Heads up: This post discusses sexual abuse.
For most of my childhood, I dreamed of being Mowgli from The Jungle Book. Or some kind of wolf-girl. I wanted to be naked & dirty & live with ferocious beasts. I’ve always loved Where the Wild Things Are, but I still believe that Max made a huge mistake in getting back in his little boat & sailing home for dinner. I longed to scale trees with ease, keep pace with running herds of gazelle, melt into the shadows & never be found. I wanted civilized humans to glimpse me at a distance & be too terrified & awed to try to follow. I wanted to be strong.
When I was 8, I lived for gymnastics class. I loved the uneven bars, the momentary feeling of flying as I launched from one to the other. I never feared that I would miss, even though I did now & then. I relished catching hold of the bar, catching myself, pulling my body back & up & over. I loved the beam, too, especially cartwheeling on the narrow space, grasping for balance with what my classmates called my monkey feet. I plummeted fearlessly from that beam, over & again, once crushing my wrist & fracturing it in three places. As I waited for my mother to pick me up that day, I used the injury as an excuse to practice one-armed cartwheels, to my coaches’ great annoyance (apparently you’re supposed to sit still when you break a bone, & just falling on your face instead of catching yourself with your broken wrist isn’t a sufficient compromise, it seems). I quit later that year, when my parents pointed out that I was fatter than the other girls on my group & I didn’t look as good in my leotard as they did. But I loved it while I did it. I loved tumbling & pressing up into handstands. I loved the feeling of my legs pumping as I ran at the horse, the gathering of my muscles echoed in the compression of the springboard before the launch. Then: up & over, splits in midair, maybe an attempt at a tuck. I loved being strong.
In 5th grade, I was a cheerleader, because I could still do splits & the uniform wasn’t skintight. I liked splits & shouting, but I loved being a base for the lighter girls to fly. I never said this to anyone, but I felt this sense of responsibility & pride, even though my brother insistently taunted me about being too fat to be of any other use. I felt strong, & I loved it.
The other day, Boyfriend set his desktop background to a photo of me. He usually opts for beautiful scenery or incredible feats of fitness, so I thought I knew what to expect when he started nudging me to go check out his new screen. But when I was slow to get out of my book, he couldn’t resist telling me, “It’s you!” & it was with absolute dread I shuffled to the computer in the corner of our gym. Absolute dread.
Boyfriend & I generally have completely different opinions of what photos of me are cute (or acceptable), so I wasn’t sure what he would have chosen to blow up across his jumbotron monitor. But whether I was to be met with a carefully posed portrait or a fantastic mid-word candid, I knew I was not going to be pleased.
One of the best parts of deciding that I was going to do what I wanted re:fitness & stop worrying about if I was doing things “right” is the amount of control it gave me. I decide how I work out, why I work out, & what I work on. & now that Boyfriend & I have our own place, we took control of our space, too. The result?
Creating a functional home gym in the middle of our apartment was not done in a day. Boyfriend & I discussed what we needed to have a place we could both use comfortably; we shopped for & laid foam tiling to make everything from yoga to animal flow to jumping possible; we decided which dumbbells, which stretch bands, what size jump box & if we need another (yes), which pull-up bar & where to put it so that we could both still practice handstands. As it came together, a new challenge arose: using it.
It would have been very easy to put all of the work & time in to making a perfect gym space, only to let it sit & look pretty. In fact, it still could be. One lazy Saturday has stretched into a week of “taking it easy” in our pasts. Though we both have a love for movement & lifting, we also both have a love for ice cream & couch dates. Striking a balance between those 2 happy places doesn’t come naturally to either of us. So in late December, we agreed to commit to using our gym every day.
If every day seems like a lot, that’s because it is. & I won’t pretend that I was all fired up at the thought of this. The pessimistic side of me (picture a despondent Charlie Brown on my shoulder) was not excited.
I knew I was in trouble after the first round of swings. Instead of the satisfying soreness in my glutes, the end of the first set came with an old familiar friend: the pinch in my lower back as my psoas declared that it was done with me & it was shutting down until I learned to leave it alone already. Contrary to what my psoas might think, I’ve learned a lot about my body & its limits, so I tried to modify my circuit without giving up my whole workout. But modification wasn’t enough.
I managed to go out that night, ignoring the sudden yanks of warning pain as I walked or shifted in my seat. But by the time I staggered home, at a perfectly reasonable hour, my hips had a heartbeat & my unsteady gait couldn’t be blamed on the alcohol. “This is going to suck,” I groaned, as Boyfriend kindly helped me out of my shoes & left me to curl up & die in peace.
It was the worst pain I’ve experienced for years; I spent the glorious Monday of my 3 day weekend barely moving from the couch, except to drag myself from sitting, to lying down, to crawling to the bathroom. By that evening, I could walk – bent double & shuffling so my footsteps wouldn’t send shockwaves of excruciating pain up my spine.
A year ago, I would have been beside myself in panic about missing work, & when I took a break from freaking out over that, I would have tuned into the nonstop internal diatribe I’d be having, about my irresponsibility & incompetency for getting hurt yet again. I’d be singing my old song: Shouldn’t I know better by now?
Boyfriend & I found a perfect apartment & moved in together in October of 2015. The space is decent by non-NYC standards, which makes it palatial for Manhattan. Facing the exciting prospect of having more space than we knew what to do with, we agreed to power through the unpacking & settling in so that everything would be done as soon as possible. I can’t remember what ambitious time period we set, but the next few weeks were a blur of scrolling through photograph after photograph of carpets & curtains. We browsed hundreds of sideboards, only ever agreeing upon 2 models…the first of which was sold out on 4 different websites. I filled my phone side tables, decorative pieces, mirrors, shelves, & then struggled to explain to Boyfriend what I’d attempted to capture in these photos of showrooms or display windows before giving up & helping with the latest piece of flat-pack furniture that arrived. So many Allen wrenches, so many illustrated instructional manuals featuring 3 nearly identical screws that serve entirely different purposes. We struggled to maintain our original enthusiasm – work was pretty brutal on my end & I was coming home exhausted & unhelpful, while Boyfriend was spending so much time trying to get things just right that he was missing the forest for the trees. Despite all of the work we had done, the unfinished pieces seemed to overshadow it all.
Throughout the process, I kept taking photos – sometimes to intentionally document a change we had made, but more often I was simply capturing the everyday moments that take up my storage space & fill my Instagram feed. Every now & then we would swipe through my albums & see the bare space we had transformed in just 2 months. With the photos in front of us, we could see how much we had done instead of only how much was left to do. Even though I don’t always identify as such, all people are sometimes visual learners. We all benefit from taking a step back & looking at the big picture. Seeing our apartment’s before & after clearly, we could both appreciate what we had accomplished.
A friend of mine posted this on Facebook the other day, a video of a student’s media project. As the photographer tells her subjects that she’s taking pictures of things she finds beautiful, reactions vary, but the overall trend is heartwarming:
The exception to the embarrassed but pleased smiles?
This moment was like seeing my inner truth take shape & stare coldly through my screen, right into my grinchy little heart. I’m exaggerating (a bit) – I don’t react this way when people describe me as beautiful…anymore…always…
I’ve been thinking about beauty because recently, one of my favorite online communities, Girls Gone Strong, launched a 7 Day Love Your Body Challenge. Signing up grants you a downloadable guide through the challenge, which includes daily guides to shifting your perspective. Each day has a focus, & for the past few days, I’ve been stuck on the third one: concerning beauty.
I feel beautiful when ____.
Day 3’s mantra encourages me to fill in the blank, & even though the guide offers suggestions, I’ve been stumped. I’ve tried out a few of the phrases in my head, & while I find that I feel happy, nourished, revitalized, peaceful, sexy, like a boss, even pretty or cute, I wasn’t comfortable saying that anything made me feel beautiful.