#1000Speak: Body Image, Body Compassion, and Choosing Myself

1000Speak

(This post is part of 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, a project linking together bloggers of varying backgrounds, races, creeds, religions, and abilities to flood the Internet with posts about compassion on February 20. See more posts here.)

In the hospital after surgery. It's probably not an accident that I can't find any pictures in the swimming cap---they're all locked away at my parents' house.
In the hospital after surgery.

At 5, I had surgery on my left eardrum to repair a hole. The surgery left my eardrum permanently weakened. I had to wear ear plugs and a rubber swimming cap to protect my ears when I went swimming.

And in the South, especially when there’s a pool nearby, we spend a lot of time swimming. There was a pool in our backyard. I looked a little weird in my cap, but I didn’t think much of it until one kid called me “rubberhead” during swimming lessons. Then it became all I could think about.

*****

At 10, I had huge glasses, braces, and hair that was long and frizzy, because my mom had no idea what to do with curly hair. Sometimes the boy I sat next to at lunch would call me Medusa. I had scrawny legs and was just discovering that I was, in fact, awkward.

I didn’t have any curve to my body, and though a few of my friends had started developing (or at least said they had started developing) breasts, mine were nowhere to be found. I became bothered that I had hair on my legs and that most women didn’t, and I asked my mom if I could start shaving.

She was taken aback, of course. I was 10. She expected me to be younger for longer, I think. Bless her, she asked a close family member what to do, and the answer was “if she’s old enough to be self conscious about it, she’s old enough to shave.”

It was a relief to do something grown up, to have some control over my out-of-control, developing body.

*****

At 13, I had no braces and no glasses. I’d grown curves and gone through puberty. I learned to work with, rather than against, the texture of my hair, and for the first time in years I didn’t have hair that made me feel embarrassed.

Instead, I had the kind of hair I could hide inside of. It was long, just past my shoulders, with a deep part on the right so that my hair swung in front of my eyes.

My hair was large and wild.

Hiding inside it turned out to be a good tactic as boys (and men) started to notice my body. Hiding inside that veil of hair allowed me to look coy and flirtatious while hiding my embarrassment at the attention.

That same year, one of my teachers found a note I’d written a classmate in which I’d divulged suicidal thoughts. They called me to the principal’s office to meet with my parents, who took me home. I entered counseling for the first time.

*****

At 17, sitting on my parents' front porch.
At 17, sitting on my parents’ front porch.

At 17, I was tiny and insecure. I was so small, but I felt so large.

I’d been told to watch out for getting fat. In my teenage years, that translated to “you are already fat, so don’t get any fatter.” Looking back, I should’ve seen the absurdity. I was a size 8.

But I felt like I took up so much space sometimes.

People often thought I was older than I was. I carried myself with an assuredness that I didn’t feel. I retreated behind my mane of hair, into my books, and with a close group of friends who understood me.

*****

Just after returning to college from working at camps all summer long.
Just after returning to college from working at camps all summer long.

At 19, I was a college sophomore, in love for the first time. I was engaged, though of course it didn’t last long. I’d let go of the strong religious leanings that I had in high school, and I liked to party. I was beautiful, and young, and free to

do whatever I wanted as long as I could make it to an 8:00 class the next day.

I was a ropes course instructor and a lifeguard, so I swam often. I was very, very pretty, which got me into more than a little trouble, some of my own making and some of others’. I gained friends and quickly lost them, moving from group to group and party to party.

I still hid behind my hair—it got larger over the years. I got my first tattoo, a symbol of peace and happiness.

I went into counseling again for depression and anxiety, and for the first time I was put on medication. It eased many of my symptoms, but I had a significant weight gain from the medicine. And of course, it worked erratically because I wasn’t careful about drinking while I was on the medication.

I gained about 50 pounds. I was lethargic and stopped swimming, so the partying and the new medicine added up quickly. I went to monthly check-ups, but of course I wasn’t quite honest with my doctors about the partying I did.

*****

At my baby shower, which turned out to be just weeks before delivery. My hands and face are obviously swollen already.
At my baby shower, which turned out to be just weeks before delivery. My hands and face are obviously swollen already.

At 24, I was a master’s student with an on-and-off-again fiancee.  My body wasn’t as good as it had been in my early years of college, when I was a ropes course instructor and a lifeguard, but it was still a young, healthy, beautiful body.

I got a second tattoo, this time a phoenix rising, flanked by the words “carpe diem.” I spent a lot of time reading and writing, and the rest of my time partying. Life was challenging but relatively carefree.

And then it wasn’t.

I wasn’t sure, at first, how I felt about the pregnancy. I knew it would change everything about my life, and I hadn’t planned for that to happen quite so quickly. I knew I wouldn’t be so carefree anymore. I knew my body would change. I went to doctor’s appointments, read books on pregnancy and parenting, changed my eating habits, and researched whether I could screw up my baby by coloring my hair and paining my toenails.

But around 26 weeks of the pregnancy, I had to research new topics. I was diagnosed with Intrauterine Growth Restriction, and I had to find out more about it.

When I next returned to my OB, she determined that I was actually preeclamptic. At 32 weeks, I went directly to the hospital from her office. I’d just been at work the day before, and aside from extremely swollen feet and ankles, I felt just fine. But I wasn’t.

I couldn’t wait any longer than a day to be hooked up to a magnesium drip and two days, mostly to be given vital steroid shots to help my baby’s lungs develop, before his delivery via C-section.

I barely remember seeing my child’s face for the first time. I vaguely remember his first cry. I remember thinking that somehow I’d made my baby sick, that maybe because I wasn’t sure if I wanted him at first, we were being punished.

My brother wheeled me down to see my baby for the first time, and I could only stay for a few moments. At 2 pounds, 14 ounces and 15 1/4 inches long, he was the tiniest baby I’d ever seen. I felt paralyzed by his smallness and crippled by

Holding Little Jedi for the first time ever.
Holding Little Jedi for the first time ever.

his fragility.

I felt like it was my fault that he’d come into the world already fighting. My body couldn’t nourish him properly or give him the place he needed to grow until birth.

For a long time, I beat myself up for that. Why couldn’t my body do what it was designed to do? Could I have done something differently? Why didn’t I get to have a have a healthy baby?

****

At 30, I had moved to New Orleans with my son, The Little Jedi, and my then-fiancee-now-husband, Sam.

I fell down the basement stairs on Halloween and sprained my ankle terribly. I was immobile for almost a week and on crutches for another week, and my ankle still isn’t quite the same. The walks I’d been taking with our terrier could no longer be taken—he is really energetic and needs to move quickly.

I gained quite a bit of weight again during the recovery, and I was bothered by

At 30, getting married in Vegas.
At 30, getting married in Vegas.

how long my body took to heal. A few months later, I would fall again and sprain my other ankle. And a year after that, I tore the meniscus in my right

knee.

Changes were around every corner—my own adjustment to living in New Orleans; Little Jedi adjusting to not living with my parents anymore, living with Sam for the first time, going to daycare/school for the first time, and living in a city like New Orleans after small town Mississippi; leaving school for a new career path; my husband changing jobs; a marriage.

*****

At 31, my body is scarred. I’m heavier than I’ve been probably ever in my life. My ankles and knee swell after high-impact exercise, and though I’ve stopped smoking, I’m still out of shape enough to be breathless after exercising in small bouts.

But I’ve come to see the value in what my body has been able to do, and I can forgive it for its shortcomings.

I’m choosing not just body acceptance, but body compassion and body love.

For me, this means holding myself accountable for what I put into my body now but not punishing myself for my past. It means that when I make a mistake (or 5 days of mistakes, like when Mardi Gras happens and then my birthday happens), I don’t beat myself up over it.

I have to re-choose body compassion every day.

My instinct is to get discouraged when I don’t meet the goals I set for myself, especially as concerns diet and exercise. But body compassion sets me up to say “oh well” and move along after a screw up. In some ways that’s more difficult for me.

But I choose body compassion.

I choose it because I need to be compassionate with my body before I can truly love my body. I choose it because I have to remember the life that my body has been through before that I can get to the life I want.

I choose body compassion. I choose me.

At 31, in costume for a Mardi Gras ball and embracing my curves.
At 31, in costume for a Mardi Gras ball and embracing my curves.
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