Try a Little Tenderness

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During the week, Husband Mike has a day job in which talks to a lot of very ill people, with ailments you have never heard of and probably don’t want to know about. But he comes home and tells me about them because otherwise he’d lose his mind from sadness and fear. There are so many ways to get sick, you guys, and so many of them will just blindside you. We talk about them, and we mourn, and we say how grateful we are not to be ill ourselves.

Last week he came home and said, “I’ve found a new thing I don’t want to be.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Old,” he said.

I romanticize old-ladydom, and spend an abnormally large amount of time gazing at old couples and guessing which ones Mike and I will resemble when we reach that age. And as an anxious person who prefers sleep to practically every other activity, I am REALLY looking forward to retirement. But I am finally starting to understand the true power and weight of age. It is not going to be a cakewalk. There will be pain and illness and fear of the unknown, loss and silence and irreversible change.

And yet there is a woman at our gym who makes me wonder. I wonder about her in the sense of being curious, but I wonder at her, too. She is a small, very thin Asian woman who I’d estimate to be in the neighborhood of 88 or 89. She wears her straight white hair in a long bob with bangs, and boldly dons her crop tops and shorts even in the winter. And I’ll be damned if she doesn’t attend every aerobics class at my gym, every day of the week. And I mean the high-impact ones, too. She lags behind the spry young things bounding around the studio, but she keeps up pretty well. She’s never more than a half beat behind. And although she never looks gleeful, you can tell from her expression that she is pleased to be there, moving and grooving to the brain-busting techno beats. She is serene and quietly glad. And she is wrinkly as a living raisin, and too small for her own loose skin, and I can see her bones quite clearly. And she is BEAUTIFUL to me.

Here is a woman who has cared for herself, and who continues to do so. And it seems to me that she has both cared for herself in the sense of eating right and exercising and avoiding heroin and wearing a bike helmet, AND in the sense of being loving with herself. She is a loving person overall, with affection to spare and kindness for anyone who speaks with her. But I can tell that she keeps a special reserve of love for her own body. She respects it, and nurtures it, and cares for it. And and although her head knows that health and fitness are important, it’s her heart that does the driving.

The most important psychological shift that happened after I wrote my letter to my body was that I finally unearthed some feelings of tenderness toward my own physical self. Most of my life I’ve felt nothing but feelings of frustration and hatred toward my body. After two years of grueling South Beach hell, I felt some pride at how skinny I’d finally become … but there was no real tenderness there. This was different. This was accepting the fact that I’m GOING to gain some weight this winter and acknowledging that it’s what my body needs, instead of dreading it. This was looking at my physical quirks with gentle curiosity about their genetic benefits, instead of just hating them. This was seeing myself as the healthy, strong, whole body that I am, and being grateful for it.

And I think about this woman at my gym, and her example makes me see that finding a way to maintain those feelings of tenderness may help me remain vibrant and energetic well into my dotage. It won’t keep me from getting sick or losing loved ones or wrinkling up, but it may help me stay healthier and happier longer. It may keep me biking and lifting weights even when I’m living in a nursing home. And it will certainly help me be a kinder human being.

We hate our bodies. We are TRAINED to do it, and it is a tough habit to break. And even though that hatred may force us to make lifestyle changes and choices that help us to become, technically, healthier, the hatred itself is so harmful. So, so harmful. And I know you know that. But there are many things we know that bear reminding.

Can you be tender toward your own body? Can you find a way to cherish its youth and strength, and look with pleasure on its quirks? Maybe you can’t today, or tomorrow, or next week. But work toward it. It could be the secret wonder drug that science will never find. And even if it isn’t, what could be bad about trading hatred for a little tenderness?

Image courtesy DeItasly.

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  • Christy

    I’ve only been reading your blog for a few days and reallyl like it. Thanks for this post. Everyone need to be reminded that there are much more important things in life than being super-skinny. As a size 4 (pre-baby), I thought I was fat. I led a sedentary lifestyle and had terrible eating habits. Now as a size 8 (post-baby) I have learned to love my body, because I am healthier and stronger.

  • fresca

    Yep.
    You know the Otis Redding song, “Try a Little Tenderness,” right?

    Hating our bodies is like taking our life energy and throwing it in the toilet. The payoff is crap.
    Soon we will be old, if we’re not already, and no one will care what we look like, they’ll only respond to our soul.

    Thanks for these wise reflections.

  • Anjeanette

    I know. It’s so hard when you want to stay eternally youthful, yet we forget that staying happy is more important.

  • K.Line

    Coming to terms with age is a tough one. I used to do yoga with an 80 year old woman who brought so much grace to the practice it was inspiring. So I don’t think illness is a given (while, of course, it is a possibility). As you very accurately suggest, it’s so important to live happily with what you’ve got right now.

  • enc

    I’m grateful for all my body can do. I get paid to work out, and I plan to keep up working out until I can no longer lift a finger to do it.

  • editor

    hmmm, i really like and appreciate my perfectly imperfect body. i’m aware of its strengths and flaws, but i consider it more as a sum than as parts.
    and i have a definite interest/fondness for anyone older than me. i view their age as a beauty asset, for sure.
    that being said, i have a friend who works in dialysis, and her advise to me, given out on a regular basis, is… “don’t.get.old.”
    i think i will, get old, that is, but i’ll do it aware of the pros and cons and enjoy it for what it is, which is life. better than the alternative. 😉

  • Hammie

    Wow, what an inspiration. And extra points for the aerobics classes too – whereas the “active retirement” stereotype in asian communities would be Tai Chi or outdoor ballroom dancing – which is also charming. I am wondering if this lady also has a whole other active life, maybe her own blog? But I bet she didnt just start doing this as she got older, I bet it is a lifestyle that she maintained.
    I think if at some point like enc. says, we can enter middle age with an active healthy body, we have a much better chance of bringing it with us into our older years.
    Lovely Post Sal, I will remind myself of this lady all day.
    xx

  • Imelda Matt

    I often look at gruff old men outside the supermarket and want to run screaming to the closest bottle of youth!

  • casey

    I really appreciate your points about liking one’s own body. (These frequent posts are really helping me to actually like, in some small way, how I look! hehe!) Especially about aging! Even at a tender 23, I’m well aware that this stage is only temporary. Perhaps it’s because my parents are now in their 50s that I’m starting to see how age begins to take it’s toll on the human body. And how having a full, happy life and staying active and curious can really help mitigate the worst side effects of age. Having watched several grandparents just “vegetate” through retirement, I’m determined to keep up a healthy, happy lifestyle to ease my aging self. Heck, I want to be like that lady at your gym that is in her 80s and still going! 😀

  • Spandexpony

    Beautiful post! I romanticize getting older as well, but I think it’s having to watch yourself get older (as opposed to magically waking up 80 and spry) is the hard part. I just found out I have a chronic illness and have to take medication for life, and I’m so disillusioned because I didn’t expect to have some sort of everyday pill routine until well into my 40s or 50s! It really is a brief sliver of time that our bodies our flawless, young and painfree, and sometimes not even then! Le sigh! But I try to take pride in the little things I can do everyday: climb the steep 4 flights to my apartment several times a day, bike like crazy, walk for endless hours, smell things, make things, take care of things. I wish you would set up an interview with the Ancient One!