What I wish I’d said to the woman in the locker room yesterday, after she caught my eye in the way people do when they feel they are bursting within themselves– when circular thinking reroutes itself from the hamster wheel and sporadically careens out the mouth to the first pair of eyes that catch. What I wish I’d said to the woman who was tugging on her purple Umbro shorts, patting the tail of her short hair cropped close on her neck, eyebrows twisted in a knot at her forehead when she began to exit, thought better of it, and found my eyes again in the mirror, asked–
“Do you think these shorts are too short?”
I looked and said, “No, I don’t think so. But do you think so?”
“I do,” she said.
“I think you’re great,” I said lamely, even though I did.
“I think the reason is that I don’t feel good in my body right now,” she said, “So I don’t feel good in anything.”
“Oh no!” I said, trying to assess more fully, “No, you are right, right now.”
She nodded, unconsoled, and began to leave. She thought better of it again and turned back to me.
“It’s just that I’m underweight,” she said. “I have a health issue with my metabolism. It’s all messed up.”
“Well, I think you’re fine,” I said automatically, unable to unpack any further before she sped out one last time.
What I wish I’d said to that woman is that you are exactly where you are. I wish I’d said that our bodies are not permanent things in any sense of the word– they have have no true stasis, no correct way of being. That they move around us even as our thoughts and our feelings swirl within. That your body is communicating as much as your mouth is: it’s a tell. That sometimes it tells that you are ill, and sometimes it tells that you’ve had too much pizza the night before, and sometimes it tells that you’ve been sleeping well and eating your vegetables.
We spend an inordinate amount of time hiding from others or hiding from ourselves the most honest, forthright part of ourselves. We pack around it and within it to inhibit it from blabbing to the world the immediate truth of our circumstances; and in many ways, to slow the immediate truth from penetrating our change resistent brains. We plump and we tuck and we suck in and we floof to create a semblance of stability to present these blobby, angular, gossipy borderlines of self.
But these sweet vessels, these big boats, these hided and haired fat and skin and muscle layers are all the while resisting, telling the truth on us, begging the rest of our pack to notice– notice!– that I am changing, yet again, as I pass from KETO to Paleo to Gluten Free to Who Gives a Damn, because it is not the what these bodies are leading the eye to, but the why. They are the first passage inward, the open door. Someone older than us said that the eyes are the window to the soul; but I’d bet that it’s also the crow’s feet around them and the straggly unwashed hair and the big bouncing flabby butt with the fat dimples that speak out our soul as precisely.
This isn’t a free card to assess one another’s bodies– we don’t know how to read anymore. We’ve spent too much time with our eyes on glossy pages and glowing screens, with others’ bodies and their inadequate unnecessary fixes permeating our minds. Which means we have no sense on how to read a body, only how to judge. But perhaps we could begin with reading our own. “Oh, my, look at you! Skinny as a rail– time to take you to the doctor to see what exactly my body means by this.” Or, “Would you look at this! Dark circles under my eyes– an interesting paragraph on my worry that is keeping me from sleep.” We are novels, where the plot is always thickening and resolving, with the opening line written right there on the back of our arm fat that our mother and our mother’s mother also had– a rich history lesson and short story at once.
And once we have studied– really studied– our own bodies in that way, we may learn to read others’ more appropriately, without judgment, but with true appreciation. Hot damn, what a plethora of story available to us, written all over our friends’ bodies! Look there at the belly of my best pal, the story of her most recent baby, red and barely breathing when he came into this world. Look also there, at the eyelids of my other friend, swollen and red from her days spent with too many dogs so that she can make her living. And here, look at these stretch marks on the side of my thighs, where I sprouted too quickly as a kid and only more from there– aren’t I an eager grower?
What I wish I’d said to the woman was also this– that it is incredible that we are packaged up in such an impermanent package, that each change cries out to be noticed, to be seen, to be loved. What an incredible favor our bodies act out for us, while we try in excess and no avail to shush them. And the impermanence of them is impermanent still, as I think of children with their pudgy fingers and lengthening limbs, maybe some with stretch marks beginning on their thighs from their body’s eagerness to grow, stopped short on the floor of a school in Nashville this week. Isn’t it enough to want to hold each body in your gaze, reading their story, taking your eyes from your own mirrored reflection for just a minute, where your judgment glasses are off and your reading glasses are on and to see, really see, that our bodies are precious, perfect creatures that roll like waves into time until we see them no more, and that one day others will suffer to watch them go. Won’t we wish then that we’d really appreciated every rolling body wave that came into our part of the ocean, however brief, and including our own.
But instead, I waved at this woman politely and smiled as I passed her on my way out of the gym. She had her headphones on, running on the treadmill, one leg after the other, like waves in the sea.