Monday, May 19, 2008

Rave: The reclamation of my own body

I've decided I need to write more in this blog, as a space for the things I can't put on any of my professional blogs. I shall try not to ignore it for nearly a year in future.

Being an avowed feminist, and getting more avowed by the day, I've been thinking a lot about the mind-body dichotomy and how it plays out where I can see social ideals exerting controls over women's bodies, through food and fat, through sex (and rape), through fashion, through forced childbearing or denial of the right to bear children, through sports, and ultimately through murder (to name just a few).

For me, personally, my body has been a source of discomfort for as long as I can remember. Because I cannot run fast or catch a ball, and I grew up in a society that values sports above all else, my body and its failings have made me an object of school ridicule since I was small. I do not fit in to an idealized beauty standard, and this has been readily apparent to me for a long time. And in my early adulthood, I suffered the bodily betrayal of chronic illness; pain, dependence, weight loss and gain due to illness and medication, loss of control in general (the illness with which I am diagnosed has particularly socially unacceptable symptoms, being intestinal in nature). And of course the usual stories of sexual harassment and the like that all the women I know could tell, well, I can tell them too.

I'm not saying all or any of this for pity, but because I want to demonstrate how from the time I went to school, my body has been a source of embarrassment, shame, inconvenience, pain, and discomfort. Until I left my teens, I walked with a hunch to make myself smaller and less obvious. I wished I could be like that Roald Dahl story, and just be a brain in a jar, because nothing good came of having a body.

Recently though, I have begun to realise the joy I take in my body. Now, for those of you whose minds have already hit the damn gutter, I'm not even going to talk about sex--partly because it too bloody obvious, partly because it is fraught and I don't want to get into it. Instead, I'm going to talk about other things:
  • Discovering swimming at 13, and realising I could swim further than pretty much anyone I knew, but that that didn't matter because it was good to just move through the water and be tired afterwards.
  • Discovering the gym at 14, and learning to enjoy group exercise in a way where I was my own master, and where I did not have to be able to run or catch a ball.
  • Playing basketball in girls-only physical education in Finland, where all that mattered was that everyone was having a good time.
  • Learning to climb and be the master of my own destiny, and getting bloody strong along the way (oh, and meeting my husband wasn't bad either).
  • Lifting weights, and changing the shape of my body, not in a way that pleased society, but in a way that pleased me.
  • Taking up running on the treadmill with a goal in mind, and being surprised at how fast I could run without even trying
  • All the other gym classes -- step, where I was particularly talented and could learn anything; boxing aerobics, where I was quick and my aggression didn't matter, pilates and body balance where I learned to concentrate on what my body was doing and how small changes affected it, deep water running, where I could do great cardio without joint pain and most recently and importantly...
  • ...body jam, where I dance. I've always loved to dance, but I've never had any faith that I didn't look stupid or pornographic. It's taken a year of jam, but I simply don't give a flying fuck anymore what I look like. I don't care that some of the moves are sexual. I enjoy moving, and I am moving not for anyone other than me. It's about how I feel, rather than how I look (though I've been told that my dancing is pretty damn pleasing to the eye, these days).
It's taken doing the jam thing (for a year!), and losing my shame about moving my "child bearing hips", "thunder thighs" "boobies" and all the other parts of me that attract less attention for me to look at all of these experiences and stand up and recognise the joy I take in them. The brain in the jar scenario doesn't allow for any of these joys, and finally I am choosing to focus on the joy in all of it, rather than feeling slightly embarrassed and apologetic.

This is not, of course, to say that I love the way my body looks, or that the creepy jerk staring at my chest in the gym/elevator/train doesn't make me want to hide (or smack him), or that pain and illness don't make me curse my body as a bastard traitor that isn't playing the game. It's just that that isn't the dominant narrative anymore; it's no longer about what my body can't do, or what it is, but about what it can and does do. I've reclaimed my body.

I can't help but wonder, though, if I wouldn't have come earlier to this if physical education at school had been better rounded, and exposed me to other things than running and catching balls (and after all, the majority of us are not great at these things or sports heroes wouldn't be worshipped the way they are), and perhaps I might have come to the joy in simple movement earlier. It wouldn't have completely ameliorated all the other baggage, but knowing my body did one good thing just for me might have helped along the way. If I have daughters who are as hopeless at sports as I am, I'm certainly going to do my damndest to expose them to other types of movement...just in case.

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