It was the lights, swirling red and orange outside my window, that awakened me. I may have heard sirens or voices – I can’t recall now what exactly compelled me to slip from beneath the covers and make my way into a darkened hallway. Our neighbor from next door was sitting silently atop the stairs. He turned and asked awkwardly, “do you want a glass of water?” Scared, I said nothing and returned to bed.
Later, I would compliment my mother on her beautiful smile. Later still, I would learn her teeth had been replaced by gleaming dentures. I was told she had taken a spill down the stairs and I believed it. I was 7 or 8 at the time, approximately 4 years after I witnessed my mother up against a wall, my father’s fist at her face.
In slow drips over decades, the story of the “night of the lights” unfolded. My father, probably drunk, pushed my mother down the stairs. He kicked her in the face, hard enough to break her nose and shatter her teeth. An ambulance was called, as was a neighbor to protect my sister and me.
The operation to repair my mom’s broken nose left a small scar. My father told her it was “sexy.” In the years following, I watched him wrestle her to the floor, his hands around her neck. I listened to his graphic accusations of adultery against her. And my name was called to intervene between them, when my dad pressed a knife into the soft flesh of my mother’s throat. I accompanied my mom to the liquor store so she could dutifully check my dad’s bourbon off the shopping list. I was there when she bought Playboy and Penthouse magazines, explaining that they were what my father needed at the time. And she was there, a figure in the background, when my dad played “rough-house” with me, his fingers traveling much too far. She was there, watching silently, for all the spankings through which I gritted my teeth and refused to cry.
My parents co-created a world in which my mother’s body was not her own. It very clearly belonged to my father, to do with as he wished. And by extension, my body did not belong to me, either. This world was one where any female body was object, ornament, punching bag or masturbatory tool. Where to be a girl coming into her own, meant that by age 10, the spankings had ceased but the living-room weigh-ins had begun. By age 12 my body was open for my mother’s scathing critique and at 17, the length of my skirt prompted her to accuse me of attempting to seduce my father.
And so, from a very early age, I regarded my body as foreign, separate and apart from me as a person. It existed in space, far removed from my developing sense of self. I certainly did not own it and I only sometimes controlled it. It was subject to be acted upon without warning and my silent acquiescence was expected. Intense feelings of shame and guilt churned constantly within me, becoming associated with every part of my physical form. I grew to hate my body, deeply and ferociously.
I don’t anymore.
Today, I mostly adore my body. I love my physical form as the greatest instrument of righteous bad-assery I could have in life. I’ve made truly amazing discoveries about my body and am grateful for the adventures it has facilitated. I wake up every day excited to gain more strength, claim more speed, earn more endurance and surprise myself with all of which my body is capable. This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. I don’t awaken excited about my job, or my family, or even my dog every day. But I never cease to be absolutely thrilled by what I can do with my body. It is no longer a distinct entity removed from my identity. My body is a critical piece of who I am.
The journey to this point was neither linear nor gentle. I spent years believing anorexia to be my best friend. I’ve binged on monstrous amounts of cookies and trail mix, only to feel inebriated and profoundly ashamed after. I’ve taken medication to induce vomiting, as well as handfuls of laxatives. I’ve sliced into my own skin when emotions threatened to overwhelm and pumped myself full of diet pills that kept me awake for days.
It was in a small space of a commercial gym where my relationship with my body began to change. I’d joined in a never-ending quest to be smaller, and initially stuck with the treadmill and a few other machines. When Emily, a personal trainer, commented, “I think you’re ready for the free weights,” a door opened to vistas I’d never before imagined. Training for strength shifted my perspective. It was less about what was wrong with my body, and much more about what I could achieve with it. Experiencing my body becoming stronger was simply fun, in all the ways that hours of steady-state cardio could never be for me. Suddenly, I had tangible goals and witnessed my hard work pay-off as I achieved them. I gave my body what it needed and was rewarded with greater health and a growing sense of empowerment. Training for strength made me feel like I could do anything.
Hiking, climbing and backpacking came next. Powerlifting, progressive calisthenics and plyometrics eventually followed. Through the years, I’ve discovered truly fascinating facts about my body. I possess an impressive size-to-strength ratio, my legs are built for maximum endurance (hello 10 hour hikes!), my muscles can handle an extraordinary level of volume when lifting, my body gains both muscle and fat about equally, my lower back is not especially prone to injury, my short limbs make deadlifting from the floor impossible, my balance and coordination could always use a little help, and I possess an inexplicable movement pattern in my hips that prevents me from going heavy with my back squats. These tangible elements of my physical existence anchor me in this life. My body is my great taproot in the world. Its abilities, quirks and preferences are integral pieces of the puzzle of me, in ways far more affirming than my early experiences.
When approached from a place of skill acquisition and authentic inquiry, any fitness modality can offer the tools to truly be at home in your physical form.
The woman who doggedly pursues Crow pose in yoga is the woman who learns the tremendous agility, strength and balance inherent in her physical presence.
The woman who goes from struggling up a flight of stairs to finishing a 5K is the woman who experiences the transformation possible with persistence, consistency and commitment in any area of life.
And the woman who takes her grief and rage to the mountains, and walks it out with every step, is the woman who knows the power of her physical body to heal her metaphorical heart.
If you were to write the story of your body…
- what would be important to include?
- What lessons were you taught?
- How would you describe your relationship with your body?
- Critically, how do you want this story to end?
Move, play, experiment. Claim sole and absolute ownership of your miraculous, gorgeous, capable, resilient, powerful body.
Because once you truly own your body, you truly own the world.
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