Sorry it’s been so long since my last update. I’ve been writing and doing other things that have resulted in my having less time to be online.
Last time I wrote about Project: Happiness, I wrote how I was dividing life into three areas: body, mind and spirit. I wrote how I viewed those as a kind of personal trinity, these three aspects of each of us coming together in a whole. My goal, I wrote, was going to be to make sure each of those areas of my life received attention each day.
Today, I wanted to write about the body part of it, which is in some respects the most difficult for me and, I suspect, many other women. Our bodies are objectified, commodified, politicized, hyper-sexualized and subject to abuse and violence. This isn’t new. It has always been true.
During much of history, women were viewed as less capable, weaker, less intelligent creatures whose purpose in life was to serve men in and out of bed and to have babies. At one point, the male leaders of the Catholic Church actually debated whether or not women had souls. It’s not surprising that so many men and women viewed being born in a female body as a kind of curse.
Many still do.
In ancient Greece, as in many places today — Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, parts of Africa — baby girls were often killed after birth because they were viewed as useless and expensive. The ancient Greeks sometimes gave their daughters to brothels, a practice mirrored in Nepal and India, where young girls are often handed over to traffickers or straight to brothels by their own family members in exchange for money.
Even here in the United States, being female comes with strange expectations foreign to men. No one debates the need for Viagra, because it seems clear to people that Men Need Sex! Erections are important! No one asks whom men will have sex with once they pop their blue pill. Their wives? Their lover? A prostitute? Their porn co-stars? (Viagra is used widely in the porn industry to help men perform.) Apparently, we don’t feel the need to question men when it comes to sex.
But when it comes to contraception for women, some folks can’t accept that Women Need Sex, Too. The discussion becomes religious and revolves around chastity, marriage, and motherhood. The double standard is still alive. Men can enjoy sex for its own sake, but women must be chaste till marriage and then pay for sexual pleasure with the suffering of reproduction. Women who don’t live according to those standards can expect to be called names. There are even people alive today who think women shouldn’t be given pain relief during labor because of some words in Genesis. Give me a break! Can you imagine such widespread debate regarding what men can do with their bodies? It won’t happen. Ever.
I have strong feelings on these subjects, which I don’t intend to debate. You’re free to believe what you want—and to post it on your own blog. From my point of view, a woman can choose for herself what she does with her body sexually and reproductively. Period.
But let’s not get sidetracked by the culture wars. The point I’m getting at is that we still haven’t reached a point in human history where women’s bodies are considered their own. So if you grew up feeling confused about your body, whether you were supposed to be a fertile Madonna who lives to please her husband and her 25 children or a skinny, sexy nymph with big breasts who knows how to adorn a set of satin sheets you’re probably not alone.
So that was the macro view. Now let’s get personal. Every woman has her own unique relationship with her body. What follows is a history of mine. You may not wish to read this.
I was a skinny, very active little kid, who hiked, played outdoors all day, got stung by bees every summer because I ran around barefoot, who climbed trees in dresses and generally enjoyed being alive in a body.
That changed when I was 10. I went to a friend’s house after school to play. She wasn’t home, but her father invited me in to wait for her. He raped me on the living room floor. Soul Train was on TV, and I remember an ugly black velvet painting of a burro on the wall. He threatened to tell my parents what a dirty little girl I was if I told anyone what had happened, and so for a year I was silent and terrified and alone.
I saw a program about sexual assault on television, and I told my mother. What followed was in some ways worse than the assault, as I was taken to a male doctor and examined. I remember thinking that all men really cared about, whether they were a friend’s father or a doctor, was whatever was between my legs. It was horrible and humiliating. There was no concrete evidence by then—no semen, no DNA—and so the whole thing was basically shoved under the rug.
The fallout from both experiences was devastating for me. Night terrors in which I woke up shaking and terrified and thinking I was going to vomit. A withdrawal from the world into myself. Serious depression. A desire not to be alive any longer.
Kids picked up on this in school. I’d been a little on the shy side before, but after that I was bullied, truly bullied. I pleaded to stay in for recess because being on the playground meant being shoved around and called names. My parents actually had to call the school, and I was sent from the classroom while the teacher chewed out the entire class for picking on me. I remember it vividly.
I hit puberty, and it got worse. My hormones added to the confusion I felt about sexual assault. I avoided boys like the plague, while finding fault with the body that had been such fun when I was a little girl. My body went from being a partner, an ally, my friend, to being something to be controlled and manipulated. A part of me wanted a boyfriend, and another part of me didn’t. A part of me wanted to be attractive, and a part of me just wanted to hide.
I ended up joining the track team, where I pretty much blew everyone else away when it came to long-distance running — both boys and girls. I outran every girl and half the boy’s team every day. Running became a refuge for me, but it wasn’t necessarily positive. I learned to abuse it, running to stay thin. Six days a week. Three to 10 miles a day. Rain or shine. Up at 6 AM and out the door. If I ate too much, I’d make myself run more. I think it may even have been a form of exercise bulimia.
Rape victims seek above all else control over their bodies. Eating disorders run rampant. But I digress...
Gradually, I made friends again starting in junior high — pot-smoking artsy friends — and the worst of the pain of what had happened to me just kind of slipped away. Except that something like that doesn’t just go away.
My relationships with men were rarely positive. As I posted before, I was beaten up when I was 14 while stoned at a party with adults in their 20s and 30s for refusing to have sex with a guy who was 22. In Denmark, I met a man, fell in love, and then fell into a depression when he couldn’t find it in himself to be faithful. I called off the wedding and came back to the U.S. reluctantly, got married on the rebound and got pregnant (by choice) my freshman year of college.
Some women enjoy pregnancy. I did not. I was very sick throughout my first — pre-eclampsia and hyperemesis. I had high blood pressure and constant nausea and vomiting for nine months. It sucked. I wanted natural birth. That sucked even more. The pain was obscene, ridiculous, brutal, unforgiveable. More than that, the entire experience conjured up the nightmare of being raped and left me traumatized. I actually had nightmares about it. Some 7 percent of women suffer from trauma after giving birth, and most of them are... rape victims. Sounds crazy, right?
Well, think of birth as losing control of your body again, as suffering inside your body again, as being in pain because you’re female. I have no idea what most women feel emotionally during labor. I felt rage and despair. It felt unfair, like a form of torture that was being inflicted on me because I was a woman. I asked for pain relief, and I didn’t get it because I had no insurance. (The second time I had health insurance and demanded an epidural the moment I hit 4 cm, and that was that.)
Of course, I love my kids. The one very female thing I’ve done with my body that has been very positive is breastfeed. There’s no relationship more pure than that of a mother and her newborn. And although there were challenges learning this new skill, I stuck with it until we had it down. I breastfed my older son for 15 months and my younger for 10.
For a lot of women, childbirth and breastfeeding bring them a greater appreciation of their bodies. For me... Not really. Though I came to a place of comfort with sex, learning to enjoy it and even revel in it, I can’t say I made peace with my body.
I was eager after my second child to get fixed so that I would never get pregnant again. Some would argue that having surgery to control your fertility is a form of violence against yourself. Whatever. For me it was a great help and a source of comfort to know I couldn’t get pregnant again. I was taking control. Permanently. I had never intended to have more than two kids, in part because I had other things I really wanted to do with my life and in part because I just didn’t want to go through all that again. Nor did I want to risk getting pregnant through sexual assault. Yes, I actually thought about that.
And why wouldn’t I worry about that? Alec was only nine months old when the creeps with the switch blades broke into my apartment. Almost being raped again — this time by two men — threw me in to a tailspin of post-traumatic stress disorder, complete with waking nightmares, panic attacks and severe depression. My body became a thing that did work — child care, cleaning, making meals, going to the store, carrying laundry. I used food to escape stress and depression. But I didn’t nurture myself. I was barely surviving.
Then I fell off a mountain, broke bones, lost about a third of my right quad, had a brain injury. (Click here for the gory details on that story.) No more gym. No more running. It was infuriating and frustrating, and I think this revealed the truth behind my relationship with my body. The two of us, though intimately joined, were adversaries. The only things my body and I enjoyed together were food and sex. And now I had finally reached a point where I could no longer banish the calories I ate by running too much. So I just forgot about my body and focused on work. My body was a tool, nothing more. This went on for 15 years.
Which pretty much brings us up to the end of 2011.
If I think of my body as a person, I can feel great compassion for it. It has survived sexual assault, violence, a serious fall down a mountain. It has been neglected, overworked, deprived of sleep so that I could write news articles and books. It has been fed too much junk and too much caffeine in an effort to make it stay awake so that I can keep working. It’s had multiple surgeries, the most recent to repair my cervical spine. Its needs have been ignored no matter how loudly it shouted for me to pay attention and help it. And yet it still serves me as faithfully as it can each and every moment.
Why do I neglect this ally of mine, this lifelong friend, my body?
This is going to be the greatest challenge I face in Project: Happiness because it brings together so many things — sexuality, food, physical injury and limitation, overall health, self-image, how I deal with stress, my need to get work done vs. my need to get enough sleep.
I came up with a set of goals to help me navigate these rapids, some of which are physical and some of which are emotional:
1. Go to bed on time and get enough sleep.
2. Stop eating sugar and other empty calories.
3. Go to the gym, hike or walk six days a week, but don’t go crazy. Start slowly.
4. Find new ways to deal with stress.
5. Rediscover ways to have fun (riding my bike, swimming, horseback riding).
6. Don’t let emotional stress build up in the first place by demanding too much of myself.
7. Listen to my body.
8. How I look and what I accomplish matter less than how I feel.
I’ve fallen short of these goals already, however, I’ve also taken steps to meet them.
Although I’ve stayed up late to write (I’m up too late now so that I can get this done), I’ve gone to bed on time lots of times and have taken naps.
I’ve eating things that weren’t good for me, but not for a while. I can feel a difference.
I’ve missed the past two days at the gym because I was writing — not a good excuse — but I’ve been to the gym four times. One of those times I went swimming — first time in more than a decade. That was amazing, as was the five seconds of running I allowed myself to do on the track. I just took off running, and it felt so good. I knew I couldn’t do it for long without hurting myself, so I stopped. Benjy said, “That’s not something you see an overweight person do everyday.” Because I still run fast. Even though I’ve been injured and have no feeling in my lower legs, I’m still pretty darn strong. All of those years of activity are still inside my body somewhere. If I care for my body, maybe I can have that back.
I’m having an easier time not hating my own guts when I’m not happy with how my writing is going. I tell myself, “It will work out. It always does.” And then I do something else for a while, because nothing is worth getting so upset about that I put my body or my spirit through hell. The tortured author thing has to stop because the impact it has on my well-being is extreme.
I can’t expect to forge this new relationship with my physical self overnight, but by consciously focusing on it, by trying hard to hear the voice I’ve ignored since I was 10, I can help bring balance to my life overall and become healthier in my late 40s than I’ve been in a long, long time.
Now I think about it this way: I’m having fun with my body, and I’m in training not for a race or to look sexy in a bikini, but to live a healthier, happier life.
This was a very long post. Thanks for reading through it, those of you who made it to the end. I didn’t intend for this to be so long. I hope that by sharing it, it can help other women who face similar challenges.
I hope those of you who’ve committed to your own version of Project: Happiness are making progress, too.
Next Project: Happiness update: The Mind