I have spent most of my life hating my body. Every part of my body, inside and out. Convinced of my mental, physical and emotional mediocrity, aching with self-loathing, I have struggled to find even one redeeming quality in myself. I couldn’t imagine that anyone else would either.
One of my earliest memories is of feeling self-conscious that I had hair on my arms in ballet class when I was 5. Ballet wasn’t for me anyways; I was too broad, too big, too muscular. There were the girls who danced and did gymnastics and did back walk-overs across the playground during recess. And there was me. I read books in the library.
What saved me from being a total misanthrope was swimming. My mother always recounts how when I was a year old she took me to the local pool. Before she could put down our towels, I had jumped in. She jumped in after me, fully clothed, and pulled me out. But I just kept jumping in. I wouldn’t get out.
In my teens I swam competitively. I was strong and fast, more comfortable in the water than on dry land. Under water everything would stop but my body and my breath. My thoughts gone, the other swimmers obscured behind plastic lane ropes and my own movement. Alone in the rhythm, it was the only time I felt calm. Climbing out of the pool I could feel that calm sliding off of me like droplets. Gazing at the green-eyed girl in the changing room mirror, still flushed from practice, the discomfort and doubt returned. The broad shoulders, trim hips, flat chest. The body of an athlete. I hated it.
Later after I quit racing, I got into yoga. Yoga teaches that perfection is where you are at any given moment. It asks that we let go of unreasonable expectations, focusing only on breath and movement. Like swimming, yoga quieted the voices in my head and sheltered me from whatever storms were brewing in my tempestuous teacup. And still I hated my body. After all, I never was one of those bendy girls in the playground. I would never be truly excellent at anything.
This shadow followed me to Israel where I found love and home and babies. And still I hated my body. I rode ambulances and hiked Masada and bore children and wore a wedding gown and got my Master’s degree, and still I hated my body.
After my third daughter was born I was inspired by a friend to do a triathlon. It was an epic disaster (who knew riding a bike for two hours after swimming in the ocean could be so, um, chafey?), but the experience got me into running. I started slow, huffing and puffing, dragging my baby weight across the asphalt. Two years later, with two half marathons and countless 10k’s under my belt, I still think I am not good enough, not fast enough, not strong enough. I am doing a PhD in philosophy, on scholarship, and still I question: Am I smart enough? Good enough? Do I sound stupid in my labored academic Hebrew? Will I ever really be recognized in my field, or am I doomed to reside in the margins?
Sometimes it seems impossible to escape the stifling presence of my own damaged shadow, the imperfect and mediocre version of myself that only I can see. Never smart enough or pretty enough or bendy enough or strong enough or good enough.Too many girls are like me and don’t think they are enough. Don’t see themselves as worthy or deserving of love and kindness. These girls grow into women who always feel inadequate. Never enough. Yet each of us is, in our own way. It has taken me 33 years of moving and breathing to start believing that I am enough. It is a process, but I have inspiration.
My daughters are beautiful, perfect, brilliant. My 7 year old is strong and athletic, she is a gymnast. Her lips are like rose buds. Her lashes are so thick and long across her cheeks when she sleeps that my stomach twists when I look at her. She is kind and mature and polite. Everyone thinks she’s 10. My 5 year old wears glasses, it’s adorable. Her eyes are so dark you can’t see her pupils. She is serious and lost in thought, those black eyes harboring untold depths. She is lithe and slender with natural and effortless grace. She needs to be held, is thirsty for love. I can never say no to her. My baby is the funniest, most curious toddler I have ever met. Her smile lights up the room, she laughs with her whole self. She is fearless. She jumps into the pool without thinking twice and never wants to get out. She looks just like me, only prettier.
Will they struggle as I have, as so many women do? I tell them every chance I get how beautiful they are, how strong, how smart. Will it be enough? I wonder if my negative self-image stemmed from my father leaving when I was a child. Their father is kind and involved and loyal. Will that be enough? I wonder if my self-loathing came from being poor, or an only child, or because I moved to a new city in first grade. Will they survive childhood intact? Am I doing enough for them?
If I have done anything right in my life, it was bringing my three girls into the world. Incredibly, to them I am perfect, invincible, beautiful, all-knowing. And day by day I try to see myself a little bit through their eyes. Their unconditional love and my immense gratitude for that love are the stilts that keep me standing tall, teetering over the sludge of self-denigration. After all, this body brought them to life, how can I hate the vehicle of such beauty? This mind has gotten me far, how can I hate the faculty that conceives goodness, absorbs word, develops thought? This heart loves and is loved, how can I hate what has brought me home?
Maybe perfection is where I am at this very moment. Maybe despite a lifetime of being certain of my own lacking, I am actually good enough, strong enough, smart enough. If my girls think I am, then maybe that is enough for me.