At Home in a Place Where Imperfect Bodies Are the Norm

At Home in a Place Where Imperfect Bodies Are the Norm May 13, 2013

In honor of warmer weather and its attendant swimsuits and more revealing clothing, I am reposting this piece reflecting on how it feels to be in a place where bodily imperfections are the norm.

One day several years ago, I was in the hot tub at our local indoor pool, stretching after swimming laps. A class for parents and infants was about to start, so moms and dads were gathering near the hot tub, their wide-eyed little ones wrapped in towels. A tall, tanned young mother strolled in wearing a bright orange bikini with itty-bitty boy-short style bottoms. Her abs and cleavage and toned cheeks were on full display. Two of the older gentlemen in the hot tub looked at each other, then one rolled his eyes and said, “I’m not sure why she bothers to wear anything at all, that thing is so tiny.”

I realize that these men, gray hairs and all, may have been getting a few jollies even as they spoke so dismissively of the young mom’s swimwear. But I just have to love a place where it’s the statuesque blonde who inspires sarcastic comments.

On weekday mornings, there are two main groups of pool users. There are parents in their 30s and 40s, like me, who swim regularly for fitness and either have kids in school or take advantage of the pool’s babysitting service. And there are older people who either swim or take part in a variety of water exercise classes.

Bikinis are rare. Lap suits, skirts, and tankinis rule the day. As I sit in the hot tub after swimming, I get a good look at the various infirmities and imperfections that are on full display. There are a few younger people with obvious disabilities—cerebral palsy, amputations, muscle-wasting diseases. And there are dozens of older people with scarred knees, bent backs, canes and walkers, not to mention the more run-of-the-mill signs of aging—shapeless, puckered thighs, knobby toes, poor eyesight, and plenty of spots.

I’ve become friendly with several women whom I see regularly. We chat in the locker room as they huff and puff through getting dressed, sitting down to take a deep breath every few minutes. I admire them for making their pool visits a priority, especially when it’s obvious that the whole ordeal—undressing, showering, exercising, showering again, dressing—is physically exhausting for some. And I emulate the freedom with which they shuffle and limp around the locker room and pool deck; the bodily damage from their decades of living never seems to cause a moment of self-consciousness or embarrassment. I, with my own wobbly flesh and limpy gait, feel like I’m among my own kind.

I sometimes imagine what my pool companions might have looked like 30 or 40 years ago. I catch a glimpse of their younger selves in their squared shoulders, their still-shapely calves or their graceful, long-fingered hands. Back then, did they ever contemplate how their bodies would change, become untrustworthy and fragile, lose their resilience?

There was a time, in my 20s and early 30s, when I could count on my body to do just about anything I needed it to do, within some fairly broad limits. The fragility of my childhood was long gone, and the fragility of middle age had not yet set in. But even then, I could be caught up short by the realization that I dwell in a different world than people without disabilities. After a winter storm, other people see icy sidewalks and roads as hassles leading to a longer commute—or even as the chance to have a bit of fun by “skating” down the sidewalk. I see them as an enemy that I simply cannot engage, because I will surely lose.

It is this difference of perception, I think, more than difference in ability or experience, that makes me feel most alienated by my physical disability.

When I attended the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, I once gave a sermon in which I spoke about feeling betrayed by my body, how the needs and desires of my soul and spirit could be thwarted by my body’s inabilities. After the sermon, as we talked around our tables, a friend remarked that she simply couldn’t see things my way. To her, body, mind, and spirit were all so interconnected that it made no sense to speak of the body betraying some other part of one’s being. I realized that of course this made no sense to her. She was a tiny woman, the kind one might refer to as a dynamo. All muscle and movement. She ran regularly and passionately. She gave birth to both of her children without any medical interventions, the second one at home. She needed to run, and she could run. She needed to birth her babies without help, and she could birth her babies without help. She had never known what it is like to desire something with all her heart, and be unable to do it because her body wasn’t up to the task.

Bodies cannot always be trusted to do our bidding. Bodies change, they break, they fail. Just as with children, we can nurture and love our bodies, giving them everything they need to be healthy and strong, and then be bitterly disappointed when they fail to behave as we expect them to. Even the nicest, most well-adjusted teenagers sometimes sneak the car keys and total the family minivan.

There are lots and lots of things I cannot do, many of them physical, and the list is growing. I wonder sometimes—more often now than I used to—which abilities will go next, and when. To me, living life to the fullest does not mean pushing myself to the limit, insisting that with enough hard work and perseverance and courage, I can do anything. Rather, it means continuing to haul myself to the pool two or three times a week, crooked limbs and all, knowing that even if I can’t do everything, I can still do this.

It helps to know that, once I get myself there, I will be in good company.

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