20 lines: taking up space

This morning, my body aches. A deep ache, as if I had been pummeled through the night. It is doubtful that I “worked too hard” at the gym, or that my time in the garden yesterday afternoon was that taxing, but I am guessing it must be some combination of these things, along with the general overall decline that accompanies aging.

I don’t mean that to sound as melodramatic as perhaps it does? The body expresses its limitations – is not infallible, is what I mean.

I have been at war with my body for as long as I can remember. Enumerating its faults, tormenting it. Withholding food and then indulging in excess and forced expulsion, etc.

There were years of détente. Of appreciating its strength, its capabilities. For a time, I took better care of it and enjoyed the benefits of improved relations.

Now, I witness changes with disgust. The angry, weeping rash on my forearm the latest among its many betrayals: the wrinkling skin around my knees, the weakness of my knees, the rounding mound of my belly, the misshapen bones in my feet.

I wish I could view my recent weight gain as intentional – an attempt to grow large, to take up space, to assert my position in the world. But any sense of that is fleeting when I try to squeeze myself into pants that are uncomfortably tight.

How tedious to be another woman dissatisfied with her body. How vain to measure my body’s worth by how my clothes fit. I have never really articulated how much and how deeply I have hated my own body.

I think: Try to think about things you like about your body. OK. Sometimes I like looking at my own hands. I like the green veins visible beneath the thin skin. I like my fingers although they are not particularly slender or long, which would, I think, make me like them more.

I have been told my skin is particularly soft. I like my skin.

I like the shape of my breasts, but they are now too full and they are falling from where I think they should be. I like my waist, but it is now too thick. I like to feel the bones of my hips when I am lying down, but I am reminded of how they once were more prominent and sharp – not buried as they are now.

We have already covered the failures of my knees.

When I am in a group with other women – at a work meeting or an event – I quickly scan the room to ascertain where I rank in weight. I don’t need – in my own mind – to be the thinnest woman there, but nor do I want to be fattest. If I determine that I am, it is that recognition that defines how I feel about myself.

As I write this, I am horrified by the depths of my own shame.

When I was in high school, I read in some fashion magazine that if you held in your stomach, not only were you strengthening your abdominal muscles, but there was the added benefit of actually making your stomach appear flatter for the time you could “hold it in.” I remember making a college visit (feeling particularly vulnerable, I suppose, in the context of all these new, and to my mind glamorous college women) and holding my stomach in all weekend. I have thought of this occasionally over the years and am struck by the absurdity of it. I remember nothing of that visit – the people I may have met, the classes I may have attended – all I remember is my relentless focus on sucking in my gut.

I feel as though I should try to make some statement about the toxicity of a culture that compels me to hate my own body so much, but the idea wearies me beyond measure. I have no insights beyond a shapeless, inarticulate grief in recognizing the anguish that over the years, the fact of my body has caused me.

It was my knees, I think, that prompted all this. Last night, at a party at the home of a friend, I was aware of how uncomfortable I was standing around, talking. I pulled a chair over a few times so I could sit. My knees felt swollen and brittle. I thought, oh my god, it’s the weight I’ve gained. I have put too much pressure on my knees now. How much longer can they be expected to haul around my mass?

As a child, I danced. Took lessons in all forms – tap, jazz, traditional Irish step dancing. I studied ballet, gymnastics. We practically lived at the dance studio – lessons two or three afternoons a week and then nearly all morning on Saturdays. I was good, too. Won awards.

I don’t remember exactly when my relationship to my body shifted, but I am guessing it was sometime around 11 or 12. My parents divorced. I got my first period. I cut my hair short.

In college, a friend used to say, in her warm, booming voice: “I wanted to be a ballerina, but then my boobs got too big,” and she would stick out her chest and laugh, and everyone around her would laugh too. It was her way of flirting in a new group of friends, and it often worked. But I remember thinking of my own aspirations around dance and performance. And the heightened awareness of my own body – a long torso with short legs, and yes, I too was “top-heavy.” To laugh it off the way she did – this seemed right. It seemed self-assured and appealing.

I tried her line a few times myself, but it never felt good coming from my own mouth. It was not, after all, my truth. Mostly, I suppose, I don’t talk much about how I feel about my body, except perhaps in the socially-sanctioned observations about the indignities of middle age. Those at least, feel true.