collective of cells called a human body, but this likeliness does not mean that there is a normal or an average body. Such a thing doesn’t exist. Hearts are not all in the same place in the chest cavity, nerves do not act or move or attach in the exact same way in every body, and let me tell you: organs migrate. Ask any person who spends time looking at the inside of a human body; they will tell you that anatomy is a map that helps give you a sense of the general layout, but when you go looking, things are often not where or how you thought they would be. It’s why I like to call anatomy poetry rather than fact: it evokes something that then helps us to understand what we are experiencing.

It’s important to think of anatomy as poetry rather than steady fact. It’s important to the path of liberation and to honoring the sovereignty of individual bodies to have their own experience of themselves.

There have been and continue to be entire social and economic systems, medical practices and eugenic practices, deeply racialized and gendered and ableist ways of approaching the body, that focus on identifying which kind of body is “normal.”

Across history and in the present moment, horrific things have been done to bodies defined as not “normal” to bring them “back” under control. Systems of definition, like race, gender, and often health, have been created to distinguish between normal and different, and then to attach meaning (and violence) to that difference. How we talk about — and experience, connect with, care about, live in, and attend to — bodies matters.

This thing we call anatomy, this wealth of information cataloged on the page, this compilation of drawings, recordings, and objects floating in formaldehyde, evolved out of a mix of slow observation and violent attack. In the U.S., the so-called “father of modern gynecology,” J. Marion Sims, forced his research on the bodies of enslaved Black women, building a compendium of “knowledge” about gynecology that is still taught with rarely any awareness of (or repair and healing around) where that knowledge originated. There are stories like this throughout the history and development of anatomy as a science.

Still, it is important to learn anatomy, its poetry and flow, the violence and pain of its history, the liberation possible in its sharing. It is important to learn a story of connection that does not single out the heatedness of the sympathetic nervous system without also talking about its relationships to everything complex and marvelous within us — and to the histories outside us that helped to give it its name. It is important to learn, to become, connection to the cellular experience that is our life.

These bodies are our original homes. Our beginning place. They are also our ending place and our place in between. They are what we have and who we are. Keeping them a disconnected mystery is what trauma, oppression, and the conditioning that numbs and freezes us depend on.

The poetry of anatomy is just one way to pay attention. There is no single story that tells the truth of this community of cells self-organizing within our skin. Chinese medicine has a completely different story about what goes on inside. So does the yogic tradition, and aboriginal traditions, and Yoruba traditions, and on and on. What gets called Western anatomy is an evolved and emerged set of stories and understandings, wiser in some places and more awkward in others. What we call the science of anatomy emerged first, as far as we know, in North Africa, particularly in Egypt, about 3,700 years ago. Because there was wisdom in it, this way of talking about the physical body began then mixing with cultural traditions and understandings in Greece, and then flowed back and forth among Islamic, Christian, and Jewish thinkers and dreamers, poets, and scientists, until becoming this thing that we recognize today. This evolution of illumination, of excitement and learning, should also be part of its teaching, alongside the violence and disregard that has flourished through its development. Like a whole body, this is a whole story. And it is only one story, one way of assigning meaning to shapes and spaces around and within us.

We have been here all, before and beyond every story: pumping blood, swirling lymph, laughing and crying and experiencing all kinds of pleasure.

I get dizzy and feel weepy when someone tells me the story of some aspect of the body. Embryological development makes me shaky, in a good way — like some love-buzz drug welling up from those ancestral, evolutionary spaces, echoes of long ago that are still here, just like our vestigial tails and early tadpole-in-the-uterus moments.

I dream about teaching an anatomy class one day, about teaching it as a ceremony and respect, as a conversation about remembering and also about coming home through poetry and practice. I dream about teaching an anatomy class that doesn’t limit itself to the boundaries of the human shape but instead shares in a way that says: look at how our noses are like and different from the noses of wolves. Look at how the mitochondria in our cells and the chloroplasts in plants have the same grandparents. Can you feel it? Can you feel how we all remember each other?

It’s what we can tell our youngest when they are new- body discovering themselves and the world around them. This, this body is part of your magic! Go ahead and be it, feel it, know it. It’s your home, your glorious and original home that helps you feel/be/know that the specificity that is you is no more separated from the whole than your liver or fingernail is from you.

This, after all, is the ultimate wisdom that our body shares with us: we can be two things at the same time, completely specific and unique as well as, seamlessly, the inhale and exhale of a greater connected breath that is the rhythm of life itself.