Tag Archives: body image

I am a (needy, tired, sick) Strong Woman

I have been sick since March. It started with an infection that has lead to three surgeries, with at least one more on the way. I found out I would be needing those surgeries on the same day that I found out we would not be getting the house we’d been under contract on for five months. The house for which we had packed our belongings and listed our home.

It also happened to be the same day that I found out I was being summoned for jury duty.

It’s been that kind of year.

pain quote

I didn’t know what it was like to have chronic pain and discomfort until I had chronic pain and discomfort. I’m used to being sick until I’m not, taking time off of work or activities if necessary, stopping for a few days, and then resuming normality.

The problem with chronic pain is that there comes a time after which you have to resume normality without feeling normal.

It’s been that kind of year.

If I don’t think about it, then it’s easy to pretend that everything is alright. But then I catch myself sitting in front of the refrigerator, cutting off slices of cheese to eat, one after the other. Or sitting at my computer, clicking “buy” before the alarm in my head goes off to remind me that I don’t really have the money to spend. Because eating and spending are a really good distraction to feeling.

And the key to pain management is making it possible to stop feeling pain.

Two months ago I got a message in my inbox from a friend, telling me that she was sending me a t-shirt that said, “Strong Woman”. There have been a lot of moments in my life when those words would have resonated deeply within me. Like immediately after running my first ten-miler, or the moment my son’s perfect slippery body was laid on my chest after a day and a half of labor.

But it hasn’t been that kind of year.

Last week, on the same day, three of my friends reached out to me to check to see how I was doing. I didn’t know, until I knew, just how much I would crave this sort of help, while at the same time avoiding it because where do you start? If I think about what I need, it starts pulling the yarn until the whole sweater of need is unraveled, and I’m not prepared for that level of nakedness, and I’m not good at knitting.

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But to avoid becoming a hermit, and to honor two of the friends I truly care about, I went to a going away party last weekend. Many of my dearest friends were there, and I found myself sitting at a table with a fellow mom, one I’m still getting to know, but whose honesty I’ve appreciated. Her daughter is enough older than my son that she has good insights, but not too much older that she can’t remember. We started talking about potty training, and the diapers that leak in the middle of the night all over the bed.

She offered an idea of solving the problem, but I think she could tell right away that I was not in the mood. Maybe she could see the holes forming in my sweater. So she said, “But you’ll know when it’s the right time for you to make a change.”

It was so little, but it was also grace. Permission to not have to solve the problem. Permission to have this be hard. Permission to be needy. Permission to know when to heal.

And a reminder that this is just a moment in time.

What my friend didn’t know when she sent me my Strong Woman t-shirt is that it would arrive two days before my third surgery. I woke up the morning of the surgery and pulled the shirt over my head. It’s the kind of shirt people notice, and several strangers read the words aloud as I walked past them in the hospital. I didn’t know why I wanted to wear the shirt that day, only that it was necessary.

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Two months later, looking back, I think I wore it as a reminder. A reminder that it has been that kind of year. I have been sick, I have been in pain. I feel needy and I feel weak.

But none of those things tells me who I am. Who I am is a strong woman.

A strong woman with a beautiful, messy sweater of need.

A strong woman who, when it is the right time, will heal.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

#YesAllWomen #NotAllMen #HopefulForCulturalChange

she is someone Up early. Made coffee. Opened Laptop. Checked social media (how I track my son who lives 1200 miles away, but who never posts anything, but you never know, so it is important to check anyway).

I am bombarded with the appearance of #YesAllWomen tweets.  Often, I am in awe of the power of Social Media.  This is one of those times.

As I scroll through ten tweets, twenty more are posted.  And it’s 5 a.m.  And these #YesAllWomen tweets are being tweeted by women and men. I am enthralled and captivated. Encouraged and enraged. Dismayed yet hopeful. Definitely hopeful – despite my feelings of  horror as I read countless women’s stories of fear and suffering and pain and death, clicking obsessively between Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and WordPress.   Why hopeful?  Because finally we (meaning women) are talking about and sharing our stories, #nofilter.

And I believe that every woman has had at least one still lingering encounter with a man or men  that was frightening, humiliating or harmful. But usually, we keep these stories to ourselves.  Why are we generally silent? Why do sexual assaults and rapes go unreported? Home training.  Media messages.  SHAME. So many reasons.

GOOD girls do not place themselves into situations that lead to these horrifying encounters; girls who do probably are”at fault” somehow because they dressed too provocatively, drank too much, were too friendly or flirtatious, or in the “wrong” place.  Sometimes, we experience these encounters with male figures in positions of power: fathers, employers, clergy.   Silence is safety.  So we chalk it up to a “life lesson learned,” rather than reveal how we allowed or, better yet, lured a man to “lose control.”  We quietly bandage our wounds which never quite heal and which make us wary of the world. Almost always, we feel such shame about these experiences, we work hard to forget they ever happened.  But it is impossible to truly forget.  These episodes remain etched in our souls, our psyche, our skin.  #YesAllWomen

I was 19.  I was a passenger on the Illinois Central Railroad in 1978 – I had taken the 9:20 p.m. train out of the Randolph Street station in Chicago and was traveling home (I still lived with my parents) to the far south suburbs. At the time, I was attending night classes at Northwestern University.  I would scurry down Michigan Avenue as class let out at 9 p.m. and I was always relieved to make the train and slide into my seat, always out of breath.  My nightly routine, Monday – Thursday, after commuting to the city on the 7:08 a.m. train to work a full day before I raced to class.  I was a seasoned commuter.  I was savvy and smart.

Except this one night.

For some reason, I grabbed an inside seat.  I was tired and wanted to just lean against the window for the 55-minute ride home.  I started drafting a paper due the following week and got lost in my work.  At some point, a man took the seat next to me and opened his newspaper. I wasn’t paying close attention.  My fault.  At some point I became aware that the man’s hand had drifted onto my leg, and was moving up and down from my knee to mid-thigh.  Startled and unsure, I quickly pushed it away, thinking the man was asleep, as his eyes were closed. Just minutes later, it happened again, and I realized that the man’s other hand was inside his trousers.

I stopped breathing.

I hastily stuffed my papers and books into my backpack and pushed past the man who took the opportunity to grab my ass. I wanted to throw up.  I wanted to die.  But I never made a sound.

I stood in the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights in the train vestibule next to the conductor for the rest of the trip home, fearful the man would approach me as I got off the train.  I kept reassuring myself that I was overreacting.  It was no big deal.  I hadn’t been raped – just touched.  It could have been so much worse, right?  My own fault, sitting on the inside seat.  Stupid girl.  You know better.  You are fine.  I leapt off the train when we arrived at the platform, and fled down the stairs two at a time.  I remember the cars on the busy avenue that ran beneath the station, honking as I dashed across the street to the lot where I parked my car.  I still hear the sound of the lock (manual) as I hurriedly slammed the door closed, shaking and sweating and crying and swearing.  When I got home, everyone was already asleep.  I threw away the clothes I was wearing and scrubbed myself clean in the shower, trying not to wake up the rest of the family.  I never told anyone. I remained silent. But for weeks I felt that disgusting touch over and over again.

Commuting was never quite the same after that.  I was distrustful of men who took the train and opened their newspapers, even though #NotAllMen behaved in this manner. In retrospect, minor incident.  Especially when compared to the killings in Santa Barbara this past Saturday and many of the stories I’ve been reading this morning. But for my 19-year old self – it was a big deal.  And I didn’t know how to talk about it. What gets me infuriated now, is that an adult male on a crowded train knew that he had the power to do what he did – that I would give him that power and not call him on it.  What gets me even more infuriated now, is that the man felt he could masturbate and touch a young woman in public – without her consent – with impunity.  And at 19, all I felt was overwhelming shame for putting myself in such a position.

Like most of us, I now have read quite a bit about the young man at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who felt he had the right to seek retribution against all women because he had been sexually rejected or overlooked by women – that the women should be punished.  I watched a portion of a video he posted on YouTube. It was too disturbing to watch through to the end, especially knowing the outcome, even though I have seen and heard a version of these sentiments before. So I read the transcript (click here to read it, if you’ve missed it: gruesome, but informative).   Now, seven people are dead, including this mentally disturbed young man, his roommates, two sorority sisters, and a man at a convenience store.

And I am deeply saddened and terribly uneasy. 

After reading the news accounts of the UCSB tragedy on Sunday, I read an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune entitled, “Disregarding feminism a sad trend for young celebs.”  A few days prior, The New York Times published  “Who is a feminist now?”  Both pieces center on an odd(well for me, anyway) definition of feminism held by many (Rush Limbaugh comes to mind), a “zero sum” game if you will, where the rights of men are somehow diminished if women are granted equal rights.  And apparently, the idea that feminists have “chips on their shoulders,” are “militant” and “don’t like men” still exists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.   These views are held not only by a number of popular celebrities, but by the current chief exec at Yahoo, all of whom are women.  I wonder if these “non-feminists” realize they have greater access to power and independence because of the “feminist” movement.  Are we teaching the history of the 20th century to our children?

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These “post-modern” views of feminism also make me uneasy.  Because I really want to believe we are farther along in the women’s movement, despite the gender pay gap, despite the increasing and incessant emphasis on the female body, despite the hyper-sexualization of young women, despite the hateful lyrics of some pieces of popular music, and despite the continuing use of the word “bitches.” In my view, feminism means equal rights for women and men: equal pay, equal opportunity, equal voice.  It means women who serve in the military don’t subject themselves to sexual harassment or rape – and when they are so violated, they have recourse.  It means respect between men and women.

This morning, I felt great relief at this Twitter explosion, despite the trolls and the #NotAllMen response (#nokidding), for as this tweet aptly states:

And these stories are being told, some in 140 characters on twitter, some on tumblr, some on FaceBook, and some on blogs on #WordPress.  The secrets of women are being disclosed and both men and women are empowered.  Because there is great power in this telling of truths, of revealing the roles of oppressor and oppressed.  Only by acknowledging these roles can we alter them.

I hope and pray that #YesAllWomen is more than a #trend and that it leads us beyond the important conversation and debate to real action and change.  Honestly?  I am used to feeling vulnerable when I am alone – simply because I am a woman. Statistically, the odds are rarely in my favor.  So I plan and live accordingly.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if younger generations of women no longer had that fear? In the meantime, you might want take a look at the Twitter feed.  YESALLWOMEN

 – KarenDSC02405

 

Daring Greatly to be an Imperfect “Good Enoughist…”

Pure Barre 100 club Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.
Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. 

Back in February, I set this small goal for myself:  before Easter, I would attend 100 Pure Barre® classes at the studio here in Naples.  And I did – I attended my 100th class on Good Friday, with two days to spare.  For me, this is no small achievement.  I am still in disbelief that I managed to accomplish this tiny feat (not to mention I got these “100 club” sticky socks for my feet).

As I have hit my mid-50s (in only a few short months I will be closer to 60), my listing of body trouble spots has grown to an impressive catalog –with bone spurs, herniated discs, menopause and osteoarthritis to name a few.  I would love to say that these practical signs of aging are the reason I’ve been out of shape, lost my core strength, and gained a few pounds.  And, when I’m practicing the art of self-compassion, I believe there is some truth to that.

But until recently, I haven’t been that compassionate towards myself, especially my body.  Over the past 50-odd years, whenever I do think about my body, it generally is with strong feelings of shame and remorse.  If only I was more perfect, was more athletic, ate the right foods, I would look better and be a better person.  I’ve had shame-free moments, of course.  Some even lasted for a few months.  But, overall, when I think about it (and I hate thinking about it), I generally have been totally ashamed of my body for most of my life.

I won’t bore you with the litany of sins that my body reflects or its countless flaws.  I often thought I learned about my body’s many shortcomings when it was too late to really do anything permanent about fixing them.  I learned about these many defects through interaction with a variety of sources, including messages from family and friends, as well as mass media (including but not limited to: Noxzema commercials, the cover of Seventeen Magazine, the Sears Catalog and TV in general).

As it happens, I’ve spent the bulk of my life (well, since 1971) focused on my diet: I’m starting a diet Monday, I’m on a diet, I need to diet, I can’t thinking about a diet right now.  I was always hesitant to be physically active as I had been teased (sometimes people can be unthinking) about how I looked (fat and/or stupid) when I rode my bike, ran, jumped or danced.  Many felt the need to instruct me on what I should eat and exactly how I should exercise – because whatever I was doing was wrong, in their eyes.  And I burned within from the shame of it all.  I also hid – a lot.  The scrutiny sucked the energy from me.

I had fleeting moments of “success” at different stages of my life and deep panic as I struggled in vain to maintain a certain weight.  But, overall, the idea of “healthy striving” was foreign to me and the goal was always unachievable:  perfection.  Judgment, shame, and blame framed my view of my body.  Despite the fact that I gave birth to a healthy son, finished college, law school, made partner at the firm, finished grad school, and managed to teach for 5 years, my body (which houses my mind, heart and spirit) was disgraceful, loathsome, vile.  I have pretty much talked to myself using these words on a daily basis for more than 40 years.

The two men in my life – my husband and son – are the antithesis of me.  My husband, despite his years, is an adept tennis player, swimmer, biker and hitter of groundballs. My son is a certified personal trainer who fields ground balls and played soccer and baseball in high school.  In fact, I don’t believe there are many sports my son doesn’t like, except maybe curling.  These two can get me on a tennis court (if no one else is playing) but I usually try to wiggle out of it somehow.  I’m petrified at anyone watching me swing a tennis racket, despite my husband’s encouraging words and shouts of, “great hit.”  My husband and son find me beautiful.  But I don’t believe them most of the time.

I am still slightly shocked that I ever walked into the Pure Barre® studio.

gifts of imperfection

Upon reflection, I think it has something to do with this work I started doing (imperfectly) on perfectionism, thanks to Brene’ Brown (check out The Gifts of Imperfection – it is a goldmine!).  I picked the book up in Target to give as a gift – and kept it.  As I have aged, I have grown so cynical about the “self help” books and theories as I find it all a bit self-absorbed.  But what is more self-centered than the human who spends so much time seeking the unattainable?  The idea that my flaws could be viewed as gifts was the hook. So I’ve read the book.  And for me, it has been so helpful.  Brown provides “ten guideposts” to help cultivate what she describes as a whole-hearted life.  The book is pragmatic, short, to the point, and full of resources and ideas that can help us change how we live our lives.  Not overnight, mind you.  Like Brown’s book “Daring Greatly,” The Gifts of Imperfection focuses on the power of being authentic and vulnerable.

 God, I hate not to be invulnerable.  Really.  I must be indomitable.  A badass.  Goes with my big ass. Vulnerability is not intuitive, let alone the concept that perfectionism is anything but the ideal.  And authenticity?  As Brene’ admits, it is not always the safe option.  For me, a daunting choice.  So much risk when I put myself out there.  The pursuit of perfection is the “perfect” suit of armor.  Who can criticize me when I already am criticizing myself?

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I have come to believe that, as Brene’ so wisely points out, seeking perfection is soul-sucking and obstructive and self-destructive.  Perfection is unattainable, but if it is our primary goal, it leads to self-blame (and self-centeredness):  “I’m not good enough.”  Brown makes perfect sense to me when she writes that we need to embrace our imperfections to find our “truest gifts:  courage, compassion and connection.”

So I’ve started to work on overcoming my desire to be perfect and to become a “good enoughist.”  And I started in my most vulnerable, imperfect place:  my body.

I’d done the BMI calculations and checked out the weight/height charts and knew that I was hovering on being unhealthy.  I needed to exercise and eat a healthy diet.  I worked to incorporate some fruits and veggies and more protein into my diet.  I added regular exercise: I rode my bike (wore dark sunglasses) and took Pilates (small or private classes so no one could see me) but had to stop Pilates because of bone spurs in my right shoulder.  Honestly?  I think I was hiding out in these forms of exercise and I wasn’t being “self-compassionate.”  In a way, I was still suffering from total perfection paralysis.

But one morning, after refusing to play tennis (again – worried about what the real players would think), I stared in the mirror at my aging 50-something face (artfully lined by life’s unalterable progression) and thought, “why do I work so hard at not working out rather than work hard at working out?”  So, rather than just agreeing philosophically with the guideposts in The Gifts of Imperfection, I actually began to deliberately and intentionally practice Brene’ Brown’s formula (she doesn’t say it this way exactly but it helps me to think of it this way) for letting go of perfection: (1) engaging in self-kindness (“I am trying my best”), (2) understanding that feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the human experience (“I am never alone in my struggles”) and (3) being mindful of, but not exaggerating my “painfail” emotions (I recognize my feelings but I try not to be “swept away by negative reactivity.”).  Practice is the key word here – some days are better than others, and I often am reminded of that phrase “fake it ‘til you make it.”

So – I walked into Pure Barre® Naples last November.  It was risky and I felt ever so vulnerable. I chose Pure Barre® because I love to dance (it is a low-impact, full body workout based in part on ballet) and I love losing myself in music. Of course, I took the introductory class first (the one that teaches you the basics so you can move precisely and perfectly (ahem – I added those “p” words) when you actually take a regular class…) but then signed up for ten classes. And then for a month of unlimited classes…every month.  I loved it but I really had to work hard at self-kindness (you do look in the mirror a lot and I had been hiding not just from others but myself – lord, my butt is huge – but booty’s are in, right?).   The studio set up is about a common humanity – the group classes are about a community working toward strength, energy and good health, all to the beat of the music.  The instructors are all incredible, supportive and encouraging (every time I hear an instructor call out: “great form, Karen,” it still takes a minute to realize they are talking to me).  The idea is that the 55 minutes at the Barre is a “time for you.”  It is not about comparing my body or my ability to someone else’s.  It is not about reaching some impossible standard.  It is about my physical well-being and me.  What a magical gift.   I even began to dress differently for class after the first month – hiding in baggy clothes didn’t help my form.  And yes, my body is still imperfect and flawed. But it is getting stronger and it feels healthier every day. And I’m not hiding it so much anymore.

pure-barre-4  100 club

And sure, a few people in my life have freely offered some negative critique of my new-found joy in working out at Pure Barre®  (and yes, they are poking at my vulnerability) and I’ve had to work hard on my “shame-resilience.”  But, after attending 100 classes, I realize I own this piece of my life.  And somehow, through a daily (sometimes hourly) practice of self-compassion, I achieved a minor milestone. I am looking forward to more moments like these, but I am savoring and celebrating this moment. Because many days I might still feel afraid, but still, more and more days I feel grateful and joyous – and very brave and very alive.  Maybe I can be a courageous and vulnerable badass.

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Is This Really My Body?

I can safely say I have never not been aware of the space my butt takes up in a room. That includes right now (both when I’m writing this and when you’re reading it).

There was a short pause to this way of thinking during the nine months of being pregnant. I am firmly in the camp of pregnant body=beautiful body. I absolutely loved having an excuse for why my tummy was swelling. I wore maternity pants long before I needed to because, HELLO, not wearing elastic waistbands when it is socially acceptable is truly a wasted opportunity.

But now it is almost eight months past the birth of my son, and I still have a fanny pack made of skin that I’m carrying around my middle. I look at myself in mirrors or store windows and I do not recognize what my body has become. Is that me?

I was reading an article about women and body image in which Kristen Bell is quoted as having said, “I’m not a woman whose self-worth comes from her dress size.” She was responding to questions about her post-baby body. I wish I could write here that upon reading this my first thought was, “Go Kristen! Way to represent a healthy body image!”

But my real first thought was, “Whatever. (Expletive).” And then I imagined the giddy lightness of squeezing into a pair of jeans one size smaller. In those pants I could step in dog poop on the way to work, put curdled milk in my tea, be told I wasn’t getting a pay raise, and I’m pretty sure I’d still end the night with my head on the pillow thinking, “I am SKINNY!”

But seriously, what am I going to do about the fact that my body is still twenty pounds above my pre-preggo weight, which was twenty pounds more than my wedding weight, which was twenty pounds more than the weight I wanted to be? If you’re not a math person, we’re up to sixty pounds.

Everyone says that breastfeeding melts the pounds off your body. I’d say my post-pregnancy weight loss (with breastfeeding) has been more along the lines of the slow trickle of frozen pipes.

I went to the doctor yesterday and told her that I was a little concerned because, since giving up sugar and white carbs in January, I have only lost about 10 pounds. I was really hoping she would tell me I have a rare disease that makes it very difficult for me to lose weight. But fear not! This disease is easily cured by these tasty pills.

Instead, my doctor informed me that first, this was an appropriate amount of weight to lose, and second, if I was wanting to lose weight more quickly I should start counting calories.

And it dawned on me that I am never going to count calories again. I refuse.

My body has grown a human in it. It can run for long distances. It can dance and breathe and move and sing. And I am over counting calories. I won’t do it. I can’t bring myself to that place of stress and shame again. Ever.

Which means I have to be patient with the slow and halting weight loss that has defined the last eight months (twenty years) of my life. Uggggggghhhhhhhh. I believe in the cumulative effect of healthy lifestyle change. But wow does it take a long time. And wow am I not patient. (Pills. Pills. Why aren’t there pills?)

Right after our baby was born I would jokingly add “I’m a bad mother” to the end of any comment. My husband put the kibosh on that. He believes that words have power, and even joking words can be internalized and then believed. There is now no “I’m a bad mother” talk in our house.

Recently I was looking in the mirror and I found myself saying over and over again, “You are beautiful, you are beautiful, you are beautiful.” When my husband came home, I asked him over and over again, “Aren’t I beautiful? Aren’t I beautiful? Aren’t I beautiful?” (He’s a smart and good man and said yes.)

It’s not that I believe it. At least not all the time. Especially when I am contemplating the square footage of my butt. Or my mommy tummy. But I want to believe it. And thank God for the times when I do believe it.

If I had a magic wand I would drop sixty pounds. Today. But in the absence of the magic wand, I’m stuck on this long road toward self acceptance, a road of a life time. A road filled with detours with flashy promising signs that all lead me back to the road, sometimes worse for wear. And I know that inhabiting and loving my fourth trimester body is what the road is filled with for the next few hundred miles. So I keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When I get discouraged, when I find myself avoiding eye contact with the mirror, it helps to look in the adoring face of my beautiful baby boy. He is worth this.

And I am worth this, too. Even with feet sore from walking. And a big butt.

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261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n Rachel