Love Your Body
In the ten years before the pandemic began, I was regular practitioner of hot yoga. When I first began, the studio offered only ninety-minute classes conducted in a room that was 105 degrees — or more — with 40% humidity, designed to produce maximum flexibility and also barrels of sweat. It was called a “ninety-minute open-eyed meditation,” but it often felt more like a form of torture. I sometimes emerged from some of those early classes so exhausted I was hoarse and unable to eat. But I loved the challenge, and I found myself becoming stronger and more limber.
A few years into my attendance there, the charismatic studio owner, Jess, who held a masters in counseling psychology, announced a “Love Your Body” photo session. The women were instructed to wear black sports bras and black short-shorts, outfits that left little to the imagination. We might as well have been naked. A sizable group of men and women of all ages assembled. We assumed poses as individuals, in small groups, and all of us together. Standing Bow Pulling pose. Standing Head to Knee. Eagle. The photographer moved in and around us unobtrusively. Because it wasn’t an official class, it felt like play, and, just as Jess had hoped, self-consciousness slipped away. The joy of the occasion made us forget our thunder thighs and crepe-y underarms, or whatever else we felt we had to apologize for. I emerged from the session with a new appreciation for my body, that seemed to carry forward, mostly, over the next few years.
I was reminded of that session a few days ago when I saw Emma Thompson’s new film, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, in which she plays a middle-aged woman trying to get over her lifelong sexual repression. The final scene features her standing in front of a mirror gazing at herself, not judging her middle-aged body but appreciating it. This is a radical concept in our Puritanical culture, but one that most of us would benefit from absorbing. It’s insanity that so many of us aspire to have the same kind of body: a movie star body, a model body, the kind of body few of us are born to and that we imagine primarily in terms of appearance. I think back to our ancestral environment and believe I can safely speculate that what was prized in bodies back then was strength, health, and fertility. Strength for acquiring food and defending self and loved ones. Health so as to stay alive to see offspring reach maturity. And fertility to assure continuance of the DNA. How far we have strayed from those basic species mandates.
It’s dismaying to think that it’s so challenging for most of to learn to love a body that functions well and is reasonably strong. The pathway to learning to love a body that is ill, aging, or damaged is even thornier. My toes have begun to curl; my formerly strong arms are dwindling into sticks; the atrophied muscles in my face make mounting a smile challenging. I went to a wedding this past weekend and realized my lip muscles have weakened so much they won’t stay still enough to allow me to apply lipstick. I walked into the wedding bare-lipped on my wobbly legs trying to hold my head high. I still love my deteriorating body, don’t I?
The presence of a filmmaker in our household has raised these questions again. She set out to document what it’s like to live with a fatal, incurable disease (though she now thinks the film is evolving to be about something else). She is so warm and enthusiastic she has quickly become like a member of the family, and when she films I hardly notice. I have let most of my self-consciousness go. Then, in the middle of the night, I awaken in a panic and think, Oh my god, did I really let her film my body so starkly? All those closeups of god knows what! Am I insane? It reassures me to know that I will probably be dead when this film is shown to anyone. I agreed to do it because I thought it might be useful to others with ALS. But it occurs to me now that there might be another use for the film: it might help me and others find a way to embrace our declining, imperfect bodies.
My sisters and I adored the chamois-like softness of my grandmother’s skin. We used to ask if we could touch it. When we were young we would get in bed with her in the morning and snuggle close for “gurgling” sessions. She would put a part of her old-fashioned hearing aid on her belly, and we would put on the ear pieces and, as she sipped orange juice and coffee, we would hear her stomach gurgle. How it made us giggle! We couldn’t believe we were hearing the human body at work.
In the final years of my mother’s life she and I developed a ritual. Every time I visited I would massage her feet. She had been an athlete all her life, and her feet were a testament to that, still strong with long straight toes and beautiful arches. As I kneaded and stroked she moaned in satisfaction. Sometimes I used stimulating peppermint foot cream. I loved those feet of hers. So tough. So beautiful despite their knobbiness. The feet of a woman in her nineties. Someone should have photographed or painted them. I wish I had thought to.
So why can’t I bring such empathy to my own curling toes and thinning arms, all these body parts that have served me so well? Advice to self: Cherish them all, even as they go off-line. Thank them and let them go in peace.