Unpacking the Body Baggage
A guest blog by writer, performer and critic - the fabulous Michelle Dee.
Ever since the honest and forthright celebration of bodies that was Beach Body Ready, I have found myself wanting to explore in more depth, the deeply complicated relationship I have with my own body. I remember after all the deeply personal and painful revelations from the three women, how the show crescendoed, they danced. Unashamedly, victoriously, they danced. The dance representing the hard fought freedom to be; to love yourself, to let someone love you, whatever shape and size and revel and rebel in being you.
I think the first thing to point out is that the relationship changes, both the body and your relationship with it are always changing. As a child I was aware of my body in the way that it helped me run fast: I could nip across the tennis court waving my racquet like a frying pan in the air: ‘It is a ball not a pancake,’ my coach would yell. I wasn’t mad keen on sports and definitely not team sports. I could cope with doubles in tennis, but activities like hockey and basketball I just couldn’t see how I fitted into the larger group: mind you my height was a plus for basketball.
From aged eight I started horse-riding. One-to-one with a willing pony that was different, that was both scary and thrilling and could sometimes be embarrassing. I was famed in the riding school for managing to fall off twice doing the same ‘Around the world’ at a walking pace: where I thought the horse should be as I placed my hand, was exactly where it wasn’t. However, thundering across open country, the rhythm of the gallop throwing you back and forth, the ground below just a blur, right on the edge of control, that was the real thrill of the ride.
My body was all wrong as a teen, all gangly and spotty and wrong. I remember a feeling of being disconnected from it that increased with every passing month: even to the point where I began to believe it wasn’t mine. These feelings are likely to have been the seeds of dysphoria that would torment me with increasing frequency, throughout my life. Mixed with confusing hormones the feeling of disassociation grew quickly into a deep mistrust and eventually a hatred. I was repulsed by my propensity to get boils and abscesses, the tiniest spot could grow almost over night into a hot, green brown shaming puss-filled mess. I had bad blood to be treated by a very public daily dose of yeast tablets, to make my blood less susceptible to infection. I had flat feet so had to wear funny insoles and do exercises every morning to build up the arches; I had bad ears and wonky teeth and as far as I was concerned it was all evidence that my body and I were not best suited.
Sixteen and I was desperate to be loved, loved by anyone, to be held close but appalled by the wretched creature staring back at me in the mirror. How could anyone love that? Truth be known I’d never been so much as asked out on a date, all through school. The only attention I had attracted was as a punching bag for the school bullies, who sought me out in their calculating ways, and rained down the pain, reinforcing all the negative associations, you don’t fit in, you are different, you only exist to be miserable. Punches and kicks, the digs in the ribs, and worst of all I’ve always thought, being hit on the head. There’s a sort of dread feeling that comes over you when you get hit in the head. It shakes you, of course it does, quickly followed by a horrid sick, dizzy feeling. There’s also a fear that happens, distant at first and then more pressing, more urgent, a fear that whispers maybe they won’t stop. ‘Vulnerable,’ they said, after the umpteenth time, ‘You seem to walk around with a label that reads I am a victim: please hurt me…’ No I bloody don’t, and if I did I’d tear it off… ever so slowly from the corner, like a reluctant plaster.
I hated my body, because it couldn’t stand up for itself; because it felt wrong, like it just wasn’t mine. Why should I love it, how could I love it when it had received no love in turn? Not loving my body was, I can clearly see now, a huge part of my dysphoria diagnosis. I stand at over six foot - I know some might long for that height - but it is not great being the only one who can never hide in a crowd. I can picture myself trying to shrink somehow when ever I entered a room, sitting forward in a chair all scrunched up, to take up less space.
Years of trying to be invisible eventually makes you a loner, it being far easier to sit on your own with all your wrong self, than suffer the feeling of others having to endure you. Isolation makes it even less likely that somebody might want to be with you, find you attractive, find your attributes both inside and out desirable. When I read those articles in magazines asking me to pick out the part of my body I liked most, I could never answer: what would be the point if nobody else could see it in you?
This is what weeks of self isolation does, it allows you all the space in the world to summon up malodorous demons and parade them mockingly, like a cruel merry-go round. But maybe all this introspection, unpacking of the body baggage, is a good thing? Seeing it now all written down, doesn’t it read just like so many other people’s fears and insecurities about themselves? Maybe the secret or solution is learning to live with it, and knowing it won’t always be that way.
So how do you fall back in love with your body? My salvation came in the unlikely form of dance. I had never been much - or any sort - of a mover at discos. On the rare occasions I found myself at a dance I was far too self conscious to let go and enjoy the experience, far too worried about being scrutinised by peers. I thought dancing was something other people did, people who knew how.
When I think about dance today I think about a different headspace; a liminal space that encourages actively getting to know your body: how something as simple as learning how to breathe while stretching, can begin to have a reconnecting effect. Aside from whilst bathing, or rubbing a bruised shin, when do you regularly spend positive time in contact with your body?
Before lockdown the weekly dance class was something to look forward to. An hour of escapism that provided an opportunity to learn; experience a sense of achievement; trust in the affirmation from teachers and classmates; appreciating the reciprocal nature of a supportive space. To think I so very nearly let dance slip through my fingers. Instead with a kindly voice of encouragement who seemed to really want me to take part, I faced down those long held fears, refused to let suspicion and the lure of the easy way out, stop me from letting dance enrich my life.
My body is still all awkward limbs, out of proportion that won’t make the right shapes: what even are the right shapes? My feet get glued to the floor and over enthusiasm leads to a tendency to fall over a bit. Middle-aged rheumatoid arthritis, somewhat exacerbated by enforced sedentary lockdown life, is busy presenting more challenges to battle through: my wrists and knees encased in velcro supports as I step and turn, plié and play.
Last week dance class was back after a six month absence just as before: Covid-19 measures notwithstanding. I massaged my arms and calves, tipped my head from side to side to stretch my neck muscles, and tried to push my shoulders down: tried to feel grounded. I am in that unique space, where mistakes are welcomed, where bodies are celebrated with an emphasis on what they can do alone and together, and not at all what they look like. And the rare feeling of moving in space without recoiling, without feeling the need to shrink out of existence, of being seen without caring, is exhilarating and will keep me coming back for more.
Image of Michelle at the beach, photo credit: Anna Bean.