On Women and Weight, or Notes on Injury and Grace

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

-  Walt Whitman, Song of Myself                

Women are supposed to hate their bodies. Universally. As if our only value came from our looks.

In popular memoirs by women (Poehler, Fey, Kaling), there’s inevitably a section on “what part of my body I hate.” The reader is supposed to follow along, nodding, feeling recognized and recalling their own hated body parts. Particularly their size, their thighs, their waistlines. But I don’t recognize myself in these passages. I just feel like an outsider, while being sad that so many women feel such malice towards their own earthly vessels.

In my late teens, many of my close girlfriends came under an evil spell. One by one, they began hating their arms, their stomachs, the fat around their faces. I don’t know if it was coming of age in the early 2000s, my socioeconomic circle, the pressures of gender in north america, or some other factor, but eating disorders struck my friends like a plague. I can vividly recall sitting at summer camp and being instructed by a friend that if I tapped my stomach and it jiggled for longer than a second, I had becometh fat. The implication? Action would need to be taken.

The prescribed action involved all sorts of contortions in calories, intake and output, scales and measurement. It was a complex process that labeled the world as good and bad. My friends were at war with their bodies.

I was not taken with these rituals. To start, my stomach tended towards inflammation and was rather bad at converting food to fat. My reaction to this was not learning which foods to avoid (milk would have been a good place to start, given lactose intolerance), but rather, a philosophy that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But mostly, I developed a healthy relationship with food and my body—one based on a complex blend of 13 course dinner parties, fast food during finals, and a unifying creed from my grandfather: “everything in moderation.”

Thus I have never dieted. And only just bought my first scale. Today, I eat more based on ethics and health than my body’s subsequent appearance. And generally, I adore food.

But, in the back of my mind, I had a feeling that my third decade would bring about bodily changes. There is a cultural belief that metabolism slows around 30—afterwards, the pounds start accumulating. In my case, the concern was diabetes, an illness on both sides of my family. Slowly, my relationship with my body began to shift this year. For the first time, I began to worry about weight, seeing myself in the two-dimensional form.

Unexpectedly, the changes to my body as I approach 30 have proven more complicated than added pounds or increased diabetic risk. Instead, this year has brought injury after injury, inflammation after inflammation. I’ve responded with vitamins, bed rest and healthy food. But, the latest round involves losing the use of my dominant, right hand for the next 6 to 9 months, just as I start a new job where computing is my primary task.

Despite my last, negative post, injury and illness can be magical events. Both inside and out, my little corner of the world has transformed.

When I hurt myself, I experienced my body’s endorphin system in a way I never had before. I've also learned just how competent my left hand can be — perhaps because I’m left-eye dominant, a fact I never knew before. The body is replete with hidden codes to break down foods, to respond to threats, to protect itself, to change and heal. Yet so often we focus only on our narrow, outward two-dimensional conceptions of ourselves. Our conscious parts. Our looks. Our weight. Our bodies as identity. Our bodies, our selves.

In Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked” he presents research that shows we are so much more than that singular organism. Our gut is full of microflora, working to process food. Fed by foods with bacteria and fiber, these bacteria work with us to digest food that nourishes us. We are not alone in the body, and the way we treat our body extends well beyond our narrow conceptions of self. When we harm our bodies in the way we eat—whether depriving it, or feeding it inflammatory foods—we harm these organisms too. Since hurting myself, I’ve had to look inward at my gut health, trying to boost its efficacy after antibiotics and painkillers.

Injury also brings new insight into our relationship with the social world. In the past month, I’ve learned about humanity, simply walking around a city with a badly bandaged hand. Sometimes, people invade your privacy and flatten you into your injury. This act is much like seeing a woman only for her youth, weight or beauty. It’s hostile and limiting.

But other times, people surprise you with their generosity and grace. A homeless man helped me open a door, when I struggled to do it myself. An older woman sat next to me on a plane and commented first on my headphones, not on my injury. Later, she instinctively held out her hand to catch my many pills when she saw I couldn’t handle them alone. My best friend quit work early to buy me cookies, listen to my woes and humor my sudden need to drink tons of turmeric tea two nights in a row. An internet friend wrote a kind post about me as I awaited surgery, afraid and hungry. She didn’t know I was injured and this small act brought me such joy, masking my fear. My family wrote emails and called with their support and worry, sending me little presents to lighten the day. My parents helped water proofing our home and installing a washing machine. And my partner has given me unwavering support from emergency room to today, with everything from pills, showering, reading, writing, driving, cooking, cleaning and infinitely more.

All the things I just can’t do right now, and won’t be able to for months, other people are stepping in to aid. Suddenly, my self extends beyond my body, to a community of support. I am not my weight, my injured body, my drugged mind. There are little creatures in my gut and big people in my community, all trying to help me heal and recover.

On the good days, I am left with gratitude — for a greater understanding of my body's mysterious depths, for humanity’s kindness, for my access to medical care, and for life.

You have seen your own strength.
You have seen your own beauty.
You have seen your golden wings.
Why do you worry?

– Rumi, You Worry Too Much