Vulnerability

I’ve wanted to write more about surfing for the past few weeks, but there was a writing conference (awesome), my birthday (also awesome), and wonderful visits in Colorado with old and new friends. And then there was returning to Missoula and falling in love with it all over again.

I’ve been working hard on my memoir-in-progress, I FORGOT TO START WITH MYSELF, and have neglected to give attention to my public writing life. These writing lives will soon be one and the same, but for now they remain mostly separate. {Thanks for sticking with me and for continuing to tell me that you enjoy these posts, few and far between as they may be. You make my day. Every time.} So…

It’s hard to describe surfing without lurching into clichés. It’s powerful. It’s humbling. It’s liberating. It’s like being at one with the water. I could go on, and pretty much everything I have to say about surfing has been said before, but it’s not like me to know when to zip it, so on I go.

You’re vulnerable out there in that water. There are stingrays, sea urchins, and the other “s” that everyone tries not to talk about but can’t stop thinking about.

You could end up in a riptide. You could end up with your bathing suit wrapped around your neck, shackling your ankles, or both. As a worst-case scenario you could end up not even getting in the water because there are just too many things to worry about.

I don’t know about you, but for me sometimes the vulnerability associated with the limitations of fear is worse than the potential for vulnerability when going toward the frightening thing. It’s downright dizzying to wrap your head around all of it. For real.

Exploring the when, why, how and what (the hell) for? of vulnerability is what I’ve been doing lately, and it’s daunting to take that long, slow look at yourself. It’s far easier and more convenient to look away. It can be so ugly that you can’t bear to look. It can be so horrifying you can’t take your eyes off the mess. {think Jerry Springer.}

I often talk to my massage clients about how emotional distress manifests as physical pain and discomfort. About how it can be so uncomfortable to keep certain things in the six inches between our ears that we push them down to necks, shoulders, abdomens and hips. This can be uncomfortable too, but we seem to tolerate it better. We push and plod along until our bodies scream “STOP! NOW! UNCLE!” and even then we only sometimes listen.

Because this can be an overwhelming process I occasionally like to make myself vulnerable in other ways. Like posting bathing suit pictures of myself on the Internet. Yes, I did this in my last blog post and almost every day have wanted to delete them and have had to talk myself down from the tree and into keeping them up.

These are not posed pictures. Not pictures with a strategically placed sarong. Not pictures with shoulders back and chin up. Not pictures that cut off mid-thigh to give the illusion of longer, leaner legs. These are not pictures of me laughing with my arm around a friend. They’re pictures of me learning to surf, standing awkwardly, face contorted, rash guard rolling up. But this is me in real life. {Ok, surf camp is not real life, but you know what I mean….}

I look at pictures of other beginners surfing and I love them. I love the ones of the friend with her ragdoll arms. I love ones of the friend who always looks of the verge of leaping off the board. I love the ones of the friend who looks like she’s been waiting a long time to do this and like she’s been doing it forever. It turns out that pictures of beginners surfing are all sorts of awesome if that surfer isn’t you.

When I look at these surfing photos of myself I see a bathing suit bottom that was not a great choice. I see dimples that do not exist in my antique bedroom mirror where the lighting is always ambient. I see a struggling woman, and I have to ask: what’s so wrong with that?

Why? Why are we all so hard on ourselves?

I have a friend with a to-die-for-body who says her post-baby belly looks like a scrunched up brown paper bag when she bends over. I laugh at her hilarious description, but I don’t see what she does. Not even close.

I have another friend who wears shorts over her jogging pants because she feels more comfortable concealing her hips and thighs. She’s in great shape, and probably runs or walks fifty miles a week (not including the miles spent chasing her toddler) and doesn’t have a damn thing to hide. Regardless, she feels self-conscious about some of her moving and shaking parts that are bound to jiggle a little when set into motion because, well, that’s kind of what they’re supposed to do. She happens to have one of my favorite booties in town, but that’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what I (or anyone else) think(s). It’s about how she feels. If she feels better wearing a skirt over her jogging pants then all the power to this woman who knows what she needs to feel good and to keep getting out there.

Every woman I know has spent too much time hating parts of herself (inside and out) that just don’t deserve that ridicule, that scrutiny, that betrayal.

One woman hates her arms. Another her neck. Another her hair. Knees, hairlines, toes, teeth…it seems nothing is off limits. The laundry list of things that women loathe about their bodies is heartbreaking. For what? What in the world does all that self hatred do except create more of the same. Ick. Be gone with it, people.

More than one friend has a full-length mirror leaning against a wall in her bedroom to create the illusion of increased height and decreased girth. I ooh and aah at myself in these mirrors as I think “Holy crap! That looks like me in 1997!” These friends say with straight faces: “I’d never get out of the house if I didn’t have that mirror.”

It’s serious business these distorted images.

Another friend was married to a man who was raised in a home attached to his family’s fun house. Slanted floors, distorted mirrors, a place where gravity and perspective are both challenged and skewed. Floors drop, people shrink and grow, light and shapes shift. When it didn’t work out with him it was hard not to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well….think about where he grew up…What could you expect?”

But those of us who didn’t grow up in fun houses also seem to have no problem distorting images, for better or for worse, to either build ourselves up or to break ourselves down. What’s wrong with the real thing? What’s wrong with reality?

I woman at surf camp had recently lost seventy-five pounds. She told me that even when she got down to a size 8 she’d pull size 18s off the racks, not realizing they were no longer for her. She could not see herself as anything but a big woman. She brought a sweater to Mexico that was one of the first things she bought in “her size,” and now she wraps it around herself as a reminder of both who she was and who she is.

It seems everywhere we turn these days there’s a story about models being photoshopped into unachievable perfection by which we determine our own inadequacies. Photographic artistry tightens jowls, smooths armpits, and sculpts legs, but it also removes crucial body parts, makes waists unnaturally slim, and occasionally attaches a completely disproportionate hand to an arm. Magazines do features (front page stories!) about stars in the morning, stars without their makeup, stars bending over in bathing suits, stars picking wedgies, stars, they tell us, looking just like US. Through all the smokes, mirrors, and lens distortion it’s becoming increasingly harder to decipher what is real.

In The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams the Skin Horse said to the Rabbit when he asked “what is REAL?”:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

In the 1990s a prominent women’s magazine did a spread featuring grey-haired women. It was a huge success until Clairol threatened to pull all advertising unless the magazine stopped implying that “older” women could be beautiful without coloring their hair. Scarier than Clairol’s demand was the reaction of the magazine, which promised to “never again feature grey-haired women in a positive light.”

Photographers take photos of brides both before and after the ceremony. Before she’s coiffed to perfection, but her face is hard, nervous, edgy. These are sometimes interesting, telling shots, but rarely the best of the day. Later—after the seal-the-deal kiss, after the receiving line, after the first dance—the photos looks much different. A few tendrils (from a once-in-a-lifetime hairdo) may have slipped out, she may have smudged her mascara and she may have forgotten to reapply her lipstick. If it’s Montana her dress may have a ring of dirt around the bottom and she may have changed out of heels and into cowboy boots or flip-flops. She’s twirling, she’s laughing, she’s cheersing, and for a few moments she may be focused on how she feels and not on how she looks. These are the keepers.

I don’t know what you see when you look at me, but I know what I see when I look at you.

Where you see dimples I see definition.

Where you see wrinkles I see smiling.

Where you see junk-in-the trunk, I see curves.

Where you see tree trunks I see a strong foundation for your center.

Where you see football player shoulders I see a base that holds up a beautiful mind.

Where you see a woman being lazy I see a woman giving herself what she needs.

Where you see a woman struggling I see a woman trying, absorbing, accomplishing.

I see a confident short-short wearing role model of living, laughing, dancing joy.

I see grey hairs that naturally highlight your hair and tell me you’re not fighting reality.

I see your salon-dyed hair and a woman who says, “I don’t think so. Not me. No, I’m not ready.”

I see happy.

I see that you enjoy life.

I see that you’re not trying to fool anyone.

I see your vulnerability.

And I like it.

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5 thoughts on “Vulnerability

  1. So like 10 years ago, you came to visit me in that little, hot apartment in DC. I spent the whole weekend complaining about the new body I was inhabiting. This body the result of working too hard, eating too poorly, and spending lots of time curled up on the sofa with new live-in boyfriend, Kris. Remember? After that weekend you said to me: “next time we see each other, let’s promise not to be so hard on ourselves.”
    I recite that to myself on occasion … like yesterday when I was unloading the dishwasher in a bathing suit … and it really does help – so thanks for that gem, I’ve kept it with me.
    xo

  2. You’re welcome, Kate, and the thank you comes back at you tenfold for reminding me. I can’t wait to hang out in bathing suits with you in a few weeks! Let’s see how *easy* on ourselves we can be. LOVE you.

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