It started out innocently enough. I was born. They counted ten fingers and ten toes. Everything appeared to be in working order. My arms were where they were supposed to be, as were my legs. Family and friends admired the adorable, chubbiness of it all. They cooed and gooed at the miracle that was new life. Every inch of me was perfect from their perspective. Everything about my existence on this earth represented possibility – the chance to make good, to right wrongs, and make a fresh start. This is not unique to my experience it’s what we do with children – it’s why people keep having children even in the face of a world that doesn’t seem like a good, safe, or hopeful place at times. They are our window into what might be.
I moved predictably from infancy through toddlerhood and my legs carried me along on that journey. They toddled about carrying my new, little self to all of the adventures awaiting me. No one had judgments about the shape of my face or the heft of my behind. There was only wonder at the magnificence of my existence. No one had yet negatively reflected back to me the disappointment of their own physical being as they took in my physical being. There was still the possibility that I would be built like a goddess and fulfill the deep and not so deep desire of every woman on earth to be beautiful, imperfect, and without dimples on her thighs. There was still hope for me.
Yet, something happened and at some point I began hearing things throughout my childhood and adolescence that built my understanding of my body and its value. Puberty hit me early, very early and I had a woman’s body while I was still a child. Statements like, “pinch an inch” or “I’m so sorry you got my legs!” or “you need minimizer bras” began to shape how I thought about this suit that my consciousness had been born into. I started to become increasingly self-conscious and developed my own judgments about what was bad about my surface self. I had glasses and braces, big boobs and a terribly neurotic brain. Every bit of the world terrified me and I was now being betrayed by my own body as it seemed to not live up to the standards or expectations of beauty set forth in our society.
Let me be perfectly clear – no one every said ‘Erin you are ugly. You are fat. You are not ok just as you are.” I was loved. I was deeply, deeply loved. What I received was what we all receive – the message that we are not living up – that the way we were born was not sufficient. It is a vicious cycle in which generations of women hear their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts talk about their own bodily imperfections. They lament upon the disappointments at how their feet are shaped or the fact that they gain weight through the middle. Never once as I was growing-up did I hear any women reflect upon the astounding capacity of their own bodies.
I have always hated my legs. They are ugly by traditional beauty standards. Throughout my 38 and a half years on this planet I have never said one nice thing about them. The best thing I can muster is “they don’t look too terrible” or “oh they don’t look that bad” in looking at pictures or in the mirror. It recently occurred to me, probably much too late in life, that this body of mine has been with me since the beginning. Of course it has – what a ridiculous thing to say – but we often live so outside of our own physical existence and we take for granted that our body will just be there. We abuse it, talk badly about it, judge it negatively, and put unrealistic expectations on it. It’s funny – we wouldn’t allow anyone to treat us this way and if we aren’t jerks we would never act in this way toward another. So why do we allow it?
How does my body withstand my unrelenting disappointment? Because my body is incredible. I have an incredible body. This is not something I ever expected to say. It doesn’t look like the ones at the gym in the Lulu Lemon, or on the covers of the magazines, or lounging at the beach. And yet, I have an incredible body.
It has been with me from the beginning. My heart and my brain have withstood sadness, anxiety, and deep emotional distress. My whole self has been crushed under a car, broken, then healed, and with beautiful scars to show for this accomplishment. This body has grown three lives, stretched to fit their growth, disseminating nutrients, building little brains and blood vessels, hands and toes. These legs have carried me through races, walked cities and climbed mountains, taken me terrified over the side of a skyscraper, held me up on hundreds of stages, and bounced my crying babies through many sleepless nights. My stomach has experience the butterflies of love, my thighs have felt its passion, my skin its touch. These arms have hugged and held and carried and cheered through all of the moments of my life. My eyes have witnessed life and death, grief and joy, the miracles of nature, art, love, and family. My ears have heard the giggles of my children, the gorgeous, ineffable agony of music that tears through my soul, and taken in instructions on how to peel potatoes or make a hospital corner. What kind of weird, magical miracle makes all of those things possible in one place for one single individual existence?
Through every pain and joy, and fluctuation of the scale, my body has been with me, and yet it is not me. The way it looks or the way it moves or even the way that all the parts don’t work the way they used to – those are not me – they are only a part. We are the sum of our parts – a mysterious coupling of insides and outsides, the culmination of our life’s work, a massive piling on of beauty and pain, of successes and failures – we aren’t allowed one without the other. I want “I have an incredible body” to become our mantra and I don’t want it to have anything to do with what the outsides look like; but rather what this machine in which we live is capable of enduring and creating. We need it and it needs us and that is a glorious partnership.
Let’s reflect this wonder and reverence to the young women in our lives. The next time you feel like saying something negative about your thighs or your jiggly arms instead just look in the mirror and say “I have an incredible body.” Because you do, you really, really do.