Hello World, I am re-posting this piece today because I am teaching a class on body autonomy to some undergraduate students and was reminded of the ways in which I try to love my body unconditionally. Unconditional body love is not something I have achieved, but it is something towards which I strive. Writing letters to my body, body-love dances, and nourishing my body are ways that I try to undo years of body hate, body shame, and body sabotage. This is just one more way that I try to queer up the world: Instead of trying to beat our bodies into some “ideal” shape as prescribed by our ill culture, why not celebrate all the ways we are different? It’s hard enough just BEING IN a body! Let’s be gentle with them today.
While teaching dance to a group of children, I became quite hot and pulled the bottoms of my dance pants up over my thighs, thereby exposing my calves. I do this frequently in both classes and rehearsals, but had a novel experience today when a 10-year old stopped dancing, pointed at my calf and said “WHAT IS THAT?” I looked down thinking I might see blood or a giant bruise that I did not know about. I just saw my leg. She walked closer to me and said “THAT!” pointing again at my calf. “This?” I asked, tapping my gastrocnemius which I must admit is rather bulging. “Yes,” she said. “What is that?”
“It’s my calf,” I replied. “It’s muscle.”
By this point, the other children in the room had all walked over to get a good look at their teacher’s deformity. Here are some of the comments that ensued:
“I’ve never seen a muscle that big.”
“WOW! That is INTENSE!”
“Are you sure it’s supposed to look like that?”
“That doesn’t actually look healthy.”
I have been the target of “My god, your calves are huge” comments for as long as I can remember. Considering the fact that I have been jumping around in dance studios since the age of 4, it’s no wonder that my muscles are large… AND I am genetically predisposed to have monstrous calves (although no one else in my family has them, so go figure). I think I came out of the womb looking like my legs had swallowed melons.
When I was 13 years old, I was practicing a presentation with some friends in the hallway at my middle school, wearing a new pair of leggings. Some boys passed by, pointed at my legs and called me “Popeye.” I cried in the bathroom for the rest of the afternoon.
At 19 years old, I was crossing the street in New York City one summer night, wearing a pair of shorts. A man crossing in the other direction, stopped mid-stride in the middle of the street and said “HOLY GOD, YOU COULD PLAY FOR THE NBA WITH THOSE CALVES.” I didn’t eat for weeks.
A few weeks ago, my grandmother looked at my calves and said “goodness, are your legs swollen?” When I replied, “no Granny, those are just my calves” (which I have had to say on many occasions), she became flustered and shocked and finally replied “well I certainly do not have big calves. I have always had slim legs.” Good job, Granny. She then proceeded to tell members of my family that they really needed to get a good look at my calf muscles.
After my students’ initial dismay at the size of my legs today, I redirected them to the task at hand: Discovering how their bodies needed to move during our warm-up. However, I saw several of them dancing around the room while still trying to get a good look at my bulbous legs. I admit, my face felt hot for a moment. A part of me wanted to tug my pants back down over my lower legs but I thought “No, I will not be ashamed of my body.” And I danced with my students with my giant calves exposed. I also made comments like “All the better to jump with!” And “Don’t you know these calves carry me up mountains?” And (gulp) “I love my huge legs. They are prized parts of my body.”
I can honestly say these things at this point in my life, but not without effort. Just a few years ago, this interaction would have sent me to the gym for hours and hours of extra cardio. I would have gone on a special “calf-reducing” diet in the hopes of shrinking the offending muscles (neither of which would have worked, mind you). I have been on every diet known to the human species. In my adult life I have weighed 105lbs, 140lbs and everything in between. And while the rest of my body might grow or shrink, my calves have mostly maintained their shape.
Now, in my mid-thirties, my students cannot focus on their dance lesson because they are distracted by the size of my calves. While I am not thrilled with this particular theme in my life, I refuse to feel body shame. So I am here to say I LOVE MY BIG GIANT CALVES! They take me hiking up mountains. They ride my bike all over town. They dance and dance and dance and dance which is my heart, my passion, and my reason for being. They do not succumb to societal pressure to be small. They are big, loud, and queer! They do not apologize and neither shall I. My muscular legs are downright awesome and I celebrate them. AND, when I age and my muscles start to atrophy I will be happy to have a surplus that will help me remain strong and mobile well into my 90’s… and maybe even my 100’s. So there.