Body thoughts

Watching my body age in real time is humbling. But maybe it doesn’t matter.

Like most people, I have body parts that I don’t particularly like. My head and hands are too small. My arms and legs are too big. You know, that kind of thing.

I’d be surprised if you can’t relate, as most humans struggle more or less with some kind of negative body image issue. Either it’s how we mentally “see” our body as flawed or it’s how we “feel” about our flawed body. Or, for the unfortunates who consequently suffer low self-esteem, it’s both.

I’ll hold off starting a long rant about the damage I think the fashion and entertainment industries, beauty pageants, and mass media all together have done in warping our collective and individual senses of body beautiful, especially for women, but men are not at all exempt. Surely you can guess where I’d go with this.

The deceptive, glossy media images of faces, bodies and social lifestyles, make us hate ourselves so we will buy a solution to love ourselves once again.

Bryant H. McGill

It’s my good fortune that very little of all that limiting messaging took hold in my young brain… at least not to the point of affecting my confidence. Don’t misunderstand me, for sure I’m able to discern loveliness from homeliness. I just believe my appreciation of body beautiful is more colorful and diverse than the narrow image we are fed.

Personally, I also managed to keep myself clear from the shadow of my mother’s beauty. From seeing how people reacted to the sight of her in public, I understood as a young child already that she was a stunningly gorgeous woman. That I was “merely” a pretty or attractive girl. And that this was okay. Why that came to be so, I can’t really say; but I sure am glad it is so.

For me, most of the time (but admittedly not always), I accept that my observations of my physical imperfections can be ignored. Others either don’t see these flaws or, perhaps more importantly, don’t care. So why should I?

What has mattered to me much more is that my body was strong and able, and that my smile lights up faces.

I like telling the shocking (to me) story of what happened when our family passed through New York City in 1970 on our way to live in St Catharines, Ontario. In short, we went for a long walk through the streets of Manhattan. I was 15 years old and I made it my mission to make the sad and sour faces I was passing smile. So then, having come from relatively friendly Vancouver, BC, it was indeed appalling to me that in covering 99 blocks I was able to elicit only one return smile! (PS. I’ve been back to The Big Apple numerous times since, and I can vouch it’s a much more hospitable place now.)

Fortunately, that early experience did not dissuade me. I’ve since continued to travel the world, with my warm smile more often than not adorning my face. And I’ve discovered firsthand the truism that a smile is the universal language of safety and kindness.

A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.

Phyllis Diller

So, you might ask, what is making me think of body image now? Now, when in fact my brain and heart are full of concern for mothers and children leaving behind all they love and know to flee from bullets, bombs, and bunkers. Isn’t the subject of body image a bit trivial in this more global context?

Well, the world has never been at complete peace. I’ve long been all too conscious of all the conflicts and suffering in the various hot spots. I’ve written that this war in Ukraine has a scary amount at stake, and, as the war endures, my opinion on that has only become more complex. We, as caring individuals and communities, must do what we can to help make this imperfect world a better place.

Yet we can’t stop living our own lives, or live with guilt when we do.

It’s a sign of maturity when we can juggle paradoxes, understand that opposites and contradictions happen concurrently, and unite yin and yang forces. We can admit to feeling both pain and joy.

If we can stay with the tension of opposites long enough —sustain it, be true to it—we can sometimes become vessels within which the divine opposites come together and give birth to a new reality. 

Marie-Louise von Franz

I continue. Today’s musing about changes in my body was prompted by two minor things that happened to me this week. First, I was struck by new unfamiliar aches in my hip joints as my honey and I walked around our subdivision. Then, I’m trying to plan a short road trip to nearby mountains and valleys that naturally demand to be hiked and I had to admit to myself that I’m simply not fit enough to do that. Ugh!

Since starting the anti-cancer treatments last October, I’ve lost 6 to 7 kilos. I’m back down to the weight I was when I first met my honey, over three decades ago. But when I look in the mirror nowadays, the body reflected back to me bears little resemblance to the one I had then.

I’m anticipating that the finally fading “sunburn” on my chest and breast (from radiation) and the tingling in my fingers and toes (from chemo) will sort out over time; that the stubble that has appeared on my skull will eventually grow into hair. Of course, I’ll never get back the tip of my right breast that was surgically cut off to excise the cancerous tumor, but, perhaps surprisingly, that doesn’t bother me much.

I’m not as assured about getting back the strength and agility I’ve always enjoyed. Sure, it’s normal to see a decline in muscle mass as we age (sarcopenia), leaving us weaker. But the sudden and substantial amount I’ve lost in just these handful of months is somewhat alarming. I mean, I’m still in my 60s and all I see is dry, scaly, wrinkled skin hanging over protruding bones! Yuck! Not yet, please!

And I’m not yet clear what further injurious effect I can expect on my body, especially my muscles, from taking the hormonal therapy tamoxifen that aims to modulate estrogen production, although muscle loss is nowhere (I’ve seen) listed as a common or even less-common side-effect.

So today I allowed myself a bit of a pity party. I mourned for the loss of the strong and able body of my youth.

You need to mourn, you need to be upset, to give yourself time to replenish. Then you use it all as fuel to get stronger.

Anthony Yarde

When the party is over—as it soon will be, as I’m not inclined to throw them often or long—I’ll get back to taking control where can. I will be looking at what I can realistically do to rebuild stronger muscles. I won’t be giving my precious time to self-criticism.

At the end of the day, I know my priorities, my values. I remain true to myself.

What counts most to me is the light I bring to the world with my joie de vivre, my smiles—smiles of understanding, smiles of comfort, smiles of kindness, smiles of love. With my smiles, I connect with others.

When I smile, it soothes my own insides, too. At soul level, I recognize that I love and that I am lovable, not only by others, but by me. Imperfections be damned.

I would not exchange my smile for anything. Not even for more body beauty.

What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. These are but trifles, to be sure; but scattered along life’s pathway, the good they do is inconceivable.

Joseph Addison

How are you coping with your aging body?

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  • I resonated with what you wrote about your gorgeous Mom and how it did not scar you knowing even at a young age that she was gorgeous and you, “merely” pretty. I also had a really beautiful Mom and I loved looking at her beauty, and adoringly telling her that, but she always told me, then, that I had something so beautiful that she did not have – I had the beauty of youth, that lovely look of wide eyed wonder, and my smile that lit up a room. I did not quite believe her, then. My young insecurities about the so many wrong things about my body stemmed from many other people’s perception of me, and in spite of my Moms’ protestations to the contrary, I suffered from such low self esteem growing up, went through a few painful years of teenage angst over it.
    Years later, every single person I met told me they loved my smile. As many as there were unkind words I heard as a child, I got more numerous compliments about how beautiful my smile is. How lovely my soul. My Mom was right, after all.
    Now that I have lost that bloom of youth, I like to think my smile is still the same, still able to light up a room, still has the power to show love, care, kindness, compassion, joy.
    Thank God my smile does not have rely on my creaking joints and flabby muscles, and we will never be too decrepit to smile.
    “Remember it takes 65 muscles to frown, and only 15 to smile.”

    • Your warm ravishing smile certainly does and will forever continue to light up all the rooms you enter, Gigi dear. 🤩 It comes from a deep loving place inside you that nothing can disturb. 🌸💜🌸

  • My goodness, Francisca! Our bodies are amazing things. Amazing, living, organisms. Resilient, electric, magnetic, energetic, adapting, growing, AMAZING. Your muscles will come back, Your bones will grow stronger. Your strength and flexibility and endurance will gradually return. And all of that upcoming work will be done with a smile on your face (might be a grimace here and there!)

    Your inner drive and motivation will guide you on this physical path of recovery. Listen to your body, though. Don’t rush and don’t be impatient. The older we get, the longer it takes to get back, but get back we truly do, if we desire. I find that the injuries, surgeries and such that took weeks to recover from in younger days now take 1-2 years to ‘bounce back’ from; and with daily attention, not the sporadic attentions I gave to rehab back then!

    I lost over 7 lbs. in the 6 months after losing my kayak buddy to pancreatic cancer and losing my marriage and house…about half my body weight, I joke, but it was pretty bad on my small frame. (Actually close to 6% of me was gone…skeletal might be the word) It has taken one year of very hard work, mentally, physically, emotionally, as well as good sleep, good food, good friends (to motivate; thus your honey will be instrumental, as always) to build up all of that muscle and bone again. I know that your situation is more challenging due to the poisons you are dealing with, but this too shall pass.

    8 more, Cisca!!!! (Love you.)

    • If my writing this post had not served to end my pity party, your pep talk certainly would have, Jenniekins. 🥰 SOO right you are! 🌸💜🌸

  • I am sure you will regain your strength. Not your beauty because you never lost it.

    I would not mind looking like a clone of George Clooney. But more than beauty I am jealous of intelligent and gifted people.

    About aging, you already know my strong opinion about the subject. It is not for the faint of heart.
    I don’t like it when people romanticise aging. It might be fun for some healthy exceptional people who manage to stay healthy and avoid being crippled, sick, bedridden, and lonely. But those are exceptions to the rule.

    That is also why I will fight for my right to die with dignity. It is already written on paper that if I have an incurable illness or lose my mind, they should end my life through euthanasia.

    I am not complaining. Life has been good to me.

    “And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.”
    – Martin Amis –

    “old people have to go to children’s or most often to rest homes where they are shunted into wheelchairs and made as fast as possible into zombies cause it’s easier to handle a zombie, if you have to handle anything, than a human.”
    – Kathy Acker –

    “Writing about the indignities of old age: the daunting stairway to the restaurant restroom, the benefits of a wheelchair in airports and its disadvantages at cocktail parties, giving the user what he described as a child’s-eye view of the party and a crotch-level view of the guests.
    Dying is a matter of slapstick and pratfalls. The aging process is not gradual or gentle. It rushes up, pushes you over and runs off laughing. No one should grow old who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous.”
    – John Mortimer –

    • You proved my point, Sidney. Others don’t see or care about physical flaws. Thank you for your sweet compliment. 🌸🙏🌸

      I don’t think I can be accused of romanticizing old age, and I’m not saying you are accusing me. For many, the final years can indeed be a hard slog. I’m just wondering how many years we’re talking about, when we say final years. Am I old? Is my honey old? My mother lived independently until the last handful of months. Both my fathers dropped dead without long suffering (my biological one at my age now). My grandmother spent only a couple of years with dementia in a nursing home before dying at 87, I think. Her father died at 99, after still taking a cross-Pacific flight from Europe to Canada at 97. A UK study said 57% of those 85-90 were so disabled as to need assistance in basic self care activities; the number was higher for over 90s. But that leaves a lot of young old or old old who maybe live quieter lives than in their youth, but hardly the miserable one you paint. Not only exceptional cases.

      On dying with dignity, we are in 100% agreement. It’s among the reasons for going to BC. 🌸🙏🌸

  • I quite often adore periods of ‘feeling low’ and sorry for myself. A little war I fight with myself and embrace as learning – I’m not surprised at all that you do this too.

    • I can count the number of pity parties I’ve thrown for myself on one hand. But when I do, Joan, I savour the wallowing and yessSS there is learning. Just writing this post helped me clarify my own feelings, put things in perspective… So much more beneficial than denial or by-passing. 🌸🙏🌸

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