Sometimes I feel like my body is me, and other times I feel like my body merely houses me. I know I am a biological entity, and my belief is that I don’t exist without a body. I need the biological processes that my body provides for me. As an earthling, I can’t survive as just a brain (or a mind.) So why is my relationship with my own body so complicated?
It wasn’t always. As a child, I didn’t question my body at all. I was one with it. If someone had asked “Who are you?,” I would have given my name and told them what I liked – colours and foods and animals. And if they said, “Who are you really?,” I would have said, “I’m me – the one standing right here – and I can walk and jump and swim and sing and think about things.” There was no distinction at all between who I was and what I looked like and what I could do. I liked myself. Everything worked.
I was a girl and I looked forward to puberty and turning into a woman. I felt proud, as if this were an accomplishment. I liked the idea of gaining curves and becoming attractive to boys. I had acne and oily hair, and my nose and my feet grew far more quickly than the rest of me. But I came through it feeling like it had been a success. As a teen, I was kind of brainy and artsy. But underlying that, I was completely at home in my body. Teaching swimming classes at the local beach, I enjoyed the body confidence of receiving compliments, and knowing I was strong and fit. Both relatives and strangers noticed and approved of how I looked. Sexual attractions and explorations made me feel good about myself. This adulthood business was going to be fun!
At university, I was thrilled to be in the company of other academics. I worked out at the college gym and pool most days. But my body started to betray me. Over the course of a long-term relationship, I was anxious about its future. No matter how sparkling my life appeared to others, I suffered from stomach distress, light-headedness and fainting spells. Then, as now, young women are told it’s “just stress” and we should simply “lighten up.” It worsened in my early working life as I continually scanned my environment for rivals (based on my boyfriend’s behaviour) and compared each of my physical features to every woman he knew. I bought into the culture which told me I had to compete, and to prove myself day after day in order to earn his affections. When our relationship finally combusted, I was convinced it was because I had gained 7 lbs and I had failed in my duty to be flirtatious and fun.
Throughout my twenties, I focused on my job and my colleagues. I identified as a worker and a friend. It was a conservative decade and not a body-conscious one. We wore Lopi sweaters and pleated jeans and Reebok Princess sneakers! We were cozy librarians with our knitting and our cats. Our size and shape did not matter. Sure, we took aerobics or aquacize for a few weeks a year, but we didn’t mean it. If any of us ever married, we expected our lives to continue in the same way, but with inoffensive men and children underfoot.
But the men showed up and so did the kids and everything changed and so did our bodies. I didn’t see children as my biological destiny, but I did want to be a parent. After a miscarriage, I knew that every mom on the planet had an apparatus superior to mine. I hid my sorrow under 25 lbs of new fat and then gained 32 more the next year with a pregnancy and a healthy baby. I exulted that my body was obeying my will. Then it was a novel experience to be thought of as “fat” for the two years it took me to slim down.
As a parent, I was expected to be tired and frumpy. A three or six year old is aware that some parents are large people. I was pleased to be average sized. My body worked again. I could lift and carry a kid and a stroller and a car seat; I could survive a bouncy castle or a ball pit; I could be a lap to sit on or a piggyback giver; I could demonstrate a lay-up shot or a dive to an admiring child; I could work an 8-hour day and still wash the car and mow the lawn. So in my 30s, I felt capable in my body.
A big switcheroo occurred in the following decade. I was single and dating again. Middle-aged women were now dressing like teenagers and getting Botox and boob jobs. In an unexpected twist, men were now being ogled and treated like eye candy and toy boys. In my T-shirts, hoodies and jeans, I was, at least, the “cool mom.” But was I up for “hook-ups” and sending naked selfies? After a couple of unsatisfying relationships, I opted out and decided to go it alone. I ended up meeting Rom after a year-long platonic friendship on a music website, with only fully clothed photos being exchanged (well, until we met, anyway!)
It is hard to know what bodily self to present to a new partner at age 45. Ultimately, the only answer is, “The one you have.” What I like best about mature physical love is the ability to laugh at and with each other about the way our bodies work. They are funny, awkward, vulnerable things. And surprisingly resilient.
Maybe it’s a function of being past my child-bearing phase, or being in settled relationship, or just being over 50, but my body sense has dramatically changed in the last 5 years. I feel like I’ve fallen out of all gender expectations, and I’m past being identified primarily as a woman, wife or mother. I just feel like a person. I am female-appearing and have no desire to change that. I have all the advantages of being cisgender and heterosexual. I’m sure I take it completely for granted, but I feel sort of “post-feminine.” My body serves me well; I am not opposed to its presence. But I am neither proud nor ashamed of it. It simply is. I feel like my real life is in my thoughts, words, and deeds; my work and my interests and my relationships. My body doesn’t have much to do with it, except as a vehicle to accomplish those things. And, of course, to delight in sensual pleasures, but any body can do that. I expect I will feel this way until my body starts to fail me and my abilities diminish. In the meanwhile I plan to take full advantage of pleasures of the flesh 🙂
I have always been drawn to the life of the mind. I spend my time thinking and reading and learning things. But I am happy that my bones and blood and neurons and all my parts provide a container for that to happen. Sometimes I even like my packaging!
Your body – are you for it or against it?
Oooh good post. I’m just in the process of trying to heal my body after the many years of abuse and neglect. It’s not easy though x
Thanks, Julee. You are doing all the right things!
I still think that my body is like that of a twenty year old until I look in the mirror, try to exert myself or read small print without glasses. Then I remember it’s has a bit of wear and tear. Lovely post.
I was so much more critical of my body back then. Now I am kinder to it!
Great post and a loaded topic… for me at least. I was the skinny daughter of a morbidly obese compulsive eater. Went on my first diet at age 11 after my dad told me I was getting fat and needed to be careful lest I morph into my mother (I was 5 feet tall and weighed 85 pounds.) From there it was eating disorders and body hatred until well into my 20’s – followed by gaining and then losing 50 pounds through the “recovery” process – heavy emphasis on the quotes because it’s still an issue that I struggle with.
Though I’ve come to see over the years that all of the craziness has much less to do with my body size and shape or with food, than it does with fear, power, sexuality and control. And the deeper I get into cycling, the more I see my body as a machine whose primary purpose is to function well – rather than an “art object” that must look a certain way.
Definitely a work in progress though!
Hi Cat, I suppose I have come to those realizations in a milder way. Still not sure if my body is something I use or something I am, or if it even matters. I agree that functioning well is the goal. I am glad you are at that place!
Such a well written post. it seems that you’ve come full circle and have found peace with your body again which is wonderful. I am thankful for my able (though ageing) body.
Thanks, Claire. I am quite content with my “too too solid flesh” right now 😉
The mind body dichotomy – an oldie but a goodie in the “Who am I? ” and “What am I?” debates.
I am happy with my packaging but often forget what it is. Cause it is what it is. Not to mince words, I have big tits. I don’t remember this, or generally care, or think about them. But others seem to SEE them before they see me. A comment from someone else about them often brings me up short – oh, yes. I have breasts. I forgot. Get over it.
But as much as I am happy with my body, I am glad I don’t have to get naked in front of someone new.
Ah, the breasts. They are certainly not the focus of my physique! In fact there are a lot of clothes in my size or style that I can’t wear because they have darts or extra fabric and I don’t fill them out. Some might think I would like to be otherwise, but I have always felt a certain amount of compassion for women like you who constantly see people talking to their chests! I used to feel awful for the girls in high school who were ogled by teachers. Link is one of your tribe and I am sure that surgery is imminent. I am glad you are happy with yourself 🙂
It is too bad that it takes so much life to finally find peace in ourselves. (Although it sounds as if you have had that peace in several phases of your life.)
It is a good exersise to look around you and to see that almost everyone has these negative body images, regaurdless of what ppackage they are in. Maybe it is part of human nature, but probably it is just part of our culture.
The moral of the story: say positive things to the people around you that will make them feel good about themselves.
I think some people bond by chatting about what they dislike about their bodies! Or seek out compliments: “Does this make me look fat?” I am always torn about complimenting people’s appearance: if I say “You’ve lost a lot of weight!” the person may think, “I must have looked really fat before.” It can be a lose-lose situation! So I try to compliment people on their behaviour instead (kindness, courtesy, etc.) But maybe people do need more positive feedback about their appearance?
I think the bonding over failing bodies is healthy talk. Commisierating over failing eyes, creaky joints, and spotty skin is a good thing.
I have found though, that some close friends have disturbingly bad body images. Or have husbands who make them feel worse about their bodies. These are the people who I like to try to prop up with positive messages.
The main thing, however, is that I tell almost everyone I know that I love them, and that they are beautiful. Because it is true!
(of course, being trans really compicates all of this positive body image stuff. So, I may not be one to even be talking about positive images! )
I am kind of amazed to read this account of a pre-teen being comfortable in their own skin and even looking forward to puberty! I remember being about 10, swimming topless at the beach and being mutually outraged with my twin sister when we both suddenly realised that our ‘freedom’ would be curtailed by next summer. We were fit, lean and boy-like and didn’t want to change!
But overall, we adjusted to teen life. We both had a bit of shared disdain for body image expectations of girls that was probably protective in our teen years. Our rebellions were short-lived…but it leaves me with sympathy for those who live in bodies they do not want to live in.
Yes, exactly the conclusion I had. If my story is the journey of someone who lives quite cozily in their own body, and it was rough at times, how many hundreds of times more so for someone who hates the vessel they’re in. I can’t quite imagine being dysphoric about one’s body: actively NOT identifying with the body you’re in, and feeling separate from it. You would be alienated from physical aspects of your own life. I’m relieved not to have experienced that.
Off topic side-note: I had to look up ‘dysphoric’. And back two posts, I had to look up ‘louche’ (for the second time – I’d forgotton!) Excellent words, both!
Thanks! Just tonight I was thinking how I miss using a print dictionary and stumbling across so many random words in search of the intended one. Maybe if I left one beside the computer, I would be exposed to more new words 🙂
Very reflective post. Do you sometimes feel like you are a passenger in your own life? On occasion when I have fallen into habits or routines, I have felt like i did not own my body. This where we need those impulsive decisions to break the chain of monotony. You made me think this morning, so muchas gracias. BTG
Hi BTG, No, I have lots of meandering thoughts but that isn’t one of them. I am more inclined to think that I am just a biological organism and my “self” is just an illusion created by brain impulses. But fortunately others must participate in the same illusion.
Ah, the gift of ageing – acceptance! From adolescence onwards I recall years of dissatisfaction with my body. Now, in middle life, the acceptance has seeped inwards. I suppose media/marketing/societal messages aren’t directed towards older women and in conjunction with experience, we finally reach acceptance. Funny, but my body is in by far the worst shape of my life, but I am grateful every day for it.
I say to myself, this is not the display model, this is the working model!
I like that – the working model! I am all about function over form these days. There is marketing about undoing the effects of ageing, but I disregard it, so advertising (based on fashion and beauty) doesn’t affect me much. But functional stuff – a new messenger bag or pair of boots – always gets me!
Thanks for coming by and asking how things were going. I came over to see what you’ve been up to as well. What a well written post. It’s true that our body image changes as our lives change and grow.
I’d have to say that I am currently unhappy with the way my body responds to what I would like it to do. The MS exacerbation has been hanging on a lot longer than I had hoped and makes most things difficult. I can’t walk or stand for long – but still get around with some crutches or a walker. I’ve forgone a lot of my normal activities, but hopefully it’s all temporary. And I suppose the resulting weight loss that accompanied this should have made me happy, but in the end it really doesn’t make much of a difference to me. Other than my pants now fall off.
Nice to hear from you, Heidi. Yeah, I am happy that everything works as it should. I imagine if I had health challenges, I would content myself with “doing everything I should be doing” including the right balance of rest and strengthening. But I bet that feels like work!
That second to the last paragraph is it. It’s a good destination to arrive at after a lifetime of body-image thoughts.
I tried on a couple of pants this morning before I found one that did not threaten to cut off my circulation, I’m at the point in life where I need to decide whether I’m going to embrace the middle-age spread that’s obviously coming my way or fight it with exercise. I know I’ll settle somewhere in the middle but the challenge is doing it while maintaining positive thoughts towards my body.
Hi Yetunde, I have not always been able to maintain positive thoughts, so sometimes I just don’t think about my body at all, but just eat well and enjoy healthy food and then my body likes me better and I feel more like being active!
Another thought provoking writing! Lately I have been truly surprised that my body has it’s own agenda which I wasn’t even provided a copy of! Night sweats? hot flashes? And why can’t I read the print on coupons anymore!!!
Well, I have had “progressive” lenses for a couple of years now. The rest I am ignoring. I am lucky I can.
My metabolism just isn’t what it once was. I was a size 2/4 from my teens into my mid 30s and I could eat anything I wanted. Then *bam* I was a size 6 for a while and now a size 8. Part of it is a pretty sedentary lifestyle coupled with the $1 store and all of the candy and junk food that is so cheap :I Great post!
Hi April, Just last week I was telling my mother that I have crossed the line into being an older adult because I can’t eat as much at one sitting as I used to. I’ll be trying to order from the seniors’ menu next 🙂
Great post! My body… Well, we have an odd relationship. We’re trying to get along better right now but it currently hates me for the exercising that I’m making it go through.
I have been struggling to inhabit my body, rather than just cart it around with me. One of the curses of being a baby boomer is the mindset of perpetual adolescense (or at least grad school) and a body that insists on getting older.
I can relate!
Very well written, Dar. Definitely something I hadn’t given much thought to until you mentioned it.
I learned when I was young that as long as I got a good amount of sleep and ate somewhat well, my body was a pleasant place to be. I strive to treat it a little better each year and do for the most part. But I’ve had an easy time of it because I feel at home as female and have always maintained an “accepted” (skinny) body shape with little effort. Plus I’m healthy, no allergies, rarely ill, etc. No complaints here!
That’s a perfect place to be, Amanda – just the right combination of good fortune and good practices!
Excellent, excellent post. I have always been a little bit in love with this shell that I live in! It has always been slim and strong and, whilst there were small things I would have changed, they were only small and for the most part I was proud of it. Until I hit 29. Then I noticed the small things I would have changed getting bigger – excess hair. Grey hair. A pouch on my tummy, bingo wings, cellulite, bags beneath my eyes that don’t go anywhere, heels that now crack in flip flips, psoriasis. Etc etc. It was a difficult time for me to realise that I can no longer where the clothes I could in my twenties and I am really having to learn to love my new, older body. Because I know I am not the type to dye my hair or wear lots of make up to cover my face etc!
Thanks, Holly. Age is relative! I see your photos and I know (from my perspective) you are very young. But I suppose that in one’s 30s, you have to decide if you are going to be kind to your body with healthy food and exercise (which feels like work a lot of the time) or if you will be easy on it by relaxing, accepting it the way it is, and not being afraid of a few lines or pounds. It is the rare person who gets that mix right! PS – I coloured my hair for over 20 years, and if I could go back, I would never have started!