This post has been a long time in the making: nearly two years in fact. It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything for The Pochemuchka. This is at least partly because my health has been improving and I’ve been able to spend more time engaging in what could be called ‘real life.’ It is only as I begin to slowly emerge from illness that I have started to feel like I have the space to start trying to tackle my relationship with my body. It has been the elephant in the room for pretty much the entirety of the last two years, but because for most of that time there was only me in the room I could pretty much ignore it. Now there is a door in this room that I and other people are coming and going through. Unfortunately for me, the elephant has been watching us and has learnt how to turn the fucking handle, and I can ignore it no longer.
The text that follows is a letter to my body. I am lucky in that it has taken me 30 years to feel compelled to address my relationship with my body in any detail. I know that this is largely the result of the privilege that I experience as a white man. I know also that there are a huge number of people, especially women, who have, or have had, incredibly complex, challenging and sometimes traumatic relationships with their own bodies, often driven by the unrealistic ideals that are reproduced within capitalist patriarchy. Writing this felt deeply, deeply personal, perhaps more so than anything else I have written for this blog. But hey, what are blogs for if not bearing your bloody soul to whomsoever might wish to come and stare at it for a while? Experiencing and trying to make sense of my own body issues for the first time makes my heart go out to everybody else that has struggled or is struggling with how they feel about their body.
I’ve been inspired to try and find a positive way of dealing with the complicated relationship that I currently have with my body by my wonderful friend Kate. Kate wrote a brilliant piece for The Pochemuchka blog about her own ongoing quest for body positivity, and as part of that journey her own letter to her body follows mine. Although Kate and I had talked about this topic in the past, reading her piece was a real eye opener for me. Writing these letters is first and foremost a way of us trying to process some of the shit we are currently living with. As such you might wonder why we have decided to share our letters. For me it is a reminder not to take things for granted, a reason to be grateful for what we have, a chance to say ‘this is what it feels like’ to people who – like me up until two years ago – don’t have any real experience or understanding of this stuff, and finally and perhaps most importantly, a chance to say you are not alone to people who might currently be going through something similar.
I never thought about it at the time but I guess I’m just starting to realise how good you were to me. Before I got ill I’d never really had any major issues with you. Sure I got sick quite a lot when I was younger but for most of the last decade you were doing me pretty proud, all 6 ft 6 of you. I love how tall you are, even if it makes long journeys on planes and coaches a lot less comfortable than they should be. Oh, that and the fact that if you have any sense of common courtesy at all (I unfortunately do), you make standing at the front of a gig virtually impossible. Also almost everything in the world is basically designed for short people and is therefore either too small or too low for you, and that can make things annoying, uncomfortable and expensive sometimes. But, in the greater scheme of things it really isn’t that a big deal I guess. I mean I would never change this aspect of you, I just couldn’t. I like being able to see out over crowds. I liked being able to skip awkward hand-holds when I went climbing, and damn are you good at cuddling. I love being able to rest my head on the top of a girl’s head while I hug her, cradling her against my chest, smelling the delicate fragrance of her hair while I wrap her up in those long levers of yours.
So ok, you’ve always been a bit skinny and we both know that the ‘ideal’ version that we get constantly bombarded with from every direction is a damn sight more buff than you will ever be. I mean no offence, but even if I took you to the gym everyday I’m pretty sure you still wouldn’t end up massively hench. But listen, that’s ok, I got over that a long time ago. You’re just not built that way, I get it that now and it’s cool. If some girl is set on her dream fella having big fuck off arms then I’m not going to be her first choice and that’s fine by me.
You see, the thing is I was really fucking proud of you anyway. We were going climbing three times a week and boy were you starting to kick some ass. You weren’t about to turn into some big muscle bound hunk, but you were getting stronger, leaner, toned, more flexible. I was pushing you hard and you were responding in exactly the way bodies are meant to. We had a good thing going on. I had absolutely no shame when it came to getting you out infront of other people… I mean shit, I probably could have kept my clothes on a bit more but I didn’t want to! I feel insecure about plenty of different aspects of myself but you weren’t one of them. I loved you for that, and plenty of other people seemed to feel pretty good about you too.
And lets be honest here, its not like I’ve treated you that well for most of the last decade. Keeping you awake all night, skipping meals or feeding you crap, smoking, drinking, drinking, drinking… drugs, and jesus what a lot of fucking buckfast. I mean I really hammered you. And that’s before you think about all of the hours I forced you to sit hunched at a fucking desk infront of a bloody computer. You took a lot of shit from me and to be fair to you most of the time you handled it pretty damn well. The truth is that I took you for granted. Ok you needed the odd time out from time to time, but most of the time it seemed like you were just able to soak up the punishment and be ready for some more.
I guess I spent a lot more time thinking about how I was feeling than paying attention to how you might be or how there might be a relationship between the two. Despite growing up with an ill sister, despite my mum’s fears that the same thing might happen to me… well I guess I just refused to accept that it could actually happen to me – that was just too fucking terrible to contemplate. I was determined to live as much as everybody else, more even… if anything I guess that having an awareness that things do and can go really fucking wrong health-wise made me just want to cram in as much as possible while I could, and boy did I end up riding you pretty hard.
And then things went wrong. And you know what the fucking irony is? It all fucked up at a point where I had finally really started to look after you. Man, I was living more healthily than I had at any previous point in my adult life. But you still went wrong. I guess sometimes it feels like you are paying me back for taking you for granted for so long, forcing me to appreciate just how wrong you can go and just how lucky I had it. I don’t want to believe that you would do that to me, I mean this thing has kicked the shit out of us both and we both know the only way out of this is by us working together. But it does feel like a bit of a sick revenge mission sometimes. If it is then I guess I have to say well fucking done, you got me real good you bastard! Just be glad I didn’t take us both down – you made me seriously consider it.
Because fuck me it is hard living with you. I spend so much time these days listening attentively to you but I still feel like I’m second guessing you at least half of the time. I never know if what I tell you to do today is going to come back and kick me in the arse tomorrow. It is almost impossible to plan things because I never know when you are going to run out of steam and leave me feeling shit. It is a pretty horrible thing to say to anybody but I have had to come to understand and accept that I can’t really trust you. You are unreliable and unpredictable and I know from bitter experience that if I try and push on through with you, push through the tiredness, push through the pain, then there will be hell to pay.
I know that you are waiting to go to shit at the first sign of trouble. To be perfectly frank I fucking hate you some times. I know I have to look after you. I know I have to use you sparingly, I know I have to feed you the right things, I know I have to carefully ration my expenditure of emotional, physical and intellectual energy so that I don’t give you a chance to flip out. I know that when I listen carefully, when I pay attention to all of the tiny signs that you give me and stick within the ridiculous constraints that you impose on me, well… then you start to behave a bit more like your old self. We are definitely starting to get on better again. I wouldn’t be writing to you now if we weren’t, I just felt too let down. But although I’m listening to you and trying to protect you and give you the space to heal, you’ve repayed me by getting soft and weak. I have placed your needs at the absolute centre of my life, have put them first before everything else and yet you are still broken, you still don’t work the way you are meant to and so I still feel like a broken person. When will we both feel strong again?
I’ve learnt so much about you. You’ve taught me how light can be painful. You’ve taught me how noise can drive me into a fit of rage, You’ve taught me that eating the wrong thing can leave me curled up in pain. You’ve taught me that you can make me stumble over my words and struggle to get a sentence out straight. I’ve learnt that sometimes when I’m crippled with chronic anxiety and self-doubt, when the future looks so bad that I don’t want to carry on another day, when I feel like I’m drifting out of myself and becoming another person that I don’t know, when I feel like I’m going crazy, when I feel like I’ve completely lost the ability to control my emotions… sometimes all of these things are because of you and your guts. Boy was it a relief to work that one out. I remind myself that my feelings will calm down as and when you do. I remind myself that I’m not turning into a total fucking lunatic, but you sure do make me feel like one sometimes. Of all of the parts of you that I have a problem with these days I really fucking hate your your guts. I guess the expression makes a lot more sense to me now. How can you have such control over how I feel? I know it’s not your fault I took you to the tropics and ate something I shouldn’t have. I know you didn’t ask for Giardia, I know you didn’t ask to be stripped fucking bare with three doses of antibiotics but boy are you still making me pay for it nearly two years later.
While we are talking about your guts we may as well talk about food. One of the greatest fucking pleasures in life, or at least it used to be. I love food, and I always have. Another part of my life that I never used to have any issues with whatsoever. I miss all of the things that I still can’t eat and I still don’t know if I will ever be able to do so without you punishing me. I can’t help but resent you for denying me so many of the things that I love so much. While we are talking about pleasure and denial I suppose we may as well talk about sex too. Yeah, you remember that don’t you! Ok, so maybe at some points in the past I made it more of a priority in my life than it needed to be, but boy was it good, we were fucking good. You always delivered and I loved you for it, I felt like it was what you were made for, it felt natural, it felt fucking spiritual, a joyous celebration of our existence in which we would lose ourselves, replenish ourselves, reaffirm ourselves.
And now? Its nice to be in a position where I can even start thinking about it again because for a long time you were too sick for me to even contemplate it being an option. But with it becoming a possibility again comes a whole load of new shit to deal with, because fuck me things are different. You get tired so quickly and give up on me. Even when you don’t I’m still scared of how you might punish me afterwards if I push you too hard. I can’t lose myself anymore, I can’t get away from you. You are always there reminding me that I am still broken, still weak, still soft around the edges, still running out of steam far too quickly. I don’t trust you and you just aren’t sexy.
Because sickness isn’t sexy, and neither is weakness, or having to come face to face with your limitations. I used to feel bullet-proof but now I feel like you are inferior to all of the other healthy, beautiful bodies. I’ve lost faith in my attractiveness, I’ve lost faith in you, and it makes me feel so vulnerable. I know you are doing your best, that things are getting better, but I also know what you were capable of – and there is still a pretty big fucking gap between then and now. I’m worried that until I can love you again nobody else is going to, but I just can’t feel good about you until you are strong and reliable again. So here we both are, waiting for you to get your shit together, and all the while the clock is still fucking ticking and I’m still getting older, and I’m scared that things will never again be like they used to.
I know I have to be patient with you. I know pushing you will not make you stronger but will only increase the chances of you breaking further. I know that none of this is your fault and that I should have looked after you better in the past. I know that i’m lucky that you have improved as much as you have done over the last two years and that you still work much better than lots of other people’s bodies. I’m trying to appreciate everything that you are allowing me to do and not to resent you for the ways in which you are still holding me back. I’m trying to learn to love you again, even as you are now, and not to see you as a pale imitation of what you used to be, and I’m trying to believe that someone else might be able to as well.
I know you are fighting to get better and I’m fighting too. I desperately hope that one day in the not so distant future you and I will reach a point where we can like each other again. Because this is our struggle and we only have each other to help us get through this. Whatever happens, one thing is for sure. I will never, ever take you for granted like I did in the past. I don’t know whether you will ever make it back to being as strong and resilient as you were before. I don’t know whether I will ever reach a point where I feel like I can really trust and rely on you again. I don’t know whether I will ever reach a point where I will feel secure in the knowledge that pushing you won’t break you again. I don’t know if I will ever get to a point where I can really love you and feel proud of you again. But whatever happens, and despite how betrayed I have felt by you, I promise that I’m going to listen to you and care for you for the rest of our time together
Your friend – still (despite everything),
The following letter forms a part of my ongoing quest for body positivity. As I mentioned in my last post, this was never going to be an easy journey. A very small, misguided part of me thought that after posting the last article, things might miraculously change and I might find myself looking in the mirror and being suddenly altogether satisfied with my ticket in the body lottery. That didn’t happen. I’m working on it, definitely, and day-by-day trying to learn the subtle but very important art of not giving a fuck. But I’ve got to play the long game. The purpose of this letter is to tell myself to appreciate that my body works for its biological purposes, and to re-affirm that it does not exist solely for the pleasure or judgment of others. Maybe once I’ve got that into my head, it might be easier to learn to live with it.
Sit down and listen to me for a minute. You’re good at sitting, this shouldn’t be a problem for you.
Pfft…where do I start with you? Man oh man we’ve been together a long time now, and I know you better than the back of my…oh wait, that is you. Oh well, you get what I mean.
I don’t like you. There, I’ve said it. But it’s not really your fault. In terms of what bodies are for, you do an OK job I suppose. Not like top-of-the-class, Masters with distinction followed by a PHd at Harvard and a mention in the New Year’s Honour’s list, but ok. You let me walk, you let me talk, you let me see things without glasses, hear things pretty perfectly. You aren’t broken in any major way. Sometimes you even let me ride a bike. I know you are trying your best day after day, like a little worker bee plugging away at that honey just trying so hard to please their queen, but uh-oh, sucks for you, your queen is actually a bit of a judgmental bitch (its not you, its her – she’s got issues), and nothing is ever good enough. Sorry little bee body.
The thing is, whilst you are doing an alright job with the day to day stuff (pretty bog standard supermarket squeezy honey £1.69), you’ve never let me excel. You won’t let me climb a tree. I love trees. You won’t let me run. I love…ok ok I hate running, but I’d like to be able to in case of emergency. You’re too big and you keep getting bigger. You make me slow and lethargic. You don’t let me keep up with my friends. You don’t really let me dance much any more. You sweat waaaaayyy too much (seriously, please stop this, it’s actually starting to get annoying now). You make me feel like a big lump, and not even a big strong lump that could give someone a good wallop if they needed it, but a big weak and flabby lump that just has to sit and watch whilst everyone else has all the fun. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, body, but you’ll just never be Manuka.
But you are mine, body. And we are in this thing together. So, I need to learn to appreciate you for what you are. You’re still going, you’re doing okay. I should thank you for that.
The thing is, body, that I’ve been conditioned to hate you. The eyes in your head have seen 30 years worth of patriarchal, capitalist, body-shaming, anti-feminist media bullshit. They read too many women’s magazines at far too impressionable an age. They’ve been told that fat is bad and thin is good (but not too thin). They’ve been told that thin is bad and and curvy is good (but not too curvy). They’ve watched far too much TV and too many films that don’t even pass the fucking Bechdel test. They’ve been told that fat women don’t get their own storyline, and as far as romance goes? Ha! Dream on. They’ve seen too many adverts. They’ve been told that women should change their bodies, rid themselves of their imperfections: remove every errant hair and smooth every wrinkle and plump every cheek and lift every sag and tone every wobble and what else? Pay for all of it. They’ve quite simply been told that YOU ARE WRONG. Those eyes may choose not to look at these things now, but the damage has already been done.
So, please try to understand, body, that I don’t choose to hate you. We are both victims of circumstance, really. I’m sorry that I haven’t treated you particularly well. You’ll be pleased to know that the drinking and smoking and partying days are mostly over, so you won’t be hurt by those things much anymore. But I still have trouble feeding you what you need and taking you out for walks and keeping you healthy. The problem is, body, how am I meant to take care of something that I’ve never loved? It’s like having an evil pet following you around your entire life. A little monster that snarls its teeth and kicks you in the shins and trips you up and gives you bloody knees and keeps you hostage in your own mind and threatens to tell the world what a horrible person you are and – I’m expected to love this little fucker? Not only that, but care for it above all else, nurture it, make sure it’s happy, every single hour of every single day this little bugger has to be my top priority and my biggest commitment, because our fates are one in the same? Jeez, body, that’s a fucking tough ask.
But I shouldn’t compare you to a little goblin, really. Especially not when we’ve already clearly established that you are a lovely little bee. We don’t want to mix our metaphors, now, do we? I’ve probably taken you for granted most of my life. But you are a BIG part of my life (scuse the pun) and I know that you are like family, and, since you can’t choose your family, you’ve gotta learn to love them. I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t love you yet, and probably won’t for a long time. But I am trying to accept you, I’m trying to be gentle with you, and I’m even trying to look after you a bit better these days. I don’t want you to fail. I appreciate all that hard work you are doing day in and day out just to keep me alive. If you could just keep doing that whilst I figure all the other shit out, I’d be really bloody grateful. I do actually like squeezy honey.
Thank you, body.