I don’t know what age it was that I became at odds with my body? Probably puberty? Before that my body was my friend. She was me and I was her. We were a team. We rode bikes, moved, bounced, and laughed. My body and I, we were a dynamic duo. Inseparable and indispensable. My ally and friend. A co-conspirator. I still have vivid memories of fearlessly learning to ride a bike, falling, needing stitches, and getting up and starting all over. My body was brilliant. The star of the show and a magnificent supporting player. It was never competitive with the two of us. It was a virtuous relationship where both of us could be stars and key players in the role that was my identity. Integrated. Whole. Complete. My tenacity and my body’s physical strength. My courage and my body’s movement.
Babies and their fascinating bodies move from a kind of lump of soft muscles to upright, walking, running humans in the span of a year or so. Bodies are amazing. What happens to this friendship? The pinky promises to be by one another through thick and thin. Over hills and then down again. Tag you’re it. Birth initiates the beautiful, amazing, and dynamic relationship of body and self.
For me, overnight my skinny-kid frame, bruised knees, and worn muscles morphed into the body of a woman in the mind of a kid. Now there was war. A conflict erupted that I didn’t know how to solve. 5th grade, 11 years old, and I got my first period. I had no idea. I was still most concerned with riding my bike with no hands and holding my breath in the deep end of the pool for longer than my friend did, and suddenly my body turned on me. Our inviolable trust fractured. Herein lies the beginning of my fight with my own body. Her sin was unforgivable: growing up. This sin immediately subjected me to all of the varied, layered, and complex cultural inheritance of the female body.
This is how it went down: in fifth grade, I weighed 85 pounds, by 6th grade I weighed 135-ish, was 5 feet 6 inches, 32 DD breasts and started shopping in the women’s department. One day I looked like a kid and the next like my mom. I hated my body. It turned on me and I turned on her. Each month my period was a visceral reminder of our all-out war.
This transformation was not only physical, moving from girl to woman, but more enduringly, it was a transformation of the relationship between me and body. Identity and self. What was a seamless connection one day, became a battleground the next. And the collateral damage of war was of both body and self—a once harmonious identity now drowning in discord and discontent. My body and self were in the ongoing process of perpetually othering each other.
Highlighting my rocky relationship with self and body was my perfect twin sister. Her body did not turn on her in such a visible way. Even when the two of us got braces on the same day, her teeth complied, mine revolted. In the months following braces, the small gap between my front teeth became a gulf the overtook the entire front of my mouth. I got hives that covered my limbs and even moved to my face swelling my features to beyond recognition. An internal warfare waged externally. Every last part of me and her was at odds with the other. Sworn enemies. Behaving like some masochistic auto-immune disease.
Starting in middle school, I routinely dieted with my mother. This began my long trend and habit of yo-yo-ing. The idea of a perfect physical body narrowed so sharply to a specificity so limited that any reconciliation, of body and self, became impossible. I placed ultimatum after ultimatum and constraint after constraint on this non-compliant body of mine. If you look like this and fit into that, I’ll forgive you. If you look more like her and think like that, I promise not to hate you, body, quite as much. What I know now, is the relationship between body and self is not about size or appearance. That is just a red herring. The distraction. An object of hate and blame. A cultural construct wreaking havoc on identity and connection. A lie interrupting a most beautiful and important relationship.
Through college, we cohabitated at a distance. It still felt like I was wearing someone else’s jeans. Like we didn’t quite fit. There was not peace, but rather like an old married couple, there was mutual agreement to do our best to leave the other alone. The problem with that arrangement was: we couldn’t. We fought over the remote, what to eat for breakfast, and how to make peace when there were more grudges than we could count. My sophomore year in college, I remember studying in the library and some anonymous person left me a note. It read, “You have a lot of potential. You just need to lose 15 pounds.” Herein lies the battleground—the connection between the body and the self, are inextricably tied to appearance when really, actually, they have nothing to do with it. Legs are not their shape but their function. A face is not its beauty but rather the ideas that move and flow between the synaptic connections in the brain.
In the unspoken and estranged marriage between body and self, I often moved like an empty vessel. Hibernated. Still my body supported. My body carried me. My body weathered physical and emotional pain, again and again, loss, change, sickness, and health. She carried me when I couldn’t hold. She silently supported me through the dark when I didn’t see. She stood by me, even when I, the self, enemy, did not stand by her. I abused her. I starved her. I criticized her. Yet, she held me. She gave me legs to stand on and strength to move forward.
Today, I’m 42. Human. Woman. Mother. Sister. Friend. Student. Creator. Teacher. Mind. Body. Soul. Beginner. Expert. Original. Today I look at my body in awe. Not for the fact that it still fits into jeans, because that ebbs and flows, but because of what my body does. It gets up after skinned knees and carries me. My body miraculously created, carried, and birthed four living, breathing humans. My body has raised those same children day after day, through sleepless nights, illness, and struggle. My body weathered pain and sickness over and over again. My body patiently complied each time I began again. My body held me through a divorce, pulled me out of bed each morning, and supported me through the day. My body stood strong while I held my mother, rubbed her back, and stroked her feet while she lay dying of breast cancer. Today I am grateful for limbs that move, for legs that stand, muscles that flex and stretch, and for a mind that articulates. I am grateful for a body that moves and supports no matter the struggle or challenge. Today, at 42, my body and I, have made peace. I love my body and my body loves me. I can’t have me without her. We, women, we, humans, are so much more than our shape we are our strength, function, and incredible, limitless capacity.