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I want to talk about loving our bodies and not merely in a bar soap commercial sort of way. Although it’s important to come to love and accept our bodies no matter what they look like on the outside the kind of love I am talking about is more than skin deep. I am talking about the kind of revolutionary love that connects our minds and our bodies and can heal us from the inside out, a kind of love that it took getting cancer for me to understand.
Before I get into how I think we can all find this kind of love I want to share my own journey through frustration, betrayal and eventually acceptance, awe and love for my body. Prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer I think I had a pretty typical relationship with my body for a 20-something-year-old. I saw it as serving primarily aesthetic purposes which meant I was often frustrated with it. I never hated it but always wished I was a little bit taller, a little less soft around the edges. My body also rarely performed the way I wanted it to. I was a particularly uncoordinated teenager and could never seem to run as far, swing the bat as hard or spike the ball with as much gusto as I would have liked. In some ways it felt like me and my body were in a constant battle and neither of us ever won.
Then, right around my 30th birthday, I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and breast cancer in rather quick succession and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of betrayal. My body was literally attacking itself and in the process it was threatening my life. But I also began to feel guilty. Although I had always tried to eat healthy I had been doing so from a perspective of what would make me look good, not what would make my body feel it’s very best. I had been hard on my body, filling it with chemicals, demanding that it keep running at optimum levels despite the toxins to which it was exposed. I also felt bad about the treatment I was about to put it through. Over the course of a year my body sustained 20 rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and 33 rounds of radiation. It was poisoned, slashed and burned, as they say.
As my treatment went on, however, I began to realize how resilient my body was, how it would bounce back from beating after beating, ever striving to make me feel well again. The combination of guilt and awe that I now found myself feeling, on top of the desire to be as healthy as I could, led me to begin thinking about my body in completely new ways. I began to be gentle with it, started to try and listen to what it needed and wanted, educated myself on what was best for it instead of what would make it look the way I wanted.
By the time I was diagnosed with advanced metastatic breast cancer this past January I no longer felt betrayed by my body. Instead I was deeply in love with it. I devoted all of my time and energy to treating it with all the kindness and care I could muster. I love my body, more than anything else, for letting me be here, for letting me exist on this earth, for allowing me to explore the world. Before cancer my body was an impediment to letting me be the person I wanted to be and now I am in awe of this incredible vehicle that works ceaselessly to try and keep me on the planet enjoying my life for as long as it can. I used to take my sight, my hearing, my ability to eat, to run and jump and play for granted. Now I know that cancer or some other debilitating illness could easily take those away from me so I am thankful every day for what my body lets me do.
Whether you have had cancer or not we could all use a little more body lovin’ in our lives. Here are 10 ways to learn to love your fabulous body:
1. Just listen: Our bodies are pretty good at communicating with us but, unfortunately, we are even better at ignoring them. We see much of our bodies’ communications: upset stomachs, headaches, aches and pains, etc. as annoyances to be covered up, not necessarily messages that something might not be quite right. After several years of dealing with chronic illness I have come to realize that often I intuitively know when something is wrong. I have always been right when a new lump or spot on a PET scan was cancerous and when it wasn’t. I went to the doctor before I had any obvious symptoms of an auto-immune disease because something was just “off.” We are taught to ignore, suppress and not give credence to the messages our bodies are constantly delivering when really we should be leaning in closer and listening as carefully as possible.
2. Eat to nourish your body not just to please your taste buds: I’m not saying don’t eat delicious food. Goodness no! What I am saying is that we should eat with nourishment as the main motivator. I have actually discovered that food can be even better when we eat for our health rather than our taste buds. Often times that plate of pancakes looks tempting but leaves us feeling sluggish and unfulfilled. It’s because those yummy pancakes aren’t providing what we most need. I’m not advocating any kind of particular diet because I don’t believe there is a one size fits all. I do think that we should be eating, and teaching our children to eat, what makes us feel good, not just what tastes good.
3. Don’t work out, have fun: It wasn’t until I started rock climbing regularly that I realized how much fun a good workout could be. I used to force myself to go to the gym no matter how bored I was with my routine. Now I’ve let go of any strict rules I once had for myself (“must get x amount of cardio in every week”) and just try to move my body in whatever way is the most rewarding. Sometimes I really feel like a good stretch so I dig into yoga. Other times I feel like a nice sprint so I go for a run. Don’t be afraid to dabble in lots of different activities, to try something new, to go outside and to make playing your passion.
4. Recognize when your body feels good: We often pay so much attention to what is going wrong with our bodies that we fail to pay attention when our bodies feel good. Chemo was a really good teacher in reminding me to appreciate how good it feels to feel good. A good day during chemo was one where I didn’t have terrible mouth sores, I wasn’t terribly nauseated and I could get up and walk around for more than a few minutes without feeling exhausted. Today I try to appreciate whenever I am feeling strong, vital and whole and am grateful to my body for letting me feel that way.
5. Pay attention to the mind-body connection: Our minds and our bodies are intimately connected. Nearly everything we think and feel is playing out in some way at the physiological level. It’s easy to recognize this when we are feeling a negative emotion. When the tears start rolling or our hearts start pounding the connection is clear. But it goes the other way as well. Positive feelings calm our bodies down, release happy hormones and boost our immune systems. One benefit of paying attention to this connection is that when we are overwhelmed by negative emotions just concentrating on our bodies instead of the negative thoughts can help us relax. It’s an incredibly powerful connection that can keep us sick as well as help us heal. Just think of the commonly occurring placebo effect. Just believing we will get better can make a sugar pill as effective as medicine. That’s a mighty powerful mind!
6. Respect the R&R: We love to be busy. Our bodies (and our minds) do not. Our bodies love sleep and downtime but we so rarely give it all that it requires. Don’t be afraid to go to bed early, take a nap, let yourself unwind, allow yourself do nothing but just be present. Your body and your brain will thank you.
7. Build the right team of healers around you: You would never send your pet to a veterinarian who didn’t care about animals so why do so many of us put up with doctors who don’t fully respect us and our bodies? Contrary to popular belief YOU are the number one expert on your body so you should find doctors and healers who respect that idea above all others. You want a team who wants to work with you to help you find the root causes of your health problems and lead you on a path to ultimate wellbeing.
8. Forgive your body: It’s easy to feel betrayed by our bodies. We all deal with some sort of illness, or allergy, or weakness or cancer. Our bodies are fragile and we live in a pretty toxic world. Just as we often make mistakes so do our bodies. It’s part of our humanity. While it’s ok to wade through all the anger and frustration you need to come to a more accepting place I do recommend you give your body a break whenever possible and try to respect all the ways in which it is working for you even when it feels like it’s not on your side.
9. Don’t make comparisons: We all know we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to the unrealistic and heavily Photoshopped standards we see all around us but in reality we shouldn’t compare our bodies, what they need and their strengths and their weaknesses to any other body. Each one is completely unique. Each of our bodies has different needs when it comes to food, workouts, environment, medicine, sleep, etc. Don’t feel bad if your body is different from those around you. Just respect its little quirks and do what you can to meet its unique needs.
10. Be in awe: Our bodies are absolutely incredible instruments. The millions of billions of tiny little processes that have to happen every second to keep us breathing, keep our blood pumping, keep our immune system going are worthy of our unending awe. Our bodies are constantly fighting to keep us healthy, constantly recovering even when we don’t treat it very kindly, constantly doing everything it can to keep us here for as long as it’s able. If that isn’t worthy of our unconditional love I’m not sure what is!