“I KNOW I’m supposed to hate my body,” Cynthia said in her soothing, liquid Southern drawl. She pushed away her lunch, a brown lump and pile of orange. Her daughter spent a lot of money to have low-fat, no-sodium, no-sugar, low-calorie meals prepared and delivered to the house while she was at work and Cynthia was home alone. They looked like piles of wet rocks.
“I really could die happy if I was allowed just one more bite of caramel cake,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t suppose you have any?”
“No, sorry. But why are you supposed to hate your body?”
“Well, Kerry!” She looked incredulous that I even asked. Then she laughed. “Because I’m fat!”
Cynthia ran her soft hands over her ponderous breasts and her mounding, cancer-ridden belly. She spilled over the sides of her recliner. “I’ve known that since I was little.” She examined the crocheted blanket on her lap.
“Everyone told me — my family, my school, my church. When I got older, magazines and salesgirls and boyfriends — even if they didn’t say so out loud. The world’s been telling me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat, and then for being sick. I know they think it’s terrible.”
She looked up, and this time tears trembled along her bottom eyelids. “But the one thing I never did understand is, why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?”
THERE are many regrets and many unfulfilled wishes that patients have shared with me in the months or weeks before they die. But the time wasted spent hating their body, ashamed, abusing it, or letting it be abused — the years, decades, or, in some cases, whole lives that people spent not appreciating their body until they were so close to leaving it — are some of the saddest.
Why? Because, unlike the foolish or best-intentioned mistakes, the terrible accidents, the slip-ups that irrevocably changed a life — unlike all those kinds of regrets, this one is not a tragic mistake. It’s intentional. It’s something other people teach us to feel about our bodies. It’s something other people want us to believe.
Sometimes, it’s media and peer pressure that create this shame, shame based on how we look. We’re made ashamed of our weight or our body hair, our crooked teeth or our droopy eyes. Sometimes, it comes from the pastor and Sunday-school teacher, and lessons at home that begin at birth and seep in along
with mother’s milk, lessons about the sinfulness of the body. Some women grow up thinking that their very existence in a body that might be sexually attractive to someone else is cause for shame — that their bodies make bad things happen just by being.
Either way, the result of the messages is the same: lives lived thinking that bodies are something to criticise or despise, or, at best, something to tolerate: a problem that cannot be corrected.
Too often, it’s only as people realise that they will lose their body that they finally appreciate how truly wonderful the body is.
“I am going to miss this body so much,” a different patient, many decades younger, said. She held up her hands in the dim light that seeped through the sunshade on the window. She stared at them as though she had never seen them before.
“I’d never admit it to my husband and kids, but it’s my own body I’ll miss most of all. This body that danced and ate and swam and had sex and made babies. It’s amazing to think about it. This body actually made my children. It carried me through this world.”
She put her hands down. “And I’m going to have to leave it. I don’t have a choice. And to think I spent all those years criticising how it looked, and never noticing how good it felt. Until now, when it never feels good.”
Second in intensity to the regret of hating their body is the wish of the dying that they had appreciated their body in the course of their life.
Mind you, it isn’t just health that they wish they had appreciated. It is embodiment itself. It’s the very experience of being in a body, something you might take for granted until faced with the reality that you won’t have a body soon. No matter what you believe happens after death, whether it be an afterlife, reincarnation, or nothing at all, this remains: you will no longer be able to experience this world in this body, ever again. People who are dying face that reality every day.
So they talk about their favourite memories of their body. About how the apples they stole from the orchard on the way home from school tasted, and how their legs and lungs burned as they ran away. The feel of the water the first time they went skinny-dipping. The smell of their babies’ heads. The breeze on their skin that time they made love outside.
And dancing. So many stories about dancing. I can’t count the hundreds of times people — more men than women — have closed their eyes and said, when describing USO dances during the Second World War, or shagging at South Carolina beach-houses, or long, exuberant nights dancing at roadhouses and discos and barns and wherever else there were bodies and music, “If I had only known, I would have danced more.”
IF YOU accept the idea that each of us should love our neighbours as we love ourselves, what does it mean that so many voices out there insist that your body, my body, everyone’s body, is something to despise because it is too fat, too ugly, too sexual, too old, or too brown? That we teach one another, in thousands of blatant and quiet ways, to think we are shameful? That the body is something to be overcome, or beaten into submission, or despised? If I am supposed to hate my body, am I supposed to hate yours, too? I look around, and it certainly seems that way.
How do these voices telling us that we are supposed to hate our bodies affect our notions of how
we should care for the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the young? For mothers, soldiers, workers, immigrants, men, women? What we believe about our bodies affects how we treat other bodies, and how we treat one another’s bodies is how
we treat one another.
“You know what, Kerry?” Cynthia asked as she ran the sleeve of her nightgown across her eyes. “Even though I’m fat, even though I’ve had this cancer for 20 years, and I haven’t had any hair in I can’t remember how long — even though all that, I don’t hate my body. They were wrong, and they always have been. I think, because I thought I was going to die for so long, I figured it out. And that’s why I’ve been happy anyway. I just need to figure out how to get some caramel cake into the house.”
This is an edited extract from On Living: Dancing more, working less and other last thoughts by Kerry Egan (Penguin Life, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70)).