I have very two distinct memories when it comes to my weight as a teenager and an adult. In one memory, I’m about 15 or 16 years old. I’m wearing white shorts, probably a size seven or nine in juniors. I’ve got on a red college t-shirt and (this is probably the worst part), I’m wearing red-and-white striped toe socks that went to my knees, like Where’s Waldo was hiding himself in my skinny calves. I have a picture of me in this outfit, standing in my grandma’s living room. I’m grinning at whoever was taking the picture. My hair was black (this was a really unfortunately fashion phase for me when you think about black hair and those Where’s Waldo socks!) and pulled up in a messy knot, and on my left wrist I wore two jelly bracelets. I was so, so thin — not unhealthy, just normal teenage thin.
The other memory that can hold my mind captive for hours is the first time I discovered a stretch mark on my belly. I wasn’t a newbie to stretch marks when I discovered the one on my belly, but all of the other ones I had were on my breasts and thighs. When I was 20 I began to gain weight, but it wasn’t significant, not at first anyway. One afternoon when I was about 25, I stood in front of the mirror while I changed my pants. I’d taken a nap wearing a pair of jeans and I was changing to go out to dinner with a friend. My pants had left a deep red mark on my belly near my belly button and I rubbed the spot, trying to make it go away. But it didn’t, I realized with horror a few days later, actually disappear. It was a stretch mark. On the formerly flat and smooth skin of my belly. And I gained more weight and saw more of those marks weave their way into my skin, ruts in my flesh that I wished would go away but would not.
I remember both of these things with the same weird emotion: I never once looked at my body and felt like the girl I saw reflected in the mirror or the picture matched the girl in my brain. As a teenage, I felt so big, like my body filled up far more of a chair or room or personal space than it did. I wasn’t; it didn’t. I had some very, very thin friends, but I definitely was normal, maybe even slightly thinner than normal. And as a 25-year-old, I felt, finally, like that thin girl, even as the weight piled on against my will. At both times, I sometimes looked into the mirror and felt shocked, the face of the girl reflected not the person I pictured myself to be.
The weight gain I experienced in my 20s was the result of many things. It was when I really started to address the feelings I’d been repressing for years after being sexually assaulted at 18 and sexually abused for most of my childhood. I also began to experience problems related to my hormones that made weight gain so simple and weight loss impossibly hard, but I wouldn’t have any idea that my body was betraying me from the inside, making my skin stretch and distort even as I tried so hard to make healthy choices, until I was in my 30s.
My 30s brought some stability and some answers to the question of why I gained weight the way I did, but it also brought some new physical challenges with it. My brain felt extra-sharp, alert and ready for anything. That clarity didn’t stop me from taking one wrong step during one of those runs where you get colored paint thrown at you. We were running through a campground, over tree stumps, and I tripped. I caught myself but the next morning, I woke up with a horrible pain in my back, around my left hip. I stretched and used fancy phrases like “I really hurt my hip flexor” because it sounded better than “I tripped over a tree and jacked my back up.” Months went by and my doctor gave me muscle relaxers, which didn’t actually help much, and non-narcotic pain medications, which also didn’t help and made my stomach hurt. Finally I realized I had sciatica and was able to get the help I needed to heal it. And wouldn’t you know, maybe two weeks after I woke up for the first time in months with no pain in my back, I had this horrible, debilitating pain in the arch of my left foot. (Apparently I hate the left side of my body.) It got worse and nothing helped. I iced it (brrr!), I rolled a lacrosse ball under it (which honestly made me wish I was dead because the pain was that bad), I wore different shoes that supported my very high arches, and eventually, I used this stuff that I called “voodoo tape,” which is what actually fixed the problem. It was stretchy tape adhered to my skin, pulling the muscles and letting the blood flow more freely and also maybe there was some magic involved. All that to say, this was how I spend the spring and summer months of 31, my body betraying my brain’s desire to get up and do stuff and have fun.
I am 33 now and sometimes, when I’m getting dressed or when I’m out shopping for new clothes, I feel waves of sadness wash over me when I look at my body. I think the feelings are two-fold. One, this isn’t the body I imagined I’d have, especially when I think about my body as a teenager. And two, I am sad for all of the shame and indignity I heaped upon myself for not looking a certain way whether it was at 15 or 25. I think back to those agonizingly difficult years between 17 and 23 when so much anger and sadness filled my heart that I felt like the only thing I could do was slice deep lines into the skin on my arms with a razor blade. I feel so broken and sorry for what I have subjected this body of mine to, whether in word or in deed.
I just want to whisper, “I’m sorry, body, for the lies I’ve told you and believed about you. I’m sorry for all the times I believed you weren’t good enough. I’m sorry, God, that I doubted that you knew this body when you made it. I’m sorry I have spent so long doubting the strength and dignity you’ve given to me in these bones.” So often I believed that my body had failed me or that I had failed it, but when I actually stop and look at what I have done with this achy, breaky body of mine, I am left speechless. This body has done so much.
I’ve traveled the world and I’ve traveled my country. I’ve been to tiny, dirty villages in El Salvador and I’ve walked through beautiful historical buildings in South Africa. I’ve flown to Europe and walked around the streets of Rome and Bethlehem and Jerusalem. I’ve had coffee in Turkey and stood in the oceans of Greece. I have flown to many states to visit my friends and adventured with them. I’ve driven 16 hours and a thousand miles in a car with a friend and her two kids, stretching my legs when we got gas, flexing my back in the seat when it was my turn to drive. I’ve slept on beds and couches and floors, rolling my bones loose in the morning.
I’ve picnicked at parks, my bare legs stretched out on the grass, itchy bumps rising on my skin. I’ve felt the sun scorch my skin bright pink and peely in the summer and I’ve shivered in the coldest months, feeling snow numb the tips of my fingers and soak through my boots.
I’ve held babies and shushed them to sleep. I’ve kissed sweet little cheeks and wiped away snot and tears. I’ve chased these tinies across playgrounds and parks. I’ve swung high and pushed littles into the sky, their shrieks and giggles filling the air. I have loved so deeply because of these tiny people who fill my life.
This body has run races, no matter how slow the clock might read, and it has walked miles down sandy beaches in beautiful places. I’ve paddled a surfboard in the icy parts of the Pacific and I have snorkeled, eyes big and bold with wonder, in the warm waters of Hawaii. I’ve hiked up mountains and swam to waterfalls and lifted my feet through piles of cold, bright snow.
I’ve been brave in times of great fear. I have laughed in times of great rejoicing. I’ve allowed grief and sorrow to burrow deep within my skin and I have allowed my heart and my body and even my skin to heal and to be rebuilt. I have traced the scars that line my arm in wonder and in sadness, thankful for hope that has healed me and shattered that I ever felt an anguish deeply enough to do that to myself.
My body has made tears for me to cry, both the wounded tears and and the kind that come when you laugh so hard you can barely breathe. My body has felt its heart race in anticipation and with regret. I have stood on stages and told people hard things, shining light into dark and bitter places. I have shared the truth about Who I believe in and what I love, even when faced with losing things. I have a backbone that has made me proud of stand up for myself.
Maybe my body doesn’t look like I imagined it would or like I think it should, but oh my goodness, it has done and does everything I’ve wished for. Who am I to look at it and think it is anything but good? Some days lately I wake up and I think, “Man, God, my body isn’t like I imagined, but neither is my life, and look how good everything is! So thanks for it. Thank You more than I will ever be able to express for the blood and guts and skin and bones.” Some of the years in the body have been difficult, but I’ve lived loudly and laughed hard and loved well, and I will praise God for the body He gave me that has survived so far in this wild and full life.