Body language

Up we soared to impossible heights, our hair whipping our faces and sticking to our teeth. We flailed our tar-black soles, we laughed into the wind, we dangled there forever. And then we plummeted back down to earth. The ground below, a dark undulating sea, stretched wide and swallowed us whole. Then, with our shrieks, launched us back up.

We flew and fell like this, tirelessly. Until we discovered that we could shoot up even higher, and maybe touch a cloud or even the moon, if we stunted someone else’s jump before they even took off. “I stole your bounce!” we called from the top of the sky. Breathless. Triumphant. During one of these frantic trampoline days, the first words told me that my body wasn’t just for jumping. Instead, they screamed, it was meant to be compared.

“Her legs are hairier than mine!” squealed my neighbour’s pointing finger.

That summer, sitting on a hill beside my friend who liked Twizzlers, I’d tried my tongue on it, this newfound body language. Tentatively, pulling up roots with my fists, I’d pointed out that I was fat. It was more of a question than anything else, but our freshly-mown world had no oxygen for my attempts at trampoline talk. My friend’s eyebrows only converged in confusion. No you’re not, she’d said, and I believed her. We rolled down the hill, grass in our giggling mouths.

Then I transferred to a school where the girls straightened their hair and owned the right clothes and knew the best corners for kissing. These girls were fluent in my neighbour’s dialect. Every word was spoken in the comparative, every girl defined in relation to: prettier than, skinnier than, cooler than. In the locker room before PE, each girl watched the others’ crouching bodies and declared the details that made her own inadequate. It was a ritual contest in self-scrutiny — the more defects you could list, the prettier, the skinnier, the cooler you were. I learned quickly, stuttering my own version of this venom. Mostly afraid someone would suspect my quiet blasphemy, my audacious certainty that there was nothing really wrong with my body. I’d been naked before, but never this exposed. I took to wearing a tank top under my shirt.

My new best friend was the one to finally capsize me. We were on the swim team together, always either encased in skin-tight suits or stripping them off. There was nowhere to hide, and everything to see. My friend, drenched in the blurred, bloated distortions of her underwater vision, walked into the changing room, pulled my head under the surface, and showed me how to see.

She had her mother’s spindly legs, and I didn’t. My legs weren’t long at all, actually, and they weren’t thin; but they were hilarious. A comedic flaw that filled her goggles with tears. “If not for your legs,” she lamented, “you would be a perfect angel.” Her words echoed, their laughter like chlorine on my skin. Pungent and un-scrubbable. My legs were a palpable stench that I could never shower off. A deficiency that anyone could smell if they drew too close.

Eventually I found my land legs on the tennis court, where staccato feet drummed a different beat. Power was praised. My legs propelled. I became re-acquainted with my anatomy — skin, muscle, bone — not as dissectible cadaver, but as intricate machinery. I was part of a self-sustaining system growing stronger with every movement, and my beauty sprang from my ability to work with it. To partake in the miracle that was my own physical grace.

But then the very part of my body that I extolled and adored — its meticulous functioning — vaporized.

My body looked in the mirror, inspected her own reflection, and decided that her thyroid cells did not belong. She identified herself as an intruder, and she led the attack. (An act not too disparate from our own autoimmune disorder of self-hatred: the way we select arbitrary parts and wish they’d never been there in the first place. How we seek to destroy constituents that are inextricably Us and Ours.)

Enlisting all of my forces in her civil war, my treasonous body crumpled my routine. I could hardly stand, so I rode my bike to class. I took baths. I stopped shaving. I watched as my stomach rolled into itself, and counted the little hairs as they grew down my shins. These physical changes flagged a country I no longer controlled, a landscape overgrown with forced neglect. I scrubbed my shoulders, my toes, and there they were — the boy on the trampoline, the best friend in the locker room — shrieking and cackling with renewed fervor. My body had rendered herself useless; I could no longer take solace in her strength. But when I looked to see if she was beautiful anyway, theirs were the only words I had for answers.

I didn’t need to be told that I was more than just a body; I knew that I had my mind, my family, my potential for good. But I was also a body. The microcosm of adolescence had taught me that much. And if bodies were cultural currency, I wanted to make sure mine was backed by something more than public consensus. I needed to know that she held inherent worth, value independent of market fluctuations.

I needed to come up with an alternative dialogue. So I re-entered into conversation with myself.

Alone, I hung out with my naked body. I made and held eye contact with my sharp angles, the fragments I usually avoided. The parts of me that had, at some point, been deemed somehow wrong. Whose very existence offended. Like my prominent pubic bone, or the hairs that newly curled around my nipples, sprouted under my arms, and flowed down my legs. The way my breasts spread when I lay down. How my nose swayed slightly left. I didn’t wave my list around in a middle school locker room, touting it as proof of humility. I went down each column, bone by misfit bone.

I stroked my most untouchable edges and committed them to memory. Hoping to familiarize myself with my skeletal map until I knew it like the back of my hand, or until I knew it by heart. Until no part was particularly remarkable, and my topography wasn’t hierarchy, but whole. I hoped there was wisdom there, tucked away between the ridges of my most familiar mystery.

I collected nudes for their own sake. I toyed with the illusory permanence of momentary capture, the stories one could tell with a pose. How a shrug could make a breast wilt or perk. How an elbow awry, a collarbone jut, could mutate my ribcage into alien architecture. These weren’t photographs for distribution; this was curation for my own consumption. A reassertion that I, before anyone, got to expose and explore my body in all her contortions.

And quietly, I recovered shaky peace. I relished a maybe-obvious but basic truth: that this was my body and not anyone else’s. That whether it wilted or perked, ran or couldn’t, it was still, always, undeniably mine. This wasn’t proprietorship, but companionship. Occupancy. This distillation, my corporeal relationship stripped and laid bare, resisted adjectives. There was no comparison. It was a bounce that couldn’t be stolen — because it was the insistent beat of my own unwavering heart.

Emilie Kneifel is a third-year COGS student.