Inhabiting my Body with Presence and Pleasure.
There was a time when I would have showered, dressed nicely, done my hair and put on full makeup just to sit at my computer and write.
I would not have done any of this because it enhanced my writing, or gave me pleasure. I would have taken an hour to “get ready” in case anyone saw me, in case someone came to the door, in case I had to run to the store. There was no pleasure in it, only fear of being judged un-pretty and unworthy.
For more than three decades I spent thousands of hours and dollars on looking the way I thought I should look. Every morning before high school I got up at 5 a.m. so that I could cover every pimple individually and try to force my hair into Farrah Fawcett wings.
Later, I bought things that made my stomach look flat. I bought heels to elongate my legs. I started dying my hair at the first sign of gray, and I used to spend incredible amounts of time trying to make it straight on the most humid days of summer. I would not wear a bathing suit in public, or bare my arms.
My life was bounded on all sides by a high, barbed wire fence of self-consciousness and self-loathing.
I remember this: standing in a church bathroom after a friend’s wedding, crying because my hair had exploded into waves and frizz, my face was shiny and I looked fat in the dress. I did not stay for dinner, I did not dance—I went home and missed it all.
Because of the way I looked.
All of those years, I really existed only as a reflection.
I read fashion magazines, and followed their tips and tricks, their diets, and their miracle exercise plans. I searched the eyes of everyone around me to see what they thought about the way I looked. I paid no attention if I made someone laugh, or if someone said I was a great listener; the real question, the burning issue, was whether I looked good.
I rarely dated, and I was very uncomfortable with sex because I was worried about how my body looked. I “knew” men weren’t interested in me because I was so unattractive.
I was never really present unless I was completely alone, absorbed in a task. For the other 90 percent of my life, I was vigilant and scanning for at least one other person to see me, judge me and show me if I was real and sufficient.
There was no peace, little pleasure, and lots of dramatic, unsustainable weight loss followed by desperate, anxious binging, weight gain and self-loathing.
About two years ago, I became a Buddhist. I noticed, first, that when I meditated and put my hand on my belly to feel the breath, I was connected to my body. It was a fine, solid piece of work, my body. The belly I had hated since having a baby was not an enemy, but a soft, gentle core that had served me well.
When I did walking meditation I felt my legs, the part of me I had always hated most, sturdy and good beneath me.
Little by little, as I lived mindfully, I began to inhabit my body with presence and pleasure.
I began to eat less food, but I savored what I ate. A ripe peach over the sink was infinitely better than furtive spoons full of ice cream. If I wanted a bite of cake I ate it, exulting in the sugary, buttery frosting and the airiness of the cake. Food was no longer sedative, but nourishment. The sensual pleasure of richly colored eggplants, the astringency of cilantro leaf or a pint of beautiful little strawberries for lunch left me fulfilled in all the senses.
Finally, there was a change in my relationship with my face, my hair and my sense of myself as a woman—it was a revolution in a mind that had spent decades grasping for approval based on societal standards.
I stopped coloring my hair. The gray and white are creating a subtle, interesting change that I kind of like. I wear makeup when I feel like it, because I honestly enjoy the colors and the artistry. I smile at the effect of a bold stroke of black eyeliner with a saucy French uptick at the end, and the fun of picking from a palette of juicy lip color. But if I don’t feel like it, I don’t do it—and I can leave the house without it.
In the shower, I do my metta practice, still at the first stage where I direct loving-kindness towards myself. The first part of my mantra is, “May I accept myself as I am.” As I massage shampoo into my scalp, soap my smooth, round shoulders, and inhale the scent of steam and scented soap, I find myself comfortable, present and at peace with my former enemy.
I thought the other day about the way in which we come to believe others are beautiful because we love them. We may at first see grey hair, or a coarse complexion, but when we start to feel a real connection… we see only beauty.
We are taught to judge, to see fault, and to strive for some kind of ideal perfection that belies all that we truly are. And although what’s past is past, I can’t help but wish that I could send some metta to my younger self—to let her know that she is beautiful and beloved and that in her imperfection lies all that makes her human.
But maybe, without that long, hard lesson I would not be here today with my bare face and my curly hair, feeling the sheer joy of being alive.
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Assistant Ed: Terri Tremblett/Ed: Brianna Bemel
Photo: James Sutton