A few years ago a friend and I took our teenage sons on holiday with their girlfriends. Lying on the beach one day, this beautiful slim young girl was bemoaning the state of her body. I smiled and shared with her that when I looked back at photos of myself when I was in my teens and twenties, I could see that I had a pretty reasonable shape but at that time I had been like her, constantly frustrated that it didn’t match up to my ideal expectations. I remember encouraging her to enjoy the body she had as it would only get older.
Me in Ibiza 1969
A huge number of us are unhappy with our bodies, men and women, but women in particular. We spend a ludicrous amount of time worrying about our appearance and fretting about our shape. One diet is followed by another. One fitness regime is overtaken by some latest trend mentioned in a magazine.
I look at myself in the mirror today and don’t recognise what I see. I used to have a trim gamine figure but didn’t appreciate it. Now I have the average body of a 66 year-old and yet it holds my history in its cells. There is a scar on my knee from when I cut myself on a barbed wire fence aged nine, another where I was bashed on a tree aged eleven by a very stubborn donkey I was riding, who was trying his best to push me off. There is a dodgy knee-cap, a weakness that runs in the family. I get the odd twinge where I perched large toddlers on my hip. There are the scars of Caesareans signalling the birth of my sons, the hysterectomy that put an end to children. The freckles and sunburn, the laughter lines, the rings under the eyes that evidence tiredness, sadness.
Living with a doctor, as I do now, has also made me aware of how little I know about the functioning of my body – the size of my heart, liver, bowel. How completely in tune our minds and bodies are and how, within the fraction of a second of a threatening trigger, one’s body transforms in readiness for fight or flight. And yet this threat could be completely imagined and in one’s mind, a recollection of an event that happened many years before, for example, but one’s body prepares itself now, nonetheless. How we are indeed what we eat and how unique that is. How if I eat wheat I feel bloated where other people would feel energised. How important it is not just to live in one’s head and the outside world but to tune in to the workings of one’s body as it is constantly giving one messages that one might be too busy to hear. A back ache or neck strain that could remind you that you are exhausted and need to take a break. A headache that might tell you that a particular red wine doesn’t agree with you. The stiffness that signals you haven’t kept your body flexible through exercise recently. In fact noticing the minutiae of our everyday experience that does, actually, matter.
And all the time our body is giving us the gifts of our senses – the scent of a rose, the beauty of a baby’s smile, the touch of stroking a dog, the taste of delicious food, the sound of a song that inspires us to get up and dance or moves us to tears. And the sixth sense of intuition where you know in your gut that something doesn’t add up, or feel suspicious of someone with whom you have just shaken hands. It is real wisdom that you can access but it is so easy to take for granted the everyday miracles that your body performs as you don’t even have to think about making the heart beat, the lungs breathe, the digestive system process food. It’s all automatic.
Endeavouring to mirror the looks of celebrities or models can be misleading. If you read the news you will know that many celebrities end up in The Priory, so their looks do not necessarily bring them happiness. A model may have been chosen because they photograph in a particularly dramatic way. Look around you on the street to see the variety of couples holding hands and you will realize that being the perfect shape or look is not generally the reason they have fallen in love. It is ultimately their energy, personality and who they are that is beautiful and attractive to their partner. For myself, one boyfriend said I wasn’t thin enough and the next that I was too thin. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that is true, but the true beauty comes from within you and that is what you share with the world. I wish I could have been more aware of this myself earlier in my life and valued all that my body provided, rather than always feeling there was something wrong.
Perhaps if we considered how hard our body works on our behalf we might appreciate it more and berate it less? Perhaps we would listen to its messages, nourish it with good food, give it the rest and relaxation it requires, the water, daylight and exercise that makes it function at its optimum?
When I had my delicious post-retirement massage last week to smooth the work out of my skin (see Julia Kirby, www.thefeltspace.com ) I came to realize how hard my legs had worked for these twenty odd years of walking and standing up all day, most days, training groups in the UK and elsewhere. How my feet had stood for hours on high-heeled shoes in order to boost my height and my idea of the image of myself as a professional woman. As Julia massaged my right shoulder it reminded me of how I had lugged my heavy laptop on that shoulder for all those years, staggering into packed tube carriages at the end of a long day. As she came to my left shoulder, the side of my heart, it made me realize that my career has necessitated that I focus compassionate energy on my clients and that perhaps now is the time to come back into myself for a little while to recoup and refresh.
Our body holds all the experiences of our lives, both physical, mental and emotional. All the adventures, the successes, the trip-ups, the sadness, the worries, excitements, pain and joys we have experienced. Could it make a difference to cast your mind back over some of those adventures and appreciate how well your body has, undemandingly, taken care of you? Might that make it easier to value its miraculous design, rather than moan that you don’t look like some Greek God or Goddess? Or maybe you do …!