(This is a personal story. But there’s a point to it.)
I have never liked physical exercise much. Not just that – I also regarded this as a key component of my personality, taking an odd pride in the fact that I was the kind of person who just didn’t bother much with bodily things. As a child, I’d spend my lunch breaks reading a book in the corner of the playground, until my teacher put a stop to this and told me to go run and play with everyone else. As a teenager, I dreaded my PE classes, especially when there were balls involved that could hit you in the face if you failed to pay attention for a second. (I did do a lot of dancing, but since that didn’t leave me exhausted and/or sore and sort of added to my status of class weirdo, I figured it was Art, not Exercise.)
I didn’t bother with my body much in general, and thought this was a Good Thing. Other girls forever seemed to be peering into mirrors and watching their diets; I considered this shallow and irrational and sort of sad. If I felt like it, I’d have cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner without worrying about my calorie intake. I’d feel vaguely proud of this, as if this lack of concern with my culture’s beauty standards established me as an intelligent, level-headed person.
I didn’t hate my body. I didn’t love it either. It was just something that was there but didn’t have a lot to do with me.
Later, though, something began to change. I was entering my mid-twenties and I was getting too old to be promising - soon, someone would take a critical look at my life and find me wanting. Everything I did accomplish felt vaguely disappointing – so boring and prosaic compared to the things I’d dreamed about doing. I felt out of place in academia. My love life did not deserve the name. I didn’t know if my friends were still my friends. (If I had written a TV pilot about my life back then and gotten HBO to broadcast it, I bet no one would’ve heard of Lena Dunham today.)
And when I looked in the mirror, at this Other, this body-that-wasn’t-part-of-me, I suddenly saw that it was all wrong. Soon I couldn’t eat without thinking about it and I couldn’t not eat without thinking about it. It was always there, silently walking with me, influencing me, setting my agenda, holding me back, taunting me with its disproportioned presence. It was embarrassing – here I was, this level-headed girl always so blissfully free of body issues, catching myself thinking that I might feel better about myself if I just skipped lunch for a day or two.
I did not think of all this when I decided, on a whim, to take up classes in… a form of fitness that has gradually been losing its stigma and is enjoying increasing popularity. If anything, I was probably hoping that it would make That Body somewhat prettier so I might like it better (I still felt, vaguely, that physical exercise was meant for people with an unhealthy focus on looks, but these people now included me).
After my first class, I was sore for a week. But I had paid for eight classes, so I continued. It was less bad after the second class. The third class got me high on endorphins for the first time in my life. After the eighth class, I booked another eight.
And something changed. But it wasn’t That Body – not much, anyway. It was the gradual realisation that That Body could do pretty awesome things. I stopped looking at it with disappointment and dislike; instead, I gained a respect for it that was entirely new. I felt proud and excited about inhabiting it. And later still, I stopped thinking about my body in terms of inhabiting – I realised that The Body was me, as much as my mind was.
I’m writing all this because of an article that some of my friends shared on Facebook a while ago on ‘how to talk to little girls‘. The message: don’t focus on their bodies. Focus on their minds.
It sounds reasonable enough, but taken to its extreme, it’s precisely this idea that made me so unhappy with my body a few years ago. If you pretend that your body isn’t an important part of you, if you never learn to respect it and be proud of it, there might just come a day when you look into the mirror and see nothing but a bothersome Other.
So yes, please focus on girls’ interests, opinions, creativity and talents. But don’t forget that that’s only half of their identity. We’re physical creatures too. We need to learn to appreciate how our bodies enable us to experience the world, express emotions, and forge intimate connections with others. We need to experience the fun of trying our body’s strengths and abilities, of training it, of feeling it ache and grow and develop. We need to realise that our bodies are ours as much as our minds, especially when we’re the kind of person who’s naturally inclined to a more cerebral existence.
It still feels like a bit of a weird paradox – that I made myself vulnerable to body issues by focusing so much on mind over matter. I guess if the only function of your body is to enable your mind to exist, it is really nothing but a façade, of which very little can be said except whether it is nice-looking or not.
It’s not that I stopped having an opinion about the façade, or occasionally wishing for more womanly curves and a proper waist. It’s just that the particulars of my waist-to-hip ratio feel so utterly trivial when I just managed to deadlift myself into helicopter position.