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Accepting My Perfectly Imperfect Body
I was born with a congenital condition called spina bifida. (In the old days it was called a birth defect.) The story that I was told through out my childhood was that I was born prematurely, that I almost died, that I had to have surgery on my back when I was just a month old and wasn’t I lucky that I wasn’t in a wheelchair?
Despite this story, I can walk normally, have no major health issues and live a pretty normal life. But I do have scoliosis - a noticeable curvature of the spine and this affected how I saw myself.
As a child, I saw doctors about my back once a year, but have no memory of those visits until I was five years old. On a sunny spring day my mother collected me from our backyard swing set to take me to a children’s treatment centre to spend the entire day seeing doctor after doctor. I had to endure doctors (always older men in white coats) talking over my head to my mother about my “deformity” and wanting to see my back. I felt uncomfortable lifting up my dress and letting these men see my underwear and touch my back. It was bewildering to go from running around and playing with my little sister to being in a doctor’s office being treated like a specimen.
Gym class at school was a nightmare. I was significantly smaller than the kids in my class and, even if I tried my hardest, I couldn’t keep up with them. I mostly remember running behind the pack during soccer matches or being tagged on the baseball diamond before I made it to base. The gym teacher I had throughout my grade school years didn’t help at all. He liked to grade his students based on ability, not on participation. One year we had to come up with our own gymnastic tumbling routines. Despite having limited flexibility in my spine, I actually liked gymnastics because it was an individual sport and I couldn’t be picked last. I proudly demonstrated my routine to the teacher, only to be told that I got a low mark because I didn’t have a backwards roll. I tried to explain that I just couldn’t bend that way, but it didn’t matter. A deep sense of inferiority was born that day.
Throughout my teenager years, I suffered from terrible body image as my scoliosis became more obvious when I developed breasts and hips. I hid my body under enormous blouses and sweaters that came down to my knees. I thought I was hideous.
The irony is that I loved fashion and would spend hours flipping through fashion magazines, but fantasizing that miraculously my spine would straighten and I’d become tall and slim like a model. Of course it never happened. I reached my full height of 4’7’’ at the age of 12. I was crushed when I realized I would never get any taller.
It wasn’t any better at home. Whenever I happened to say something that revealed how unhappy I was about my body, I would be forcefully reminded that I “could’ve been in a wheelchair.” But I wasn’t in a wheelchair and reminding me of a worse outcome didn’t help me accept my body.
In my late teens and early 20s, I went through bouts of dieting and exercising trying to lose weight (I wasn’t overweight) in the misguided hope that I could somehow change how I looked. Of course it didn’t work, as no amount of exercise would straighten my spine or make me taller.
Slowly, very slowly my view of my body began to change when I moved to a big city. Surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes, I didn’t stand out anymore. People didn’t know me and they didn’t know my story. I could start fresh and reveal as much or little as I wanted about myself.
Then about ten years ago, I decided to take a yoga class.pose I'm not sure what possessed me to try a form of exercise that often involves lots of twists and bends, but I was tired of denying myself, tired of living other peoples' definitions of what I could or couldn't do.
I discovered that the yoga teacher was the complete opposite of my childhood gym teacher. She was open and completely non-judgmental about the limited flexibility of my spine. She never uttered the words “you can’t do that.” Instead, she’d gently put her hands on my body and suggest another way to try a pose. It was also perfectly acceptable to go into child pose when I needed to rest or felt overwhelmed.
I learned that yoga isn’t about forcing your body into weird twists and bends; it is about connecting the body and the mind. For the first time since I was a small child, I began to reconnect to my body and I was amazed when it responded to certain moves, opening up and releasing tension that I’d been holding for years.
Week after week, I kept going back to class. Slowly, I became stronger and more flexible. I was able to do poses that at first had seemed impossible. I still struggled with some of the poses and I became more accepting of that fact. I also became aware that my fellow students also struggled at times, no matter how slim or fit they appeared. Even the instructor, who had been doing yoga for more than 30 years, wouldn’t always be able to hold a balance pose. She’d just shrug and accept that her body wasn’t up to it that day.
I would love to say that the journey towards body acceptance is a linear one, but it isn’t. I still have days when I look into a full-length mirror and don’t like what I see. But I’ve learned to not dwell on those thoughts and have found that physical activity is a great antidote. My spine may be crooked and inflexible, but it isn’t good or bad. It just is. Even with its supposed “imperfections” it can still salute the sun from my yoga mat, carry home the groceries and move the furniture around my apartment. It is my one and only perfectly imperfect body.
|Victoria Musgrave is a writer and photographer passionate about telling stories through words and images and is currently writing a memoir about living aboard a sailboat and traveling to the Caribbean as a teenager. She spends her days doing yoga, journaling, working on the book, designing websites, snapping pictures with her iPhone and will soon launch an ebook on creating a daily journaling habit. |