Body wars. That is to say, fighting and scratching and clawing and defeating and utterly losing to one’s body for as long as one can remember. There are mental and emotional tolls taken in a lifetime of self- loathing. Most of them others cannot see. But, we know them deeply, sisters-in-arms against our own skin, our biological attributes, our very beings.
When I thought deeply on writing about this and writing about it with brutal honesty, I did so in part because for years I have tried a certain amount of self-acceptance, self-love and general thankfulness toward this body that I have battled against since puberty. People say that hasn’t worked because I did not put my heart into it and on some level was still battling against myself. That may be true, but the main point is (to me at least) that it didn’t work. How long does one beat her head against the brick wall before saying – ok, that hurts so I’ll stop.
So I’m thinking that since I cannot change my mental make-up, I simply must learn to accept it. I must learn to accept the fact that I did not choose my genes or the way my body developed because of them. I must learn to accept the fact that I’m hard on myself. Harder than anyone should be. I’m mean to myself in my mind and I have never been able to overcome it. Although it isn’t kind, it does serve a purpose and I use it to motivate myself during difficult times. I beat myself up yet I still go on doing the things that are good for me. Brutal honesty is brutal. But, this is a true story.
I can remember a time when I was outside myself and my self-perception. As a kid, I hated clothes and ran around with no shirt and no shoes most of the time. I wanted to be wild. I would hide from my mom in the mornings because she always wanted to comb the knots out of my hair. I hated baths, mostly because they always involved washing said hair. It was a constant battle between us, even as I was a young child. At some point mom took me to the local barber and said – cut it all off. And that was that.
One of my favorite pictures of me and my dad was a photo in which he is showing me a coyote (or possibly a fox) that he had shot. The photo is grainy, it is foggy and I’m assuming early in the day. I’m standing almost behind him, one hand on his shoulder and the other holding back a swath of that crazy, tangled hair, wearing mismatched slippers and a t-shirt that has a picture of Snoopy and says “I love snow”. The contradictions to my life and my soul are so obvious (LOL a dead animal and something declaring that I love snow?) and the look on my face is part fascination, part fear, part sadness… But one thing I am not conscious of AT ALL is my body. THAT is how I remember early childhood.
When my breasts started to come in I wrapped them in some of dad’s medical sprain wrap for awhile. It worked well because it was stretchy and you could get it really tight. It was a tedious process and on one occasion when I had not wrapped them my mom and I were standing in a store and she flicked my right breast with her index finger and said – we need to get you some bras. To the very last day of my very last relationship, someone unexpectedly touching my breast(s) in even a playful, relationship type manner made me immediately want to grab the nearest blunt object and bash that person’s fucking head in. Yes. THAT is how I felt/feel. Even within a relationship. I made it a habit of sleeping in my bra because I hated the way my breasts would touch when I was lying on my side. It absolutely infuriated me, how they hung there like cow’s udders. And they kept growing. My “natural” bra size topped at “DD”. It was disgusting to me and only served as a reminder that I was flawed because I could not control my own body.
When my periods started I hid that too for almost a year. I taught myself how to insert a tampon because the feeling of blood dripping out of me sent me into a rage. Menstruation was an inconvenience that I simply did not have time for. It wasn’t something that a wild, free, child of the woods should have to deal with. I absolutely hated the process, the way my body ached, the constant worry that someone would know and tease me (I started at 11). I hated being female. It wasn’t that I identified as a male it was simply that I felt it was goddamn unfair. I didn’t want to be a woman. I didn’t want to be a man either. I wanted to be different, nothing, just be. I wanted to be free of being either thing and anything. I would spend the first day of each period doubled over in pain and sometimes I’d punch myself in the stomach repeatedly and declare that if my insides wanted so badly to hurt I’d give them something to hurt about.
By 14 I was flirting with anorexia and in “good” times I felt like I finally had my body under control. My relationship with anorexia was not born of a desire to lose weight. Nope. I had read somewhere that girls suffering from it lost their ability to menstruate and a lightbulb lit up in my head. If I didn’t eat, I’d lose fat and my periods would stop. Boobs were made of fat. My period was my enemy. It seemed really logical to me so I quit eating. I lived like that for years, probably on and off (and more on) throughout my teens, never fully spiraling into super low weight (I think the lowest my weight ever got was 103) in order to remain “healthy” in my mind. I had researched that too. I didn’t want to die or damage my heart after all, I just wanted my boobs to disappear and my periods to cease.
At one point my mom asked me why I was dieting and I told her that it was to lose my boobs. I explained my thought process (leaving out the part about my period because I thought that would make her think I was unstable) and she said – I don’t know why you would do that, the rest of you just keeps getting skinnier and your boobs stay the same size so therefore they look even bigger. I snorted, scoffed and continued my quest to regain the body that I was robbed of by puberty.
I exercised too. Excessively. In part I started exercising as a means to burn off calories that I did consume so they wouldn’t count. In part it was my way of “keeping my heart healthy” while I was a functioning, sort of anorexic. Everything that I did had logic to it. It was a crazy logic but to me it was…perfectly logical. I approached my emotional upset with my own being with a clear and concise sort of scientific approach. I became detached from my body in the way researchers become detached from monkeys. It was just a “thing” to me that I needed to control in order to cope with the whole of myself.
When I was about 15, I ruptured two discs in my back. I wasn’t even aware that I did it at the time, only that I had slipped on an ice covered running board getting out of a truck and wound up on my butt, having hit the running board itself on the way down, and then the ground. For a few years the injury festered while no one could find a diagnosis for the pain. When an MRI revealed it and surgery was scheduled, I entered a hospital for the first time in my life. I was rewarded for my “logical approach” by being touted as a model patient – not overweight and in excellent shape – my recovery was predicted to be a success. And it was. I took this to heart. Everything that I had been doing was correct. Obviously this body must be controlled because good things come only from that.
I entered early adulthood with a continuation of borderline anorexia and bouts of heavy exercise. I lessoned my hold on my body only after going on birth control pills, which made my cycle lighter and bearable in terms of pain. I got into weight lifting and became obsessed with building muscle to lose fat. My weight banger phase lasted for decades, with the only break being in my late 20s/early 30s when I returned to school for a second degree, and decided to temporarily give up the gym to hike tall mountains and smoke cigarettes when I reached the top. That was logical too. My habit made me not hungry. I was never hungry and my body seemed small and androgynous and I loved my mind and my soul. I had a best friend and we would spend long nights talking about the universe and the stars and about living together on a farm with a few other people and making that our world. She was amazing and had lived in Alaska and all of her belongings fit into one suitcase. She was also tortured, sad and had more than one reckless and/or dangerous habit. We graduated and she was gone. We kept in touch for a bit but she began to fade away like fog does as the day grows warm. I’d get an odd note now and then and later…nothing. I have tried to find her. I think she may be dead now.
I grew up, decided that I did not want to die of lung cancer and that I should be serious about life. My body betrayed me by becoming a woman again. My periods were once again painful and many nights I’d lie in a fetal position while waves of cramps racked my body. I never missed work and I never missed a workout. I was still at war with this body and I would not give in. I hit the weights harder in response, went back to counting grams of protein, reps and sets. I added fat burners and “hormone suppressing” supplements to my regimen. My bra size hit a “C” cup and I thought if I could just get to a “B”… At around 40 my menstrual cycle got odd and sometimes I would not have a period for a couple of months, then a very painful one, then maybe three or four months would go by without one. This lasted for a year and a half to two years and then suddenly, it was gone. I didn’t know if it was due to training, eating or early menopause. I only knew I was finally free.
Later, my doctor did run hormone tests to verify that I was post-menopausal. I had gone very early and she said that despite the common “use it or lose it” assumption there was no scientific evidence to prove that women who have never borne children go into the process earlier. It didn’t matter to me how I had arrived at a life without menstruation, only that I had arrived. Now I could be what I wanted to be.
But, my body betrayed me again. It was harder to make my body listen. Instead of staying small my breasts actually got…bigger??? Hormones are weird things. Add to this the fact that after almost 30 years of formal “exercise regimens” I was burnt out and angry about that too. All this I had done and my body was still not complying? It became harder to force myself to train. I no longer enjoyed it. I know it might be hard to believe that I ever did, but there were times when, yes, I enjoyed working out. I loved the way my muscles would be sore in the days that followed. It made me feel absolutely alive and useful. I loved the way that sweating relieved the stress of my job and my life. But, at some point it was no longer a release for me. It didn’t help me manage my stress, it WAS my stress. The last day that I ran I knew that I would never run again. At least as part of a fitness routine. I was having a conversation with myself, an argument really, about how much I hated running and I just stopped, took a deep breath and walked home. The same with weights. Despite the fact that at one time I had a great gym-style set up in my basement, I sold or gave away most of my equipment. I retained a couple of plate sets, 15 and 20 pound barbells and a kettlebell.
My mind has nothing left in terms of arguing with this body of mine. It has surrendered, admitted defeat. No peace treaty was signed. They are still enemies, my body and my mind’s eye of what my body should be. But my body has won because the rest of me is just too damned worn out to fight anymore. There are mornings, rare mornings, when I will feel like breathing in the summer air and I’ll pull on my old workout shoes and run up to the mailboxes, through the cemetery and back to the farm, but they are few and far between and I count them not as workouts, but true “I just want to run through nature and feel alive” times. I’m trying to re-establish a yoga practice to alleviate stiffness, not to “exercise” and I pick up weights when there isn’t much barn work to do. When you focus on things for so long for the wrong reasons I think they become like people you’ve tried to carve into what you want them to be. They will always disappoint you. It is best to just let them go.
Still, I have no answers for people at war with themselves. I have not been successful in self-acceptance and love. I have not been successful in making my body comply with my wishes. I am still, and will likely always be, one creature in my mind and another in my skin. So, there is no happy ending that I can give anyone that has been through, or is going through those same sorts of feelings. But, this is a true story.