Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Body in Motion

I currently weigh more than I’ve ever weighed in my life (numerical disclosure not forthcoming; suffice it to say my driver's license is a bold-faced lie, like almost every other North American woman's), due to several factors: genetics, the plant-operator and road warrior lifestyles, emotional issues, a profound love affair/obsession with cake. I’ve been moving a lot more lately as time and energy permit, trying to focus on my emotional “table legs:” sleep, hydration, diet, exercise.
It occurred to me on the rowing machine this morning, watching my calves and thighs flex and stretch, that one of the best things about physical activity, perhaps more important to me even than the endorphins and health benefits, is experiencing the way our bodies were designed to move.
To see and feel the control and power of the way time and nature have continuously engineered the human body is a mesmerizing thing, hence the popularity of the traveling Bodyworlds Exhibit, which I could not stomach. Due to sensitivity to death and human viscera I prefer to experience the body as a complete package, skin-on, bone-in. That doesn’t mean I’m not conscious of what lies beneath, the intricacies of tendon and joint, electric nerve and rigid glob of muscle. The way a pump nestled in my chest forces an oxygenated syrup through a network of fragile, elastic tubes and the fact that I feel it surging is a source of unending fascination to me.
I was resting my head in my hands one day years ago when beneath my fingertips I suddenly felt my skull in all its mineral solidity, could all but see it and the stock of my unlikely existence contained inside. The brutality and complexity and enormous strength and mystery of my own construction came home in that instant for the first time, and I’ve never had the same relationship with my body since. I view it with wonder and excitement and more than a little charmed horror now, this motorized, emotional hunk of carbon and saltwater. This “ghost in a meat-covered skeleton,” as the Internet has dubbed it.
Which is why I realized with dismay on the rowing machine the other day that often in the past I’ve undertaken exercise for the wrong reason, or in the wrong spirit. Sure, feeling and looking good and longevity and quality of life are fine motivations. But I had forgotten the thing I used to love most about exercise when I did it every day, hours-long walks through the Wyoming sagebrush with my sister’s unruly Labradors, skiing on the groomed trails of the windswept golf course in the winter twilight after work, tugging at the handles of an older, cheaper hydraulic rowing machine than the high-tech WaterRower I have now. I had forgotten the exquisite sensation of movement, of muscle sliding – outwardly visible – over bone under skin, of heart thrashing and blood sweeping, of heat rising.
Something else had happened to my perspective that was even worse in the years since I left Wyoming and roamed up and down the West Coast. In that time, for specific reasons I’m still untangling in therapy, physical effort had become a punishment, something to endure rather than enjoy. The result is deep, shocking, horrid: my reason for exercise had gone from the love of my body to hate of it. Exercise had become a desperate drive to erase what I hated and recover something I loved.

I have always been a particularly emotionally confident person, secure that I am loved and valued by family and friends, understood for the most part (as well as can be expected; in order to function in this world I have had to accept and adjust to the fact that I am apparently more than a little odd), assured that my abilities are more than sufficient, perhaps even notable.

Alas, though, at some times in my life I’ve been physically self-conscious, the usual adolescent angst around the betrayal of my own developing skin, hair, shape, voice, mannerisms. And though I am now fairly comfortable with myself, rarely even glancing in the mirror unless I’m doing something special, there was certainly a time I wouldn’t leave the house without makeup and only wore clothes that made me feel comfortable physically and emotionally, which in retrospect probably weren’t doing me any favors. But I think I’m allowed that. Everybody is allowed their teenage years and twenties. What a relief to finally make your thirties, when generally, ideally, you’ve at least managed to gain a sense of your vision and digestion and dependency on caffeine before the real fun starts and everything goes to hell again (so I’m told, on a regular basis, because I have older friends and family members and tend to date men a decade older). Talk about betrayal. Our bodies are never really constant. Might as well give up trying to control them and just enjoy the ride.

But in the meantime we can at least care for them, and part of that is acceptance. Accepting that they are so real and faulty and dynamic and utterly visible. Accepting that there are variables in our ability to keep them functional, let alone meet the standards of society and quench the corporate greed of an industrial complex that constantly feeds our life-threatening doubt and insecurity. And that’s the crack where the hate snuck in.

On the rowing machine, watching my shins elongate and my knee caps gliding on an unseen inner rig, I thought, “Hey, that’s cool.” And I suddenly wondered why I hide my knees and puckered thighs most of the time lest they offend an innocent bystander. They're mine; they're part of me and they still function just fine. Why should I hate them today, or ever, no matter what they look like?

I’ve been self-indoctrinating in body positivity on Instragram lately, following the accounts of women (and men, to a lesser extent; guys are all about the “transformation,” sharing what’s done, not what’s doing, and some women are that way too) who have – mostly – overcome the worst of their society-induced self-loathing and embraced the bodies they have, because the time is now. The very real, very faulty and dynamic and really, when you look at them closely (and these brave people are letting you look closely, in the name of sharing the valuable things they’ve learned, in some cases valuable enough to save their lives), really very beautiful, even when “flawed” in ways society currently decrees. “Don’t hate the shake.” “Posed vs. natural.” “Airbrushed vs. real.” "Love the squish.” “Before vs. after,” eating-disorder edition, the deep purple stretch marks, cascades of loose skin. Life-saving self-love.

It’s hard to self-contain body positivity and self-acceptance. It’s hard not to need outside validation and approval. It’s hard to be an outlier, living beyond the incredible restrictions of what’s currently socially enforced as acceptable in a physical being, despite the fact that some 90% or more of humanity is orbiting that grossly exalted standard and being fed sinister, subliminal messages by cosmetics companies and the health and beauty industry (not to be confused with the medical industry, which is another topic altogether) telling them they’re not good enough or deserving of, well, anything. Because it’s not just walking down the street; people make snap judgments about what the state of our bodies communicate in job interviews and medical situations and even when choosing friends. So… yeah. No wonder I hated my knees. They might cost me a job or the empathy and attention of a healthcare provider or new (though really crappy, if that's their metric) friends.
I say “hated” in the past tense because I’m getting closer, with every day and every stroke of my cat’s mortal enemy, the rowing machine, with every flippered dive in the pristine Hawaiian Pacific, with every ankle-grinding haul through the Honolulu airport, to accepting that I don’t fit society’s standards, and more importantly, don’t have to. I’m closer to letting go of the frustration and dismay that I used to fit them, and somehow “let myself go.” That is not even remotely what happened. What happened was life, a lot of things I couldn’t control, a lot of things I couldn’t endure without turning to emotional coping mechanisms with physical consequences that affected my appearance (though, thankfully, not yet my health, which is also a whole other topic altogether, and not something I'm ignoring).
And for me the key to that acceptance isn’t just changing the way I look, but changing the way I experience my physical form and the things it can do. I have always loved to swim, to kayak, to climb hills, loved the mental cradle of repetitive motion, allowing my mind to drift in a state of energy-restoring self-hypnosis (no really, that is a thing when exercising, and, frighteningly, when driving; ever been surprised to find yourself pulling into your garage with no memory of how you got there? Subconscious taking over). I love impact and control and competition and even, under the right conditions, sweat. And maybe the best part of exercise is how great a shower feels afterwards. Feels. How great things feel. How fascinating the feel of salt and water and fabric and air from the fan I prop on the rower’s water tank to simulate wind over waves.
I have to exercise because I love my bones and my tendons and my muscles and my nerves and veins and skin and fat – yes, even the insulating, clothing-distorting, I’ll-outlast-you-in-a-global-food-crisis fat. Because in order to change my body, I have to accept the way it looks first, which starts with loving the way it moves. That blots out everything the television is telling me about my stretch marks (gels and creams!) and butt dimples (liposuction!) and every other perceived flaw (new-and-improved, results-not-typical, 5-minute exercise machine!) I think I have.
I also have to exercise because I’m not giving up cake.


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