Rewriting Our Stories
I was always a tall kid. I always stood in the back row for school photos and my feet grew larger than my mother’s by fifth grade. I remember going to the doctor and standing still to be measured, furtively wishing that I’d stayed the same size for once. Everyone remarked on my size, usually with synonyms for big.
In my family, sitting still means you don’t have enough work to do. Relaxing in front of the television was a concept I didn’t understand until adulthood. In fact, sitting down before sundown was pure laziness. Carrying extra weight is a weakness. Softness is a flaw.
While I was a busy kid, I was never particularly athletic. I was clumsy and I wasn’t particularly fast. It was hard to coordinate those long limbs into efficient movement, after all. My mom assured me that I came by this naturally, she was a klutz, too, she even had a nickname to prove it. I shied away from competitive sports, mostly because I hated the idea that all eyes would be on me missing some important shot or catch and I’d disappoint not just myself, but a team of my friends and onlookers. The idea was unbearable.
Me, age 7, 10 and 12. My mom isn't particularly short, but notice how the slouch develops over just a few years. Already trying to be smaller than I am.
One of the greatest surprises of my adult life is that I actually love to move. When I was in my twenties I discovered running and I fell into a fiery relationship with it. I felt empowered pounding the pavement, the longer the better. What’s more, I could do it alone, no one was watching my achievement or lack thereof unless I invited them to. I loved to be outside, and I lived in the Pacific Northwest, one of the most beautiful landscapes America, so I went outside. My long limbs made rowing and running and hiking come easily. I trained for marathons. I hiked for hours.
In my thirties one of my coworkers referred to me as athletic and my jaw dropped. I felt both a profound sense of pride and a sneaking sense of guilt. I had clearly tricked this unsuspecting woman with some prideful stories and made her think I was good at all this moving around I was doing.
The reality was, I still felt nervous about running on a treadmill because my big body might make it shake. I was too tall for the yoga mats at the studio. When I swam I felt like a moose flailing through water. The woman giving out t-shirts at the finish line of one of the races I ran shook her head when I picked up a medium and gave me an XL instead “because of my broad shoulders.” The clerk at the running shoe store didn’t try to disguise her incredulity when I asked for a size 11 shoe.
“She’s not fat, she’s just a big girl.”
I am almost 40 years old. I like to think I’ve tackled all those body image issues. I stay active because I’ve been taught to be active. I haven’t birthed any babies, I have a pretty privileged life, so I am lucky enough to have time to exercise most days. I am comfortable with the body I’m in, I tell myself.
Then I stared yoga teacher training. We learned about Ayurvedic lifestyle and the doshas, or the three types of constitutions into which all humans fall. My teacher referred to me as a Kapha, which I knew from my brief internet research meant slow, heavy, stable, and soft. I recoiled.
All I could hear in my head was a chorus of people chanting “she’s a big girl.” I’ve spent a lot of my life trying not to be that kind of big girl.
“But you are so strong and balanced and beautiful,” my teacher said, when I said as much.
I can’t make my shoulders less wide or my feet smaller. No matter how taut my stomach or sculpted my arms, they are still resting on a skeleton that is built like a strong, stone house. But I’ve begged myself for decades to just be a little smaller. Can you take up less space, please? Can you at least try to blend in with the other women instead of literally towering over them? Please, Sarah, can’t you do your best to just be less noticeably huge?
I just re-read that and it made me sad. I’ve told myself a story that I take up too much space for so long, and in doing so, I’ve created a game that I will never win. I keep minimizing, tamping down, shrinking because that’s what I’ve convinced myself is the most accommodating. I have plenty of feelings about the society that has created an unwinnable game for all women and I get angry at my family for reinforcing the same game. If someone offered me a body that was 5’6” and weighed 140 pounds, I’d trade mine in without blinking an eye, and that makes me angry, too.
We also learned about samskaras, which loosely translates to the impressions on the soul. More to the point, the mental or emotional patterns that have conditioned us to behave in certain ways. I am a very introspective person; I think about things a lot. I thought I knew all my samskaras. But as I recognized my resistance to this definition of my own constitution, I knew there was some unpacking, no, perhaps rewriting to be done.
How do we undo those stories? I am not sure. But I think naming them as just that—a story— might be a start. I think shining a light on that dark place might be another step in the right direction. I think putting some words to the feelings that this story has created might help. This story has made me feel ashamed, lonely and insufficient for a long time. So, I’m trying to rewrite it.