My body and I have a long history. It’s a story of loyalty and betrayal, of adventures and near misses, of love and, yes, loathing.

We’ve been together for 34 years and, during that time, my body has let me down more than once. It embarrassed me at age four when, in the middle of a ballet recital, its awkwardness was cause for my instructor to tell my mother that I was “hopelessly lacking in grace.” In junior high, it was too boxy and boyish. It was unsympathetic to the curves of the other girls, and I had to hide it under baggy sweatshirts and loose-fitting tops. Somewhere around my teens, it decided it wanted curly hair. I resisted that with flatirons and hairdryers, and scores of thick, waxy products. Ultimately, it won that battle, and I was left to embrace those little brown ringlets. In my 20s, my body committed the ultimate act of betrayal, and my pancreas stopped producing insulin. My body and I will spend the rest of our time together with Type I Diabetes.

Of course, that same body also managed some amazing feats. During a particularly unfortunate phase in the late 80s, it endured hours of step aerobics in hideously shameful leotards. In my teen years, it eventually managed a pretty quick 500 freestyle in the pool. It stretched and adapted to carry two beautiful children. It nourished them throughout my pregnancies and after, as it made milk to feed them. My body was a devoted friend during three marathons, when it wanted desperately to call it quits, to slow to a crawl, and yet I forced it on to the finish. My body has endured countless hours of training and racing. It has crashed, bled, had a couple sets of stitches and one fractured arm, and never given up entirely. 

Our bodies are glorious friends. We subject them to all manner of abuse: starve them or force them to binge beyond reason, deprive them and belittle them, degrade them and hide them. Some women shame them, hate them, harm them. Still, throughout it all, they chase our dreams and grow old with us, keep the scars and lines that tell our stories and serve as our vessel as we enter the world. 

In a culture where women’s bodies are so often misrepresented, it’s important to preserve the friendship between mind and body. I’m not sure when, exactly, women decide to turn against their skin and muscle and bone, and indulge chronic, negative self-talk. I do know that it is both exhausting and, well, boring. All those mechanical reactions of disdain and disgust seem rather silly when paired with the ability of the body to accomplish amazing things. 

The key, perhaps, in learning to tell our respective bodies how much we love them is found in using them well. Studies show that body dissatisfaction decreases significantly with exercise [1]. When you see what your body can do, when you allow it to feel good, you can’t help but allow your mind to follow along. You become more forgiving, and less tied to that cultural ideal of a “beautiful woman.” Two years ago, I weighed a lovely 122lbs., but my cycling suffered horribly for my slight physicality. Today, I race at just under 143lbs. I am faster, stronger and more muscular. In America, that thinner frame might be regarded as the prettier body, but I take great pride in my thick quads and calves, and the power they produce on a bike. My body is doing its job. 

Today, I stand before myself in the mirror and see the boyish hips that carried my son and my daughter, my absurdly long arms that cradle the cat, my broad shoulders that can haul my bike over fences and stairs, my heavy legs which run faster than I ever imagined as a child. I love my body, and it has shown me time and again that it loves me in return. I tend to my body with the same love and care that I tend to the bodies of my two children as I kiss their bruises and bandage scraped knees. I remember that they watch my body and me as we go out into the world. They hear how I talk to my body when I see my reflection. I am filled with an authentic sense of gratitude at the ride we get to take together, as we find new adventures and accomplish our dreams.

[1] University of Florida (2009, October 9).  Exercise Improves Body Image For Fit And Unfit Alike.