Sometimes I get mad at my body. I expect all my body parts to work together as a team, but every now and then, one of them quits on me. “Traitor!” I say to my ankle. “You need to get with the program!” After over a year of rehabbing and resting and generally depriving myself of any athletic outlet, my ankle finally felt ready to run again. Almost immediately afterward, I tripped and fell on the sidewalk and ripped the skin off my knee. (Well, both knees, both hands, and an elbow). This happened five days before a hiking trip 900 miles away, for which I had already bought my plane ticket. I went on the trip, bringing a fully-stocked first aid kit for my still-bloody knee, and came home with blisters under both my big toenails. At this rate, I’ll be lucky if I’m running by Thanksgiving. I can’t even wear pants or proper shoes right now. Body, why can’t you just give me what I want all the time?
Sometimes I feel panic when I consider my body. Sunburns are one of these times. I still have a brown tiger stripe across my lower back from a second-degree sunburn I got there over a year ago. (A tough area to keep covered, since it is so hard to find pants small enough to stay up where they belong). About once a year, I am careless with the sunblock, and I get a bad burn on my chest. There is a mole there where there wasn’t one ten years ago, and every morning, I examine it fretfully, afraid it will turn on me. My gums. Oh, my gums. I may be aging in reverse in many ways, but my receding gums are the bane of my life. Thirty years of grinding my teeth, chewing through four mouth guards, wearing through amalgam fillings in 18 months… I wish I could start over. I’d go through teething like a baby if only I could have a fresh new mouth. I look at myself, with my stretch marks and spider veins and my one Rasputiny chin hair, and I sigh with disappointment.
Sometimes I wish I was better looking. Other times, I feel like that would be an irritating complication in my life. The dream of invisibility is more compelling for me than the dream of physical beauty.
I used to be fat – significantly fatter than I thought I was. I have stretch marks on my calves, knees, thighs, hips, and butt. In some ways, I carry them as tangible proof that I used to live on an alternate timeline, in a parallel universe. In other ways, they crush my spirit. They’ll never go away. They don’t itch anymore, the way they used to when they were still stretching, and they’re not purple anymore either. Still, I’m disappointed when I see them.
When I was at my heaviest, I used to play with the fat roll on my belly. I addressed it affectionately as my “jelly roll.” I would grab a handful and hang on to it. It interested me. It was comforting. I didn’t think I “looked fat” – I was smaller than most of my friends, and I thought of myself as “average.” I had seen a statistic about the proportions of the average American woman, and I was marginally taller and weighed slightly less. (Or thought I did. I hadn’t weighed in for quite a while and I know I would have been surprised if I knew the truth). I had nothing to worry about. I felt attractive to men. I never felt the body shame that so many women seem to feel.
I’ve been angry with my body. I used to ride my bike around, swearing to myself. “F.U., thyroid gland! You can’t do this to me!” When I would get migraines, I would cry into my ears, in fits of rage and humiliation that my body once again insisted on being so demanding. It wanted something, I knew not what, and I felt helpless and powerless against it. I would wake up in my dining room or living room or standing in the middle of our mattress, shaking and crying, heart hammering, with no memory of how I got there. These moments were the worst: Mortification that my body ran around with screams coming out, while I was sound asleep and unable to control it. Deep fear that I had started opening doors during my night terrors, and that I would run out into traffic one night and be killed, the way others with my condition have. Disquiet that I might attack my husband and that I would have to start tying myself to the bed, the way others have. I would like a new body, please, and a new brain, too, if one is available.
Fortunately, I’m on top of it. I haven’t had a pavor nocturnus episode in about a year, and it’s been longer than that since I had a migraine. My thyroid nodule went away many years ago. I’m at a healthy weight. I may not have all the skin on my knee that I want right now, and I have no idea how long it takes a blister under a nail to go away. Generally, though, my body is fit and healthy and ready to go. I would be in better shape if I had a longer attention span and if I stayed more alert to my physical parameters. I’m always pushing at the limits, trying to go farther and faster, and pushing myself 1% too far.
It’s hard to miss the epic levels of shame that people are feeling toward their bodies. Someone shares an article about it nearly every day. I don’t identify with this feeling, though. When I was heavy, it was pretty obvious to me that my life wasn’t working. Fibromyalgia, migraines, mysterious hair loss… The more I learned about nutrition (and applied it), the better I slept, the more active I got, the better I felt. My annoying health problems pulled the carpet out from under me less frequently. I started to realize that significant time had elapsed since the last time I had had X or Y problem. I felt and looked stronger. I began to trust my body more. My thighs and abs look amazing. I like my body more at 40 than I have at any time in my life. I feel like what people are interpreting as a negative emotional reaction to external forces (such as “the culture”) is ineluctably tinged with an interior dismay that various internal systems are out of balance. There is a sense of rightness inside the body when it is well rested, fully hydrated, fed the proper amount of micronutrients, and allowed to move as much as it wants. I am not sure how someone could feel that rightness in a state of chronic sleep deprivation, nutritional imbalance or deficiency, dehydration, weak muscles contributing to bad posture contributing to constant aches and pains, and/or a chronic health condition. I certainly never did. When I was sick, I didn’t care how I looked; I went to the movies once in my nightgown, with my hair unbrushed, because DEAL WITH IT. I wasn’t ashamed, I was just ill. Now that I’m healthy, I wouldn’t care if I grew a tail and everyone stared at it, because I’m grateful and I feel good for once.
It is possible to wake up and feel glad to start a new day. It is possible to see yourself naked in the mirror and think, “AWW YEAH!” It is possible to wrestle chronic illness to the ground and put your boot on its neck. It is possible to feel triumph rippling through your body. I believe that in many ways, I am aging in reverse, and that I will be physically stronger, faster, and more agile in ten years than I am today. I believe I will look better at 60 than I did at 30. I’m proud of my body now. I appreciate my resilience and strength and grit. When people stare at my body, as they do sometimes, I square my shoulders and hold my head up. This is what a marathoner looks like. (Well, a slow one). This is what a survivor looks like. Body, you disappoint me sometimes, but we’re still a team, and a good one. Now, about this knee…
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.