To Understand a Body

Pregnancy began as a strange phenomena in a body I understood very well. I could tell what was happening, what was changing, because I was very familiar with the functions and feelings of this body I live in. We’ve become good friends over the years, and lived in a wonderful harmony until recently.

As the pregnancy has progressed, my understanding of my body has blurred and now feels completely lost. I looked at myself in the mirror the other day and recognized nothing. The way my body aches and moans is completely incomprehensible to me. My body wants foods I don’t like, refuses things I love, tires without warning, hurts without discernible reason. My vision is literally blurred, requiring me to wear glasses all day, making my own reflection even less familiar. My legs, once so muscular and capable, now flatly refuse to carry me with any grace. But mostly, my hips are bent out of their natural shape and no longer perform their intended function. The pain this causes makes a major obstacle of tasks like walking and sleeping.

Since I really don’t want to live like that for three more months, I sought the help of a chiropractor. I do not love doctors, but I love this woman. She slid her hands over my bent bones and swollen muscles and made sense of them. When I’d given up on my body, planned to just wait this alien period out and hope it snapped back into place later, this doctor categorized and defined what was happening with each joint and bone.

The pain and swelling is not entirely gone after her first session of ministrations, but it is much improved. More than that though, I have a little hope that my body is still in here somewhere. I might understand her again, at least a little bit. And really, I want to understand her, especially now. Now when she is completing her most magnificent work.

Say Something Well

For people like me, who tend to get angry and say really mean things before thinking them through, my highest goal at a family gathering is usually to just keep my mouth shut. Since the times when I get myself in trouble and hurt people I love always happen when I’m talking, not talking seems like a logical solution.

Too often, I spend days visiting family over the holidays, holding in all my snarky, mean comments. Just before we’re about to leave, the top pops off and I say something truly cruel about a very minor annoyance.

Even if I don’t eventually explode, not talking still doesn’t work. It is quite obvious through facial expression and body language when I’m angry or annoyed. When I just don’t say anything, the person I’m interacting with is left knowing they’ve done something I don’t like, but not knowing what it was. This causes a silent tension between us, which really doesn’t make for a peaceful, harmonious holiday.

When I want to say something and don’t, that thing is still sitting in my mouth, unsaid. This almost inevitably leads me to say that thing to someone else. I tend to put together a quippy little anecdote about the incident and share it with several people. This is not a kind way to treat my loved ones.

Not saying anything is really tempting, even if I know it doesn’t work. No one can accuse me if I haven’t said anything. My facial expressions and body language are very hard to pin down, and I can always say they’re being misinterpreted or deny them completely. Most of the time, the person I’m angry at just has to take all the discomfort of the conflict. Later, I get to feel superior to that person, while I tell funny anecdotes about how unreasonable or silly they are.

I believe the third option here, the challenge, is to say something well. To stand up for myself without getting defensive, to be honest without being cruel, to admit my own hurt feelings without accusing. This is no simple task. The phrases are often simple, but arriving at them takes a great deal of thoughtful prayer, and an enormous amount of self-control and courage to deliver on the spot. Saying those small, kind, hard things out loud to a family member of friend is also an extremely risky proposition.

When I say those things, I’m stepping out of the binary of effector and effected. When I explode or silently fume, I’m only trying to turn the binary in my favor. When I address the conflict, I enter into an interaction where we are equals, both with feelings and opinions. This requires a higher level of engagement, both of me and my loved one. It means we’re in real relationship with each other, actually trying to mash our sharp edges together and make a tighter, stronger connection. It means that we have to do more than just put up with each other once a year. It means that we have to grow, have to talk and listen to each other. It is terrifying and exhilarating and full of hope. It isn’t polite holiday behavior, and might result in tears or accusations sent my way. I’ll try it anyway, though, because polite holiday behavior was never what my soul longed for.

Where Beauty is Found

The stretch marks have arrived. As I was examining this new phenomena on my body this other day, it occurred to me that I will look different after my baby is born. I plan to be fit and eat healthy, because I feel better about life when I do that and it’s a good example to set for my kid. That doesn’t say much about my appearance, other than that I probably will not be way overweight. Even with being fit and eating well, I will still have stretch marks. My abdominal muscles might permanently separate. I might have varicose veins. I will not have the body type that we define as beautiful.

What if, after having a child, my body looked like I’d had a child? Is that so awful, really? How much of my time, energy, money, and mental capacity should I spend trying to make my body look like I’ve never been pregnant? I completely understand the motivation for doing just that, trying to re-shape the female form so we look like we’re younger, thinner, and less mom-like than we are. Everything we see and hear tells us that’s the only way to be attractive, to be considered beautiful.

The economy (for lack of something more specific to blame) has a motive for convincing women that we are constantly falling short of an impossible goal for attractiveness. We spend a ridiculous amount of our expendable income buying products to get ourselves closer to that goal. One of the ways this happens is that we see that impossible (for most people) goal all the time and almost no others. There is one very specific body type that we see in movies, television, commercials, and other types of media that is considered attractive. Not only are we very sure which girl is considered the “pretty” one in media, but it is extremely rare to see a girl who looks much different than her at all. It’s not just that the pretty girl is held up as desirable, it’s that her counterparts aren’t seen at all. It is a well-supported fact that the human brain develops an affinity for things that it’s familiar with. That’s why mom’s cooking is always the best, because it’s her cooking we’ve had the most exposure to. Since we have a ton of exposure to this one body type, and nearly no exposure to any other body type, we will naturally prefer the one we see.

A while ago, I was watching Fur: And Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which is a gorgeous film about a photographer who takes pictures of “freaks.” The movie opens with the main character approaching a nudist colony to take some pictures. This circumstance sets up the movie to give us a view of some non-traditional body types. The photographer meets with the couple who runs the colony. They are a couple in their fifties or sixties, rather normally shaped, sitting in wicker chairs and having a normal conversation. I particularly noticed the woman. Her slightly cottage-cheese thighs, her large breasts, and the soft look of her white skin. Very different from the flat, tanned, perky, pointy, women; the only kind of women I’ve seen naked on the screen. This woman was lovely.

I have searched and searched for a still of that particular woman, but I can’t find one. Instead, I found this image of a nudist couple which is very similar.

I would not mind looking like this woman in thirty years. I hope that I will be able to view my own naked body and appreciate the years that are in it, the experiences buried in the folds of my skin, the softness that is meant to be there for our comfort. I hope to appreciate beauty in more than one form, but particularly in my own.

Blaming the Abuse

This Saturday I had the honor of performing “Girls Like Her” at the Daybreak Human Trafficking Forum at Bloomington Covenant Church. It is always awesome to share a mic with people who are up to their elbows trying to end this travesty in our cities, state, and even the world.

Often, when I speak about human trafficking, especially when I cite the frightening statistic that the average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is 12-14 years old, people will say, “I bet a lot of those girls have been abused.” This response has always bothered me, but it’s been recently that I’ve come up with a good reply. Now, when someone says that to me, I reply by saying “Rape is a fairly common experience for an American woman, and not all of them end up in prostitution.” I say this not to be dismal or to shock people. I say this because people who blame human trafficking on child or sexual abuse aren’t aware of what their thought process has just done.

We don’t assume that prostitutes were abused as children because we want to have compassion for them. We don’t need to add child abuse to feel compassion for a 13-year-old in the sex trade. We blame the sex trade on former abuse because we’ve already given up on people who have been sexually abused. Sexual abuse is such a hideous and incredible trauma, we get too overwhelmed at the total tonnage of the damage inflicted on that person. It is tempting to mentally throw them away, because we feel powerless to help them. If greater tragedies befall them, we can deal with that without cognitive dissonance; they’ve already fallen off our personal grid for people with potential and hope.

Furthermore, any bad decisions a person makes after they are sexually abused can be excused, explained, and rationalized by the abuse. A lot of bad decisions can follow abuse, but when we blame those bad decisions on the abuse, we rob the survivors of their personhood. We are essentially saying that they have no personal responsibility and therefore no power to make meaningful choices. This is why the 12-steps are so powerful for people who have suffered abuse, because going through that process allows them to reclaim responsibility for their own choices, and therefore, power over their own lives.

When I hear someone say, “I bet those girls have been abused,” I know they are trying to make sense of the situation. They are trying to explain why such an unbelievable truth has crossed their path. I understand that, I really do. But if you are talking to me, blaming former abuse simply will not do. I stand as one of the luckier women who has been abused, and has found health and healing in the hands of brave and compassionate people who were willing to keep me on their grid. I want to be that person for other survivors, and I want to help other people gain the strength and perspective so they can be that person too.