It’s a strange morning for me to be writing about loving your body, because I somehow managed to injure my shoulder again, so this morning I’m in pain. I first injured it when I was a lawyer, from too many late nights revising a set of contracts. They were two hundred pages long, and I spent months working on them as the transaction was being renegotiated: I was a junior associate, without the power to say wait, no, this work is injuring me. I ended up with a repetitive motion injury that is re-triggered when I work too hard, carry heavy bags on my shoulder (which I do all the time), spend too much time in front of the computer.
But I wanted to write about it, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, and it seems like an important topic. It took me a ridiculously long time to learn to love my own body. I mean, I’ve been living in it all my life, most of the time not loving it at all. Not even liking it very much. And I suspect that’s where most of us live, feeling uncomfortable in our own skin most of the time. I’m not sure exactly what changed. I think it was a combination of things. I realized that I needed to take better care of it, partly because of old injuries, partly because I wanted to do all sorts of things in my life, and to do them I needed to be healthy. And once I started taking better care of it, my body became healthier, stronger. It began to feel more truly mine. Love is both a noun and a verb: it’s both the feeling of love and the act of loving. When you act in a loving way, you being to feel the emotion as well. So loving your body has a double meaning: both the feeling and the act. As important was the fact that I have a daughter who is growing up, and I want her to love her body. We teach by doing, not saying — if I wanted her to love her body, I had to model it in myself. I would be her primary example of what it meant to be a woman, and so I wanted to do it right, to the extent I could.
It’s strange that we generally don’t love our bodies, isn’t it? We’re so disconnected from them. I was thinking about why I ought to have loved my body all along, and I came up with three reasons.
1. It’s healthy. Both of my parents are doctors. I lived with my mother, who is a pediatrician. When I was a child, she worked at the National Institutes of Health. I still remember going with her to visit one of her patients, a girl my age who’d had multiple operations for cancer. She had a long scar down her abdomen. I grew up with the continual knowledge that the body could become ill, that illness was a part of human life. And then, when I was a teenager, my mother had cancer — she was younger than I am now. I have so many friends who are not healthy, who are dealing with medical situations of various sorts. I’m grateful simply for health. I rather hope that if my body weren’t healthy, I would still love it — but it’s ridiculous not to, when I can wake up in the morning, get out of bed, stretch, and know that I’m going to spend all day walking around, doing what I want to do. That, by itself, makes me grateful for the body I have.
2. It’s beautiful. I never realized how beautiful until I spent a week taking care of my grandmother, who was in her nineties at the time. She was bedridden, so she needed to be lifted, cared for the way an infant is. She was thin, frail — and I remember thinking that her body reminded me of a bird’s. For the first time, I was struck by the great beauty of the human body. The bodies we see in magazines, the bodies we are taught to call beautiful, never struck me as particularly beautiful, somehow. But I think I define beauty differently than most people — for me, beauty is complicated and contradictory. It has something in it of death. My grandmother’s body, in its final years, seemed to me worthy of being painted. An artist would have loved it. And in her body, I could see my own. I started to see the beauty in what we would probably call its imperfections.
3. It’s mine. It’s the only one I’m going to get, at least in this life. I spent most of my childhood wishing I could look like someone else. But I was never going to, was I? And no one else was going to look like me. So it was up to me to do my best with this particular body. To treat it as well as I could: give it good food, let it rest, make sure it exercises. Not work it too hard (which I tend to do). Because after all, it was me, the only me I would get unless we live more than one life (which I actually believe we do, in some form, in some way, although I don’t know how).
So there you have it. We have such problematic relationships with our own bodies, I’m not sure why. Perhaps because we grow up in a culture that tells us there are right and wrong ways to have bodies, be bodies. Perhaps because unlike other animals, we separate ourselves from our bodies. We often interact with the world as though we were brains being carried around by our bodies, rather than consciousness emanating from a physical structure. But the proper response to our bodies is always love. Even if we don’t like them at a particular moment, because you can’t change what you don’t love. There are things I need to change: I need to deal with this pain in my shoulder, for one. That means more yoga and less carrying heavy bags. But I’m glad that I’ve gotten to this point, where my body actually feels like me. And how strange that it took me so long to get here . . .
(I thought about what images to include with this blog post, and decided on some drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, who celebrates the human body so wonderfully, at all ages and in all different conditions.)