It still happens to me sometimes: I pull on the pair of corduroys I haven’t worn since last winter, and the fabric strains as I button them.
Or, I’ll glance in the mirror after showering—and before I can stop myself, I grimace at my reflection, cataloging stretch marks and cellulite.
Shaming one’s own body is an ancient habit, cultivated by decades of exposure to the media’s curated images that show us what women’s bodies are “supposed” to look like in order to be desirable. I’ve devoted dozens of therapy sessions to my struggle with accepting my body. I’ve attended 12-step meetings and done a trauma treatment called EMDR to help me heal. I’ve reframed my expectations of myself, training my critical eyes to focus on what my body has done: grown and fed my two children, stretched, and felt pleasure.
But the loathing can creep back at any time. And that’s when I need to remind myself that my body is on loan.
It’s so easy to take our physical selves for granted. After all, for as long as I can remember, I’ve existed in my body. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of mostly good health so far, making it far too easy to forget that our bodies aren’t a forever home.
The other day I came across a section of Kerry Egan’s lovely book, On Living, and she devotes a chapter to this phenomenon. The book tenderly documents the life lessons Kerry has sifted through with dying patients in her work as a hospice chaplain. Egan often hears of the regrets and unmet wishes of her patients. “But the time wasted spent hating their bodies, ashamed, abusing it or letting it be abused—the…lives that people spent not appreciating their body until they were so close to leaving it…are some of the saddest,” Egan writes.
Oh, I thought as I read the chapter.
I’ve used this reminder in the past to help reframe my relationship to my body, changing it from one of criticism and resentment for not looking how I want it to look, to one of tenderness at its mortality at its miraculous metamorphosis.
It’s so easy to forget that this skin is temporary. The ivory bones that allow me to walk through the woods and hug my children and tap out words on my keyboard will someday lie beneath soil or be scorched and scattered, tiny splinters of carbonates and calcium phosphate that will land in whatever location suits my beloveds who are still living.
Mindfully remembering that my body is temporary—that it’s a living organism that will someday die—softens me to myself. It cultivates wonder, compassion, and a deep, achy love.
Just for this moment, I get to be here. In this body that was once a handful of blossoming cells in my mother’s womb—that was a helpless, wrinkled baby, and then a child who ran through summertime sprinklers, experiencing the thrilling shock of the freezing water and the sharp stab of grass on the soles of my feet. In this body that was a dreamy, awkward teen and then a young adult, who hiked up mountains and kissed drunk boys and breathed in the hope of spring, knowing her life would, at any minute, finally begin in earnest. Who is now in middle age, who is sometimes surprised by the lines in her face, who loves the breathy warmth of a hot yoga class—how it pulls her back to now and now and now.
Who will, if she is lucky, grow older or less healthy or, likely, both. Whose body will, finally, be reclaimed by the earth or the stars or the wind.
Of all the things I’ve tried to heal my body image, this is the one that works the best. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter so much if my corduroys mash together when I walk or if my face looks older than I feel.
“I am going to miss my body so much,” one of Egan’s patients says.
When I consider this—that this body is here on loan, and how amazing it is to even exist? All the critical thoughts I’d had evaporate.
I can only think this, for all the years spent in self-loathing and dieting and wishing myself different: I’m so sorry.
And I love you.
And thank you, thank you, thank you.
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
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