Body Image & Aging Gracefully
"I vow to stop trying to change my body and, instead, start to change my relationship to my body. I vow to stop obsessing on losing weight and start focusing on losing self-aggression. I vow to hold a healthy urge for self-improvement in my right hand and a strong sense of appreciation in my left hand and slowly, sensitively, bring my two hands together in a prayer that transforms good enough into goodness."
—Cyndi Lee, founder Om Yoga
Body image is something that we all struggle with, especially women specifically— including me. Our bodies are often not what we want or imagine, and for various reasons that we can and cannot control, they change. Much is relative. And now, my new and imperfect cancer-free body wants its old, imperfect cancer free body back!
In yoga and other health fields, I would imagine that there’s an exaggerated amounts of low body image. When you work at anything there is an element of working to do your best —and better. There is always room for improvement, so we technically never quite arrive. As a ‘fitness/health’ professional, people look to us to be a little more healthy, disciplined and more focused than the average person. We work hard to practice and stand in integrity, to look and be the part, but we are people too, with our own insecurities, indulgences, imperfections and bad habits as well. (Not super human, but truly human.)
Having been athletic and involved a bit in gymnastics, ice skating, various forms of dance and cheerleading (yes, cheerleading, I can't believe that I just 'fessed up to that) – and as a young muscular American African-American girl in predominantly Caucasian circles, there were issues with body image while growing up for sure. I was always a bit thicker, more muscular and heavier, and can honestly admit to times in my youth when I wanted to be even thinner and weigh less. Granted, I've never had a major injury, and didn't gain or lose the freshman twenty-pounds, but instead at 30 years old, did drop the twenty gained during my four year marriage, (an education of sorts to a musician which meant many nights per week in bars, clubs, casinos and fried foods at diners regularly 'til 3:00am). Because I never had a baby, there was no baby weight to lose post pregnancy either. My relationship with my body stayed rather consistent and physical activity was enjoyment, strength oriented and maintenance. As I got older, I came to care less about weight and body measurements etc. until weight gain post surgery, which was compounded when I was restricted from physical activity for one month each time. For me, moderate weight gain and surgical scars were the only visual evidence that my body exhibited of my cancer. To me, they were one in the same.
I won’t presume to be able to speak for others who have had cancer or anything else, but for me, this idea plays into the thought that our bodies, MY body had viciously turned on me, sabotaging all that I had done some work to avoid, (or so I thought). If we are so fit and have taken some care to attempt to eat well and exercise – WTF body? Cancer, seriously? What's wrong with me? And what did I do to deserve that? Then with the acceptance of the disease, shame sets in, followed by anger, a sense of helplessness then more confusion. Its a cycle.
If I were talking to a friend who had been through what I had gone through, I would be ecstatic about her strength and power to have endure. None of the things that matter to me about me now, would even remotely cross my mind for, or about my friend. Right? Does that make sense? Not really, but it has to do with perspective. I remember walking into my first appointment with my cancer surgeon and later with the cancer PT supervising doctor who took one look at me and said, “You look like the furthest away from a sick person than I’ve ever seen.” Not to say that yoga teachers or the physically fit do not develop cancer or any other diseases, but based on what I experienced there seemed a difference in the way we, or I was seen. Perplexing, like, “What are you doing here? How the hell did you get cancer? You look so fit.” — I'm sorry?
As my older self, I feel lucky to have had the body that I have and have had since childhood. It has served me well in being athletic and strong. Despite the abuses of some unhealthy eating, sugar and generally taking it for granted, my body had held up pretty well…until cancer showed up. Aside from having developed the disease itself, having been unable to be physically active post surgery and throughout recovery from all three surgeries, my once strong and healthy body is no more — the same. It had been invaded, weakened and deeply scarred, literally (by treatment), and continues to strengthen. And maybe the strength that my body had WAS the difference for me, and for the better? Having a yoga practice — asana and meditation practice to pull from and return to was important. “I am at home in my body and at peace in my spirit”, (Thanks, Aarona / themoondeck.com), has become my overall mantra. It really works most days. My body is different and is still changing and though the changes are not that visible, I feel as if I’ve been subtly placed into someone else’s body. Despite my having been diligent, physically strong, focused and active since all three surgeries, all is compounded by the fact that I am suddenly being faced with my 49 year self as it is inside of a body that suddenly feels foreign. Until recently, it felt pretty ageless and now perpetually tired of bouncing between the highs and lows attempting to wiggle its way into a comfortable balance.
In between the elation of having gone through surgery and the process to arrive at my decision against radiation, the fact that I have been able to resume my practice —any practice, does have me feeling generally GREAT. THEN, yes, I do regress while getting dressed, when my clothes don't fit or look 'right', or while in yoga class during a twisted pose when I am reminded of the extra junk in my trunk, belly —and that junkie talk in my head as well! For example one day after finally being able to resume a moderate yoga practice, while in downward facing dog, I was like, “Whose wrinkly knees are those connected to what? Cellulite? When did that happen?” Seriously, my legs didn’t look like mine. In that moment, my body was officially a mess. I was marred by cancer and living larger, heavier and less strong than before. And though really not that bad, its devastatingly annoying. The changes are much different than what I thought or expected they would be, but change always is isn't it? Change is always hard— but change in our bodies is of the most difficult to accept, manage and to become comfortable with, especially as we also get older, (OMG). So as a truly human woman, I guess this is where I've always been. Assessing, wrestling and making peace with the body that despite the flaws and imperfections that we perceive to be, is perfectly the one that I've been incredibly blessed to have received. Gratitude is everything. And at the end of the day, grown ups realize that tomorrow is a new day that is a precious gift.