Body Image Series: A Different Body
In part 1 of our body image series I told you about my very own rock bottom moment and how it led me to finally find peace with my relationship with food and later, with my body. In part 2, we discuss what the research is saying about the role resiliency plays in improving our body image, and today, I'm sharing another part of my story. Today we're continuing our body image series with an episode dedicated to anyone who happens to be in a different body, whether it's due to illness, disability, or changes brought on by particular circumstances, today we honor bodies of all kinds.
Something not many people know about me is what goes through my mind whenever I walk into an elevator, through the streets of a new city, into a public bathroom, or into a restaurant. It's something very unusual but almost instant. As I stroll down a pretty sidewalk in a new city, I notice whether or not the curb has a ramp, when I walk into an elevator I'm gauging its size, when I walk into a restaurant I notice stairs and whether the bathroom has a wide enough corridor to get to it, ditto, with restrooms and stalls. I do this because for my entire childhood and adolescence, I shared my life with someone who had a physical disability, my mom.
For years I helped push wheelchairs, helped her choose a pretty cane from her awesome cane collection, helped her adjust crutches, and became an expert at getting wheelchairs into cars. We would joke about cities and places that needed a remodel, and smile and look at each other when we could stroll down the streets of New York City (where she would have most of her surgeries) whenever her wheelchair glided from one street to the next with no bumpy lifts or lowering maneuvers.
My mother, who had a very severe chronic illness that affected her mobility, had been sick since she was 11 years old, going from very lengthy bed rests, through countless surgeries and recovery periods and numerous casts. Through the years she would go through periods of being able to walk, in the best of times (always slightly pengüin style as we used to call it), to needing a cane or crutches to get around, to being in a wheelchair, losing more of her mobility as the years passed. She wasn't able to drive because her license would always get denied because her neck wouldn't turn fully. She had scars throughout her body from her endless surgeries, she struggled with chronic pain, couldn't open her hands very well or straighten her fingers fully which increased as time went on, and had endless side effects from the myriad of medications she was taking. Towards the end of her life she was dependent on other people for many of her needs, which meant one of the hardest things she struggled with: losing autonomy and privacy with her body.
These are some descriptors, things people might have seen when they saw or heard what she was going through, things that were probably scribbled away on her medical chart.
It wasn't who she was.
Here's who she was...
She was a girly girl. She loved makeup, doing her hair in the latest styles, wearing beautiful flowy, hippy clothing with bright colors and prints. She loved jewelry and actually decorated the walls of her room with all the necklaces and trinckets she had gotten from her trips around the world (more on that later), and she carefully planned her style from shoe to eye shadow even when she was at her sickest. I remember one day, on the last of my birthdays we spent together, when I arrived at her little corner of the intensive care unit where she had been battling a post surgery infection, she was sitting up, perfect pink cheeks, pink lipstick, her hair done, and as pretty as I'd seen her. She told me she has coerced the night nurse to get her some makeup and then the morning nurse to help her put it on before I got there. This story might feel sad to you, but it made her day to get all dolled up for my birthday.
She was a swimmer (when her illness allowed), sometimes getting in the pool of our building every single day just to practice the exercises her physical therapist had said would help. She was a pianist, closed hands and all. She knew how to position her fingers on that piano so they would stay how she wanted them to and she could give us all a concert. She was an archaeologist, and after someone helped her sit on the sand, she would dig away, brush in hand, and work alongside all her colleagues without any further special treatment other than a helping hand to get back up again. She went through college in a wheelchair, fought for the rights of grape growers in California, helped the poor in our home country of Venezuela, did public speaking in public high schools teaching about geography, anthropology and science in her wheelchair, and as an amputee at the very end of her life. She started her own publishing house, worked in science and art museums back home, became one of the world's top experts in South American rock paintings, published research papers and travelled the world (including visiting the Himalayas with two broken ribs she fractured upon arrival while getting down from a bus, which she proceeded to hold up with her arm tucked to her side because she refused to go back home without meditating with the monks). She was a scientist who also happened to love spirituality, she wrote books and raised a kid on her own.
Here's who she really was....
She was the kindest person you would ever meet. She was generous, the most loyal and reliable friend, and full of wisdom (I'm talking TED talk + Buddhist monk kind of wisdom), the kind of wisdom doing all these things in a body like hers would get you. She never gave up, she never lost hope, and she would do anything to make her life MORE. More fun, more simple, more full, more enjoyable, more meaningful. She loved hard work and would always exceed anyone's expectations, she was a working girl and the best mom, she loved hosting tea parties and dinner parties, she loved movies and music, bowling and snakes. She wasn't very good at it but she loved to paint with watercolors and if you felt the house was too quiet she was probably behind you sketching what you were doing. She lost her patience in her body sometimes, but she was a master at dusting herself off. She loved eating tomatoes with salt while hiding in the kitchen (since both were forbidden by her doctor), and she was also a foodie who made the best hollandaise sauce and omelettes ever.
She was my best friend and my greatest role model. Her life had taught her to look beyond the body and into the heart and mind, into crazy amazing life experiences, even if these sometimes had to come through the beautiful documentaries we would watch together in the tiny TV in her room while she rested. She lived about 18 lives in one, that's twice more than a cat my friends, and she was a body image rockstar, as confident as could be, at least with what she let me see. All but one day. On the night before we were travelling to New York for her first leg amputation, she was really nervous. So nervous in fact, that she let it all out, and by let it all out I mean that she sat next to me, leaned towards me, and quietly told me she was afraid of one thing. She was afraid that after this, people would look at her and see someone who was incomplete.
It's such a profound sentiment and so many of us have felt this fear even in the absence of disease or disability, but imagine the depth of this fear when your body is different.
I answered in the only way I knew how, with the truth. I told her that when people saw her, they didn't see the scars on her legs, or her very skinny shoulders, or her protruding swollen belly due to prednisone, or her closed small hands. They didn't see her wheelchair or her swollen cheeks. These were all characteristics of her body, but no one saw these things when they looked at her. She had spent her life creating magic around her, and all people thought when they walked into a room she was in was "I'm so glad I'm here with you", and probably selfishly, they felt joy in the way she made them feel. She had a different body, one that would soon become even more different, but she had also created a unique life, and that made her everyone's favorite person. What I told her made her smile and cry at the same time, but just in case I added a "we can't control what everyone else thinks but to me you will always be beautiful" for good measure.
She ended up creating even more magic with that one leg, no prosthetic, just a lovely hand knit blanket over her lap which I still have in my living room. She rocked her life until its very last breath, and she taught me a powerful lesson about health, bodies, and living a full life.
I'm not telling you this story in our body image series because I want you to feel grateful for what your body can do, because my mom's body technically couldn't and she LIVED her life, I mean really lived it. I'm telling this story for two reasons. The first, in the hopes that anyone who is reading this story and is in a body that has changed, has become ill, was born different or became different, knows that I meant what I said when I told my mother those words. Whenever I see someone in a wheelchair, without an arm, a leg, or struggling physically, I know he or she is probably a remarkable person, someone I would love to hang out with, someone who I know is probably much stronger than me. Someone who deserves love and can get it, as the countless people who showed my mother love demonstrated time and time again. I wanted to share my mother's story with you because if you're reading this and struggling with the cards you were dealt, you can have the fullest life imaginable. Your body is just a vessel, and when your mind is impaired or ill then it's sometimes your body that will help you feel strong and powerful. My mother had all the odds against her, she would get every side effect of every drug, every complication after every surgery, and still, she left a mark in this world that no one will be able to erase and you can do this too, and it has nothing to do with the limitations of your body. You are so much more than just a body.
The second reason why I wanted to share this story today in our body image series is for all my able-bodied readers. Sure it's always lovely to feel those waves of gratitude for being able to wake up in the morning and walk, run, practice yoga or dance, and sure it puts our body image issues into perspective, but that's not what I want you to get from this. I want you to take a step back and realize that our world is made up of beautiful diversity. Our bodies are made to be different by design. It's funny how we cherish travel and seeing different cultures, experiencing different cuisines and customs throughout the world but we want to look like one single body ideal. This is a cultural construct, and I'm on a mission to change this. Some bodies are meant to be small, some bodies are meant to be big, some are meant to be bigger. Some are meant to have muscles you can see through a shirt and others are meant to be tiny. Some have curves, others do not. Some have clear skin, others do not. Some have thick flowing hair, some have afros. Some have thin locks some have curly locks. We have different skin colors, different eyes, different waist circumferences and shoe sizes. Some bodies can walk, others can't, some have all their limbs, others do not, some people's brains and emotional selves work like clockwork, others sometimes skip a beat but are just as worthy and capable of living a wonderful life. When we focus all our time and energy on changing the body we've got, we miss out on what truly matters: living our life fully, growing as a person, reaching our wonderful dreams, or simply living our day to day with joy, even if the beauty in our life is in the simple and small things..
This wonderful quote by Tara Brach says so much:
"Who am I if I'm no longer believing anything is wrong". - Tara Brach
My mother lived the most remarkable life of anyone I've ever met, and she did it not because she was enlightened, a guru or in denial, it was because she learned to accept what God or her genes gave her, she found a way to make her body work for her, and she put all her energy on LIVING, setting everything else aside.
That's my wish for my life, since I know it's what she would have wanted for me, and it's my wish for yours.
Today's TED Talks (yeah... I'm cheating and giving you two today!)
I could go on and on about my mother and my outside views of her experience but that doesn't seem like enough when there are so many incredible people who are living a joyous life, not in spite of the cards their bodies were dealt, but because they lit the fire inside of them that would help them make this world a better place.
Here's the wonderful Lizzie Velasquez:
Here's the wonderful Janine Shepherd:
One of the biggest lessons my mom ever taught me was the wonderful side effects of gratitude. We talked about it a lot in last week's post and episode, which is also why I wanted to make it the focus of this week's exercise. Every night this week, the moment your head hits the pillow, and before drifting off, think of the things in your day or your life that are good. I'm not talking about the huge accomplishments, or feeling grateful for the big things like being alive, I'm talking about thinking of everything from the yummy lunch you had the pleasure of having, to feeling the crisp winter air on your face, to being able to rest or relax today while you watched your favorite show, or being able to finish the tasks you had today. Anything at all that makes up your day, spend one minute looking at the things that actually went alright. We have such a tendency to stay with the negative, the incomplete or the things that are lacking, and I remember this as an exercise my mom used to love. It also helped her immensely when she was going through a lot of physical pain:
She would close her eyes, quiet her mind, and focus on the very small things: how that day she painted Christmas ornaments with me, how our dog ran across the park and was so happy, how she watched a good movie, and how the coffee was extra delicious that morning. How she might be in pain at this moment but she was following her treatment and all she had to do was be patient and wait for relief to arrive. How as she did this she was relaxing, breathing, and in the moment, while she slowly drifted off to sleep.
It's not only a wonderful place to help you step out of negativity, but it also starts shifting your perception and with it your circumstances and how you choose to live your day. So much of my mom's life through illness was about the small moments, and this little exercise can make them pop into your awareness giving you a new perspective and outlook on your body. It's pretty magical!
Today's quote for Emma
I would love to leave you today with this amazing little gem from Janine's talk:
"Then I knew for certain that although my body might be limited, it was my spirit that was unstoppable. The philosopher Lao Tzu once said: When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be. I now know that it wasn't until I let go of who I thought I was, that I was able to create a completely new life. It wasn't 'til I let go of the life I thought I should have, that I was able to embrace the life that was waiting for me".
- Janine Shepherd
I'll see you next week in the next instalment of our Body Image Series, and of course, here are some photos of my personal body image rockstar, who also happened to be called Jeannine, my mother: