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What is self-love to a body in pain?

feel your feelings

Let me love this good body.

I was, begrudgingly, in yoga class again. I don’t like yoga very much. I am almost always uncomfortable in class, not just because even some of the most careful yoga practices in the United States fall into the trap of whitewashing, commercialization and cultural appropriation, but because I am almost always uncomfortable in general. Chronic pain makes most exercise unbearable, but the combination of breathing, meditation and self-direction of yoga has been able to bring me back to class every week despite my misgivings.

One mitigatory approach is the habit of setting an intention before practicing. It’s helpful, especially in a practice that is both healing and painful, to have something to go back to when my pain or my busy mind draw me away from my movements, my breath.

I used to rack my brain for an intention, ashamed that I couldn’t think of anything other than maybe wanting to be home in my pajamas rather than sitting on a mat on a floor somewhere. But after I found out this year that my pain was going to be permanent, it was as if my body came up with one by itself.

Let me love this good body. Please, God, let me love this good body.

There are two things there. One of the intentions is to love my body; one of them is to think of it as good. 

Neither are easy for a body in pain.

We’ll start with the good. It doesn’t take a detective to scroll through Netflix offerings, Instagram ads, or TV channels and notice the way that white, cisgendered, straight, United States-born, wealthy, thin and able bodies are considered desirable and good, while bodies that deviate from these privileged identities are considered undesirable and bad. Nor does it take a detective to notice the way that this media bias is a reflection of structural violence, the way that our government, our institutions and our culture hate, harm and punish those bodies that are black, brown, trans, queer, immigrant, materially poor, fat-bodied or disabled. 

We are steeped in a culture that finds only a few very privileged bodies good; the necessary intervention, then, is not only to advocate in all levels of society for structural change that protects and makes life possible for marginalized people, but also to foster a counterculture that insists on the goodness of every body.

In learning to think of my body as good, I found myself intentionally changing my language, shifting it away from loving the parts of my body that are in accordance with hegemonic beauty standards toward more ability-focused, skills-oriented language. 

In other words, I started looking below “skin-deep” factors to find a basis for my self-love. But even this shift, away from “my body is good because it looks good” toward “my body is good because it can do good things” is not enough. 

I don’t mean to suggest that celebrating what is beautiful and capable and life-giving about our bodies is unequivocally bad: quite the contrary. But linking my body’s goodness with its ability is a fraught and dangerous thing to do because our human bodies are never entirely able. My own ability has always fluctuated. I lived through five years of wearing a back brace, through three surgeries, through months of hard recovery, through countless rounds of physical therapy. Even this month, when my pain flared up, I was reminded of how quickly my body can go from being able to perform in such a way that it passes as fully able-bodied to laying in bed, in intense pain, suddenly unable to do most of that which I pride myself on being able to do. 

But unless a person dies very young and very suddenly, every person alive will experience a moment of aging or illness, where their bodies fail them in one way or another. If your body’s goodness is wrapped up in its abilities, then the moment your body loses its ability, your belief in its goodness evaporates, too.

In my religion, we are taught that when God created human beings, God made them in God’s own image and called all of them good. There are no stipulations on ability status, and it is not hard to see why—it would be inhumane and cruel to say that very old, very young or mentally or physically disabled bodies are not fundamentally good. And yet my understanding of my own body’s fundamental goodness was contingent upon its abilities. I had been unconsciously feeding into the ableist, capitalistic and wrong notion that human bodies are good only when they are able. My body is good not because it is beautiful and not because it is able; it is good because all bodies are good. 

But there’s still this love thing. Sure, this body is theoretically, inherently good, but how could I love a body that hurts?

Last week, I was back on a yoga mat, begrudgingly. I had spent the past few days in bed, feeling no love for this good body that hurt me so. Every time I moved the left side of my body in class, I wanted to cry out in pain. I had returned to child’s pose for the fourth time when, like the intention of love this good body, a thought arose, unbidden, in my body.

Listen, it said. I am teaching you to love that which is difficult to love. 

I shifted positions, tuning out whatever pose everyone else in the class was doing. What is it that my body is trying to tell me?

Listen, it said. I am teaching you to love that which is difficult to love. To give love over and over again to bodies like your body: bodies that you have been taught are not good, not to be loved. To love the bodies that suffer. To be present with pain. To love that which is difficult to love.

There’s a good chance that my mind had plagiarized the words of spoken-word poet Andrea Gibson, because their words arrived to me next: “Everything is a lesson. Lesson one through infinity: you will never have a greater opportunity to learn to love your enemy than when your enemy is your own red blood.”

A body in pain is still a wise, good body. It knows that it hurts. It knows it deserves love anyway. And it knows that if everything is a lesson, then this pain is one, too.

Learning to love this good body may be the greatest lesson I ever learn.

Liddy Grantland is a Trinity senior who is really trying to live into this meme right now. Her column, “feel your feelings,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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