Last summer my husband and I went for a hike up a local mountain. It wasn’t anything wild or daring, but it was new to me – and it had been some time since I’d done anything strenuous. Standing next to the car and looking up at where we were about to hike (which I found out later was actually behind me) felt daunting. I had no idea what to expect from my body; if I would have enough energy, strength, or stubbornness to make it to the top. Okay, well actually, I knew I would have enough of one of those things.
As we headed into the forest, I felt the slight temperature cool against my skin. The canopy of the old-growth reached overhead and all around us plant life flourished in its damp, dark shadow. Thick carpets of moss stretched out over boulders the size of cars that were scattered on either side of the trail as we made our way along the meandering – and misleading – flat approach.
Only a few minutes in, the trail rose abruptly in front of us and climbed up through the natural steps in eroded tree wells and large grippy rocks that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. This trail was not carefully manicured with special attention given to those short-of-leg, as I am. My husband’s long stride took him confidently and effortlessly up through these steep and muddy sections. To his credit, he always turned back to offer me a hand, but usually, I had already wedged a toe into some precarious nook, thrown an arm around the trunk of some young tree, and was inelegantly but effectively heaving myself up to the next level.
Grace has never been my strong suit.
I was ten when I was unceremoniously signed up for my first dance class. I had already gotten my period and I towered over the other students. I was gangly and awkward and everyone around me – I was pretty sure – had started dancing in the womb. Just old enough to understand and with an instructor just mean enough to tell me, it was clear that I didn’t belong, that my body didn’t move properly, that I was never going to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. I might have gone to only six classes and, yet, thirty years later and topped out at 5’4, I am still that uncomfortable in my body much of the time. The only thing that alleviates that feeling is being outdoors where being capable is valued over being poised – and I am capable as fuck.
There is very little for me that is as confidence-inspiring as problem-solving around the limitations of my body in the outdoors. Once, while hiking alone I came to an icy rock ledge that was too tall for me to get a leg up and too slippery for me to get any grip on. I was stuck but I wasn’t going back. I took off my huge pack, hoisted it onto the rock, and then flung myself penguin style onto the ice and skidded across it to where the trail continued. I was so elated – and then immediately disappointed that no one had witnessed this incredibly competent, yet extremely inelegant, act.
Multi-day hikes, where I haven’t showered, my hair is greasy and glued to my head like a bad combover, I’m slightly bloated because the dehydrated food never really gets to the right texture before I inhale it, and my clothing is chosen purely for function over fashion, are unequivocally the most beautiful and happiest I feel in my skin.
This backyard day hike with my husband was eliciting these feelings.
I was surprised to feel the strength in my legs as they pushed me further uphill, the capacity in my lungs, and the willingness of my mind. About halfway up we encountered the base of the sheer granite wall we would eventually come out atop and I marvelled at how it felt to weave my body through the overlapping and ill-placed boulders at its base. I placed one foot after the other at unusual angles and reached across to grasp a rough spine with just enough grip to pull me forward. I thought, ‘look at me go!’ And I mentally high-fived myself.
When we finally stepped out of the forest and onto the lookout, I was elated. The breeze swept over my damp skin and, although I was only standing at 800 meters, I truly felt on top of the world. I took in the view, then asked my husband to take a photo of me to commemorate my achievement. I stood there, proudly grinning for ear to ear thinking, ‘look at me in my fucking glory!’
Click. That click changed everything.
My husband flipped the screen around to show me the image. My legs weakened under me, my stomach turned in on itself. There I was, short and squat, gangly arms, rounded shoulders, thin hair slicked to my skull. There was my thick shape-less waist. There were my wide hips and tree-trunk legs that ran into my shoes without the benefit of a tapered ankle. The wind hadn’t just left my sails, my boat had sunk. I sat down and cried. Surrounded by nature, and an incredible vista as a reward for my accomplishment, all I could do was press my hands to my face and sob. My husband sat next to me and put an arm around me. He didn’t say anything, he just waited.
I’ve had these moments before in my life. Plenty of times in fact. School photos, engagement photos, family photos. Sometimes it’s been my weight, sometimes my posture, other times it’s my snaggle tooth that no one else ever seems to be able to see. But this time was unique in the abruptness. I had felt beautiful and then I had felt ugly, all in the second it took to click the shutter. The thoughts rushed in.
‘Look how fat you are.’
‘No one would find you attractive.’
‘Why do you eat so much. You don’t deserve to eat like that.’
‘You’re not as pretty as other women and definitely not as worthy of love.’
As my tears slowed down, so did the automatic thoughts that were cruelly filtering that image through decades of judgment that wasn’t mine. In the tiniest bit of silence that appeared between them, I heard a question. It wasn’t profound, it was simple.
‘Is this how you want to experience this moment?’
I wiped my face (probably on my husband’s shirt) and made a decision: I wasn’t going to waste my beautiful moment – my accomplishment – feeling that way. Completely to my surprise, it worked.
The abrupt shift from how I felt to what I thought had forced me to ask if I accepted those negative beliefs as truth. Those judgements had been so incongruent with the rest of my experience that it allowed me to starkly see them as something outside of myself, layers of judgement that I had internalized over thirty years since that first dance teacher told me I couldn’t move my body the way I was supposed to. The power of that specific shutter click was that it allowed me to set aside those voices and listen to my own – and my own said, ‘fuck yeah, look at what you’ve accomplished.’