I’ve twice been told I have extraordinary arms. The first was in college, when I tried to out-swim my anxiety in the lap pool housed in the fitness center’s basement. I would fix my eyes on the shimmering blank screen of the pool’s bottom while my arms cut through thousands of gallons of water. The daily rhythmic entrancement was a lifeline for me. When a classmate asked what I did to get such extraordinary arms, I stammered over my reply. I felt suddenly and unexpectedly exposed in my very private vulnerability. Anxiety was indeed an exacting personal trainer.
The second time was in the midst of raising an infant and a toddler, where all day long I hoisted one or both onto my hips and walked impossible distances across suburban parking lots or hot playgrounds. The man who whispered “extraordinary arms” into my ear one evening as he brushed past me exiting a restaurant would surely not have been seduced by the sight of me with kids in tow. He liked my body better thinking it had been cultivated purely for his consumption.
Long ago, before kids, before college, I was a ballet dancer. My arms were not at all extraordinary in that context. I was far less committed to the daily deprivations required to chisel each sinew of a dancer’s body than my counterparts. But ballet has a way of shaping a body. Each night, I’d take my place stage right in the long column of the corps de ballet. My arms were sufficiently sylph-like to fit in. Yet you would never have picked them out from that lineup. My arms were then, and have always been, serviceable.
These days, my arms spend most of the week poised over a massage table while my hands insert acupuncture needles into clients’ bodies. My arms would no longer catch the notice of a passing stranger, but I do find them extraordinary still. My now-grown daughter is home for the summer, using my car for her internship in D.C. My arms are enabling her use of my car. Just this morning, they lugged my laptop, purse, lunch, and a laundry bag full of clean linens the mile-long walk to my office while simultaneously supporting an open umbrella. I had to stop several times along the way to shake out a cramp and reposition the load. I eventually did arrive at the office, arms glistening with sweat and summer rain.
Every part of a body becomes sacred when lit with the illumination of another’s love. I don’t think self-love can ever match that wattage.
Once at work, I opened my Facebook feed to find an article worth sharing on my acupuncture business page. I am not great at marketing. To use social media effectively as a marketing tool I’m told I should be posting several times a week. I scroll through past posts and realize I’m averaging about five per year. Thankfully, my practice has never suffered as a result. I use Facebook mostly as a way of bookmarking articles for future retrieval should I want to recommend one to a client. Facebook serves as a reliable librarian.
There is a lot of talk about self-love online. The first step toward self-love it seems is self-improvement. And everyone’s got some of that for sale! I peruse the offerings that promise to help me regain my noteworthy arms (or abs or butt or legs). My feed is full of daily evidence of Facebook friends doing just that. The pictures they post are remarkable. Some hang from inverted yoga slings, others are caught midtwirl in a Zumba move, the light falling just so, casting a favorable shadow to accentuate a hard-won muscle. Photography can be such a friend to the aging: overexposure smoothing out our wrinkles, a kind angle captured in a momentary freeze frame. I am no stranger to the thrill of glimpsing my younger self in a photo taken yesterday! These are the photos we typically choose to post — myself included — and I am certainly not immune to the reassuring flattery that floods my feed in response. But there is a knowing kernel at the pit of such reassurance — the sense of having pulled one over on folks, which of course I have. The truth is, my body is completely appropriate to my age.
I think of the bodies I have loved most deeply over the years. There is Mrs. Schmiedge, my elderly childhood babysitter. She had an amply cushioned lap perfectly suited to her trade. I spent hours cuddled against her while playing with the skin that hung loosely from her neck, a chiffon-like swath of wattle draped under her chin. I would roll the soft fold between my fingers like floury dough. How generous Mrs. Schmiedge was to share her body with me in this way. Years later, I would think of her as I tried to fit my own infant children puzzle-like against the complicated hollows and bony protrusions of my lap. I was one of the “lucky ones” who struggled to keep weight on while nursing. There is a despair in being too thin — but not one that garners much sympathy.
I think of my husband’s body, which fits in a perfect S-curve, nested against my back each night. My husband was often teased as a kid: glasses too thick, lips too big, receding chin. He grew a beard in high school, and has only once shaved it off at my urging — I wanted to see him unadorned. I like that his body has secret terrains known only to me — the smooth chin hidden beneath his beard, the kind eyes behind his glasses, the soft feel of his pillowy lips. Every part of a body becomes sacred when lit with the illumination of another’s love. I don’t think self-love can ever match that wattage.
What exactly do I deserve? I am a 50-year-old woman. I’ve had my turn at so many things.
Self-love is brilliant marketing, though. It’s persuasive like a best friend convincing you to buy the nonsensible shoes. “You deserve this,” they both say.
Now let’s unpack that line. What exactly do I deserve? I am a 50-year-old woman. I’ve had my turn at so many things. I got to be 17, tan from the summer, dizzy with the newfound power to catch the passing eye of grown men. They mostly don’t notice me now, their eyes sliding instead to my 21-year-old daughter, who strides full of purpose beside me. It’s her turn now, for better or worse, and watching her awakens a muscle memory of the bodies I’ve been privileged to inhabit over the years.
I, too, got to be 21, walking down New York City’s Columbus Avenue, clad in a leotard, jeans, and cowboy boots. I felt tall in my stride, taking a drag from one of the few cigarettes I would smoke in my lifetime. I got to be 29, ponderously pregnant, hands pressed against my abdomen, the sweeping ripple of my baby’s limbs gliding underneath like some underwater sea creature. I got to be 35, pushing my kids on swings at the playground, one arm pumping at a time as I swung each in alternating rhythm. I got to be 43, stationed behind the steering wheel of a minivan. I logged countless hours of carpool time, listening to the unfolding narrative of my kids’ lives like a priest in a confession box while hurtling at great speeds down highways.
My body has never failed me in meeting what life has asked of it. And it has felt glorious in these moments of simple utility. I marvel at how my life has shaped my body through each transition.
Currently, with most of my waking hours spent bent over a treatment table, my posture is growing a little stooped. My back often hurts as a result, old dance injuries aggravated by my new vocation. My biceps are defined from hours of bodywork on my clients, but my triceps have softened beyond identification. Sideways in the mirror, they have the look of something slowly melting. My arms catch my eye in storefront windows, and I wonder momentarily who they belong to before the startling recognition that they are my own. It’s not that I’m unwilling to claim them. It’s just that I’m perpetually surprised to discover I’m no longer a teenager.
Is this my best self? I actually think so. My body reflects the particular dedications I have in my life; my body makes those dedications possible; my body is not my dedication.
Scrolling further down the feed, I feel the enticing tug of today’s offerings: a 30-day yoga trial, a juice cleanse, a Nia retreat. The faces peering out from the screen are frozen in a perpetual state of exuberance: evenly tanned, glowing white teeth, bodies toned and dewy. They are veritable goddesses. Extraordinary!
I am certain there’s no amount of juice or yoga or Nia that will magically elevate me to their ranks. But would I love myself more by committing more deeply to sculpting a better version of me? I don’t know — maybe there would be some fleeting satisfaction in it, some Facebook-worthy post attained, but I’m too busy loving my life and the people in it to dedicate so much time to that.
Lillie Stewart is an acupuncturist (and excellent writer) living in Baltimore. Learn more about her at lilliestewart.com.