Revising Old Beliefs

Excerpted from the Cancer Chronicles.

Part 90:  When I was forty, I was told not to wear anything sleeveless. I can’t remember who told me that except that it was, at least in New York, a given like not wearing white after Labor Day. I took it as truth. I believed that body shaming mentality. Arms that don’t look muscled and toned (like some men’s arms and Michelle Obama’s arms when she was First Lady and Madonna’s arms years ago) should be hidden. Women’s bodies, when they aren’t what the cultural narrative says women’s bodies should be, should be hidden. No wiggles. No flab. No cottage cheese arms. No waving underneath. Women’s bodies shouldn’t look real. Women’s bodies shouldn’t look lived in. Women’s bodies shouldn’t show the effects of cancer.

It’s been so hot here that I decided to do something radical: go sleeveless. And as soon as I pulled on this top, I was astonished at how long it took me to put on this top. Decades. I took a long look at my arms. Yep, not the arms of a twelve year old. (Actually, I don’t think I ever had the arms of a twelve year old—whatever those arms look like—even when I was twelve. I had already been on a diet for two years by then and my body was slip sliding into different shapes). But my arms. These are my arms. They lift, they carry, they even have skin covering muscle and bone.

Arms. What a concept. To appreciate them instead of judge them. To raise them in celebration instead of glare at their undersides and cluck with dismay. (When was the last time you appreciated your arms?)

Part 91:  My great-grandmother (pictured holding a newborn moi!) emigrated from Russia and wore long-sleeved black dresses for every season. I don’t know whether she ever thought about her body or considered that it might be beautiful, might be anything but functional (and possibly, inferior to a man’s body). I also don’t know what she passed on about bodies to her children. My grandmother baked butter cookies and warned me not to eat them because I was getting fat. She criticized my mother’s body because it was too fat. She got angry at my mother because her thighs were rubbing together. And my mother, passed it on. Told me my ankles were like piano stools, my thighs were like thunder thighs. Put me on my first diet when I was eleven.

Is it possible that thoughts about my body were not actually my thoughts? That they were my grandmother’s, my mother’s, possibly my great-grandmother’s? That judgments about my arms or the way my thighs rub together are not mine? Is it possible that I am not thinking for myself but am being thought?

When I look at my arms without my mother’s voice, when I look at my bloated-from-cancer-medication belly without the “Oy, you look pregnant, it’s too BIG,” the various parts look sometimes miraculous (they are all still doing their parts, wow) and sometimes they are just as they are. Jiggly. Round. Bloated. Smooth. Lined. Tanned. That’s it. Nothing added.

Think about it: when was the last time you had a thought about your body that wasn’t either in agreement with what you learned as a child or in rebellion to what you learned (which is basically the same thing)? Have you ever had a thought about your arms, thighs, belly that was only yours? If you looked without the overlay of what you’ve learned from family, friends, movies—what would you see?

To read more of the Cancer Chronicles, CLICK HERE.