Our bodies, ourselves
One of the mysteries of consciousness is the way we perceive ourselves to be the “same” person throughout our lives, despite all the changes that age and experience bring. There is a core “sense of self” that remains immutable.
I’ve felt myself to be the same person since I was about 15 years old. That was when I first attained my adult sense of self, which is different than my childhood memories and perception of myself.
It’s similar with my body. Most people’s bodies change far more visibly with age than their personalities and mental abilities (except in the case of dementia). I’m unusual in that my body has changed little since I was 15. That’s partly because I’ve worked out almost every day since I started running at 16, but it’s also genetics; my grandmother was even smaller and thinner than I am!
But less important than appearance, I think, is the attitude that women have towards their bodies, because that can have such a powerful effect on their self-image as a whole.
My career as a long-distance runner affected my life in every way, but one of the most significant effects of becoming an athlete, for me, was that it completely changed the way I thought about my body.
At 15, I was a typical teenaged girl, despairing over my body’s “defects.” I hated my skinny legs. I looked nothing like the curvy models in Playboy magazines, even the thinner ones.
What I discovered after becoming a runner is that I can feel tremendous satisfaction about what my body can do, and how wonderful my body can feel, rather than thinking only about how its appearance fails to match some cultural ideal of perfection and beauty.
That core insight remains with me today. As a 58-year-old woman I have to accept the loss of attractiveness and a decline in athletic performance, but I can still celebrate what my body is capable of experiencing, both in athletic endeavors and sensual enjoyment.
Almost a month ago I had one of those “peak” moments of physical well-being and thankfulness (for me, these moments happen most often in summertime). I was walking up the stairs from the beach at Sasamat Lake to get back to my car, which was in one of the upper parking lots. The sun was out; its warmth was welcome since I was wearing a still-wet bathing suit under my shorts and t-shirt. How I love mornings at the lake! It’s still peaceful before the crowds arrive. On this morning, there was a good breeze; in the background I could hear some shouts from school hiking groups and the odd trill of a bird’s song.
As I walked briskly up the stairs, I was filled with a simple thankfulness for the way my body is still “working.” Before the lake, I’d done a 7K run in Mundy Park. It was a perfect temperature; I initially felt cool in the breeze and shade of the trees, but after ten minutes of running I was starting to sweat. Warm temperatures help the body move more smoothly and easily, it seems. I was able to run pretty fast, and timed myself on a couple of familiar loops in the park.
After my 7K, I drove to the lake. I continued sweating as I was driving in my non air-conditioned car. That meant my plunge into the cool lake was very welcome!
But back to my thoughts on the stairs at the lake . . . I looked down at my skinny legs and my knobbly knees, and I was glad I’ve lost my teenaged hatred for them. I knew, as I climbed those stairs, that I looked like neither an elite athlete nor an attractive middle-aged woman. My size small shorts were supposed to be body-hugging, to show off a typical woman’s butt and upper thighs. On me the shorts were baggy, and below them emerged my toothpick-like legs, the legs of a kid.
But I thought about how far those legs have taken me—all over the world!—as I competed in track, road, and cross-country races. Those legs, along with my powerhouse lungs, shaped my life’s path: my career (as well as the roads not raced!), my marriage, and many of my friendships. I’m grateful for the body that can still run after two knee operations, bypass surgeries on both my femoral arteries, and Achilles tendon surgery. I’ve accepted my limitations and learned to be joyful for what still remains.
As for what I look like—I’m lucky to have a boyfriend who is an ace photographer. Keith has taught me that I can be plain, cute, or sexy—a lot depends on the angle of the camera. Even more depends on the ability of the photographer, not just his or her technical skills but the capacity to perceive and capture the inner spirit of a person.
Keith has this gift, and it’s enhanced by his love of photography as a creative art. Moreover, he cares for me deeply, and is able to bring out the best in me.
As women, we are fortunate when we gain confidence from the men who love us and love our bodies. And I maintain that what matters more than a woman’s appearance is her confidence and happiness about her body. In French I could say, “Je me sens bien dans la peau,” which translates literally to “I feel good in my own skin” but really means, “I feel good about myself.”
For me, this attitude is one of the greatest benefits of a lifetime of fitness. The ability to accept my imperfect body—and more, to celebrate it with joy.