What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Age 7: Dance class. I take tap, ballet and jazz, and I discover how fun it is to make my body do new things, like kick ballchange, in unison with other girls. I run, I skip, I twirl, and I dance until my cheeks flush bright pink. I am unstoppable. Age 8: I step on an earthworm with bare feet and become extremely grossed out that I could do such a thing without meaning to. It gives me nightmares. Age 9: My friends and I start a little dance troupe where we lip-sync popular songs and do dance routines to them. We enter a class talent contest, but lose to the boys who lip-sync Weird Al. Age 10: I am a head taller than the boys in my class, and sometimes two heads taller than the girls. My sister and I are both alarmingly tall for our ages. I'm sitting on the bus next to a friend, and we're both propping our knees up on the seat in front of us. "Look!" she says, innocently enough, "Your legs are like, twice as big as mine!" We weren't old enough for it to be a snarky girl comment, it was just an observation, but regardless, I am horrified beyond all belief. I never prop my legs up again, and from that one comment, I feel myself turning inward. I feel my shoulders hunch, I feel myself trying to shrink, to become smaller than I am. I don't see my height as an advantage, I see it as a monstrous growth I have to apologize for. Age 11: There's a dance recital coming up, and the costume they've chosen for our class, as we are dancing to "Peppermint Twist," is a red unitard with a red and white striped sash. I don't like how I look in it, as it is a bit shorter on me than on the others, and insist that I cannot dance in the recital. My parents, confused, relent and I sit that recital out.
I spend that summer obsessed with dieting. I work out to Denise Austin on morning TV, I start eating my mom's diet food (cottage cheese and rice cakes), and I weigh myself daily. I am given "Get in Shape, Girl!" for Christmas that year, and even though I asked for it, I am somewhat ashamed to have received the gift, as I see it as a tacit acknowledgement that I need workout equipment. Please understand that at this stage in the game, I am not overweight, just tall. Age 12: I get my first period and start growing leg hair, furthering my disgust with my body even more. Sure, my Mom explained that it was a beautiful thing, and I nodded at her, but inside, I felt grossed out by these new tricks my body was pulling. Perhaps relatedly, I quit dance class and discover indie rock. I refuse to play any sports and spend gym class making fun of the people who take it seriously. I am cultivating both a shitty hipster attitude and a few extra pounds due to my inertia. Age 13: I discover boys and band shirts. Band shirts only come in big man's sizes, which is fine with me, since I like hiding myself anyway. Because I am too cool for school, I do okay in the romance department, and have my own little entourage of boys who are trying to grow their hair out and wearing scribbled-on Chuck Taylors. Age 15: At concerts, it becomes my ultimate goal to stand completely still so that I don't look like "one of those poseurs who dances." My body feels incredibly inaccessible to me. I also start dyeing my hair crazy colors. It doesn't occur to me until years later that this functioned both as a signal to people of how "cool" I was, as well as a way to describe me without describing my physical appearance. "You know, Emily with the orange hair?"Age 16: I get my drivers license, and one of my first little joys is going to drive-thrus by myself. Then I can order whatever I want without justifying it, and plus, it makes me feel like a grownup. At this point I am shopping exclusively at thrift stores, practically living in old man pants. I never try them on, as that would mean confronting a dressing room mirror in Goodwill, so I mostly just buy clothes that are way too big. Age 17: I start fooling around with boys, and discover that my body does have a purpose -- it's for boys! I am excited that it seems to bring someone joy, since it's brought me nothing but annoyance and embarrassment, so I spend all of my time and energy on making my body the best boy-pleasing thing out there. What feels good to me is not only not the point, it's not even a factor. This continues for quite some time, with my body having one real purpose, and that is to please dudes. It probably doesn't need to be said that most of them did not deserve such devotion.
Age 18: I get my first body piercing. At the time, I tell myself and my friends that I do it because it's an expression of my creativity and how I feel inside and because it looks cool, but looking back, I think I probably did it to punish myself, and for further identification that didn't include my physical appearance -- "You know, Emily with the lip ring and orange hair." (Note: not everyone who gets piercings is punishing themselves.) (Further note: Piercings still do look cool.)
That's me on the right, perfectly normal and hating myself.
Age 19 or so: I meet a boy who is focused on making me feel good, inside and out. This both confuses me and makes me feel like I'm the luckiest human being on the planet. And though I prefer being treated this way, when we break up I go back to dating dudes who have no idea how to please a woman, and don't seem to care. That makes two of us.Age 23: After earning a masters degree, it occurs to me that I hadn't looked at myself in quite some time, and I am not happy about what I see. I've put on a bit of weight, as most of my meals are eaten in my car as I rush from class to internship to job. At one point during grad school, my tongue turns purplish and I rush to the student health center to discover that I am severely dehydrated, since I sometimes go days without drinking anything but my morning coffee.
When I meekly mention to my current boyfriend that I'm thinking of going on a diet, he gently and supportively responds "That's cool, I guess. You know you're not in the best shape."
It doesn't matter how supportive he was trying to be -- I get that tattooed on my heart next to the girl on the bus from elementary school. I go on a diet for the first time since childhood, just by eating semi-healthy foods, and lose about 20 pounds. I do it for him, for that comment, not for me.
My best friend and I start playing a slow, plodding version of tennis because there's a tennis court literally next to my apartment. After years of non-activity, it feels good to run, to dive for a ball, and to see the result of my muscle power as that neon green ball sailed across the net. At night, bats dive on our game, and we laugh. Age 24: I get pneumonia for the first time, after spending weeks working extremely late at my first post-school job with a horrendous cold.It is my practice to ignore any signs of illness in myself, not wanting to be a burden to my job, my boyfriend or my friends. That's how I think of my body: a burden. It can do some okay things, but for the most part, it's an annoyance, so it's best to keep that annoyance to a minimum. Age 25: I start taking dance classes again after a breakup leaves me with a lot of time on my hands. Better than that, I start taking burlesque dance classes. I hadn't danced in years and took the class alone -- that way if I embarrassed myself, no one would know. It's a revelation.
These women are being sexual without having sex, they're celebrating their curves and the way their asses jiggle, and more than that, they're having fun. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, flush-cheeked and dancing in unison with 12 other women, and I am harkened back to my childhood dance classes. In that class, I make huge strides towards appreciating what my body can do.
Age 26: I meet a man and fall in love.
Age 27: Clearly I haven't learned enough, because after weeks of forcing myself to the gym despite being sick, and after weeks of downplaying how sick I am to my boyfriend, I am admitted to the hospital in respiratory distress. Yup, I am sick -- turns out, I have a serious disease whose flare-ups start out looking like the flu and end in organ failure, and I am hospitalized for a full month and on a respirator for 12 days. I almost don't make it.
I am malnourished, since I hadn't had the energy to eat in over a week, and had been hiding that from my boyfriend as well. My body is so destroyed that I have to have lung surgery while I'm on the respirator, so I wake up to a body that is swollen, scarred, completely numb, and alien to me.
I stare it, confused that it won't respond to my commands. It occurs to me that I deserve this. I am terrified and miserable and mortified that I've caused this much of a calamity. I've gone from being secretive about my body to having no secrets whatsoever -- there's a chair in the shower since I can't stand for long periods, and for a few weeks, my best friend and boyfriend have to take turns helping me put my bra on. I am humbled. I am lucky to be alive.
Over the next few weeks, it dawns on me that a lot of people put all of their time and effort into saving this body, this stupid collection of cells that I've been neglecting for so long, and that maybe I should respect it as much as they do. Maybe I can do it for them -- I still can't do it for me.Age 28: I have my first post-hospital episode of the disease, and because old habits die hard, I hide it from my boyfriend. He finds out, of course, and I find out that he's been harboring guilt and misery of his own, that he didn't realize how sick I was when I was hospitalized. He sits me down and has a serious talk with me about how my body doesn't just belong to me, and how I have to take care of myself for both of us, and how he loves me no matter how sick I am. He's right, partially.
My body does belong to both of us, and he did stick with me through the hospital, but this is not his job. His love of this sack of flesh and bones gives me pause, and I start looking at myself objectively. Holy shit, it's not so bad. Not only does it not look so bad, but it can do things like dance and walk and cry and make food and tell stories and build IKEA furniture and survive.
I apologize to myself and then start making amends by eating healthy, getting enough sleep, taking time off when I'm sick, and exercising regularly. I start treating my body with a bit of respect. It feels fantastic. Age 30: At some point I realize, for the first time since I was a very young child, that I feel incredibly comfortable in my skin. It's flawed and it's funky and it's made mistakes, but it's mine, and I adore it. Sure, there are ups and downs to this feeling, but a sea change has occurred, and I'm happy to be a part of it. Age 32: I write a piece about me and my body for xoJane. It's not easy to do, but it's one of many things I am doing to make it up to myself.