“Mommy, why are you limping down the stairs?” I asked. “Are you hurt?” My 5-year-old self was concerned. My mother was my everything at that particular time! “I am not hurting Barbara Jean”, she replied. “I am just stiff in the morning sometimes”. “But do you hurt?” I asked back. “Just for a little while, she said, and then it goes away.”
I could not wrap my little mind around the idea that your body could hurt for no reason. I jumped right out of bed every morning. Nothing on MY body hurt. I reflected on this reality several times over the course of my young life. I wondered when (and if) this would happen to me. In my athletic experiences I often woke up stiff, but that was different. I had a reason to hurt. I had climbed a mountain or run a race. This “hurting just because” business lingered in the far reaches of my mind my entire childhood.
My mother was just 27 when I asked this question. She had just had my brother Jonathan and was pregnant with my sister Johanna. Looking back on this now she had plenty of reasons in my mind to hurt. But this was not how she explained it to me. She simply said that as you got older you would often hurt when you woke up. Knowing how insistent I was on wanting answers I am quite sure I asked about this more than once.
That conversation was 54 years ago and as I sit here writing on my porch my knees ache in a rather ferocious manner. I am on the porch in the humid sunny 95-degree day that is my reality. I love this weather, but I know what it does to my knees. I have arrived you see, (long ago I might add). My body often hurts “just because”. Yes, I am a bit overweight. Yes, I have reintroduced squatting into my workout routine in the gym. Yes, I have started running a bit again. So, I have plenty of “reasons” to hurt. Twenty years ago, however, I would not have been hurting like this. Jack will one day notice my stiff granny gait and ask me if I hurt. I imagine I will explain this to him and reassure him. I have arrived.
Our bodies are in the news a lot now. Politicians driven by their desire to control are creating policies and laws that tell women what they can and can not do with their bodies. Sexist driven history has assigned positive attributes a masculine title and negative attributes a feminine one. Tears and tenderness have long been thought of as weak womanly emotions. Being a “man” requires toughness and strength. Women can wear pants but men are ridiculed for wearing dresses. Entertainment shows us handsome men of all ages, young and old, in leading roles with a young woman as their sidekick or mate. Old women are seldom if ever seen as beautiful or shown with young lovers, and if they are it tends to be a caricature of reality. White hair and wrinkles are fine for men. Women often dread the day these changes begin.
We have no control over the body we are born into. Once we are old enough to ponder how we want it to be we can alter it and make changes if we want. To a point. I separate myself into two realities. There is “ME” Barb Higgins, my essence, personality, thoughts, beliefs, etc. and there is my “soul house” (I call it). The body in which the entity that is me resides. In my experience most people find many ways to dislike their “soul houses”. There are so many varieties of things to love and hate. Heavy, light, curvy, straight, muscular, skinny, tall, short, curly hair, straight hair, teeth, eyes, ears and so on. Nature creates the human race randomly extremely well. There is great diversity in the human condition. Then comes gender, race and ethnicity. Skin color, eye shape, build, body parts, etc. Not only do we all look different but our “soul houses” are also differently equipped with skills, strengths, weaknesses and flaws. I am skinny, blue eyes, blonde hair, inflexible, severely lacking in depth perception, extremely gifted in endurance and pain tolerance. Finally, we have brains that have more variations than all of the aforementioned attribute’s times a thousand. I have ADHD and am extremely intelligent. I am a voracious reader and have a good memory. I am articulate. I am asthmatic. I have bunions. I have severe allergies. I had a severe overbite and had to wear a headgear in middle school. (The days of Bucky Beaver Barbara)
Nature versus nurture, genetics versus training all play a role in who we develop into and how we get there. Our life experiences do as well. As a child abuse survivor, I have had a tricky relationship with my body. I see it as a very separate entity from the essence of ME. This gives me permission to hate it without hating myself. In my years as a running coach of high school aged girls I had my fair share of runners with eating disorders. One of my most effective lessons on self-image and body awareness was to create and present to them different styles of “soul houses”. A Mack Truck or a Sports Car. A Mobile Home or a Mansion. A Carrot or a Pear. Trying to turn your pear-shaped body into a carrot shaped one is impossible. My first experience loving my body was on the starting line of a race. I looked around me and saw that for THIS activity (something I loved) at THIS moment (track meet), my body was perfect. I looked down at my feet, nervously toeing the line and LOVED what I saw. It is not lost on me how lucky I am to have had this opportunity.
In my health classes I would do questionnaires to get to know my students. I would ask questions about a variety of things that related to the personality, lifestyle, likes and dislikes and inner thoughts of my students. My standard body question was “What is something you would like to change about your body?” Invariably the boys would answer “I want to get bigger” (lifting weights, taking supplements etc) and the girls would say “I wish I was smaller” (dieting, exercise etc). It made for great conversation around self-confidence, a healthy self-image, and how much societal demands affected how we saw ourselves.
The growth of the open and active trans gender community has all of us re-thinking our bodies. I find people are quick to sexualize it. That wanting to be a different gender is somehow tied predominantly to sexual preference. When I think of myself as a woman and all of the attributes that go into my identity as such, sex is nowhere near the top of that list. Nor would who I want to have sex with change my gender identity. In my mind this assumption comes from our historically two gender heterosexual way of dictating life. It has always seemed to me that someone who identifies as transgender is simply a human essence stuck in a not quite right human soul house. It is our bodies after all that often form someone else’s first thoughts about us. Living in a house that doesn’t align with who you (the resident of that body) are, is difficult to say the least. In my coaching years things like healthy eating and exercise could turn that pear shaped runner into a high-level athlete. Some of what we don’t like can be easily and non-judgmentally altered through plastic surgery. Some can not. People who are born with an illness can take medications and have medical procedures to remedy what might be wrong. Regardless of the physical issue, we should always get to decide what we do to and with our soul houses.
I am moving along in years. My body shows the wear and tear. I dislike how aging makes me look. I love how physically capable I am. That I could grow and deliver a healthy baby at 57. That I can still nurse him as I approach 59. I was born into a female soul house and I am as female as they get. In my lifetime I have been treated differently because of body parts I cannot show in public. I have fought for inclusion in athletics. I am still paid less than male counterparts and pay more for clothes and beauty products. The government now wants to not only control my body, but also what I do with it.
I look down at it now, this soul house of mine with a better measure of respect than I have in the past. While I was born with an illness, I have not lived my life trapped by paralysis or silenced by an inability to speak. Other than typical aches and pains (and trigeminal neuralgia) I live a pain free life. I am lucky. The universe chose a soul house for me that I have been comfortable in. While sexual abuse made it an uncomfortable place to inhabit for a time, it is better now. My sore knees and near sightedness make the trees I will no longer climb a fuzzy swath of green as I look out at my yard. I see my physical self as a rustic camp on a lake. Everything works but nothing is too fancy. Small yet strong, diminutive yet dynamic. Everything you need to feel happy and at peace. I am lucky. My soul house is good!
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