Illustration: Guy Billout
It slams into you like a kick in the head. You're browsing through some snapshots, you see a shot of some old lady's hands, then suddenly—wham!—you realize those hands are yours. You dash jauntily up a staircase only to stop halfway, breathing in asthmatic-bulldog gasps. Wham! Overnight, like Germany invading Poland, your girlish waist expands into menopause tummy. Wham! And that's if you're lucky. Carol wasn't: She got sick, had to take steroids, and gained 50 pounds in a month. Teri finally learned to love her breasts, only to lose one to cancer. Samantha developed alopecia, shedding every hair on her body, and is now waiting for it to return. Wham! Wham! Wham!
These wallops to self-esteem involve not only the nasty shock of seeing our physical flaws but—much worse—the growing awareness that our bodies are mutable and mortal. I get walloped in the self-esteem approximately every 15 minutes, so lately I've been looking for coping skills. I've found many, some of which work and some of which don't. The ones that don't work seem absolutely logical. The ones that do sound weird. I'll discuss the "logical" methods first, hoping to pitch you into sufficient despair to try the "illogical" ones.
Dealing with Wallops: Traditional Approach
Some days, it seems as if many of us are locked in mortal combat with physical imperfection. We guzzle fish oil like Kool-Aid; hire militant personal trainers; have our fat vacuumed out, new breasts implanted, skin sliced and spliced; attack all the issues that keep us from matching our cultural concept of beauty. If you're in the midst of fighting this war, I congratulate you on your courage and optimism and regretfully remind you that you're losing.
The problem with "fixing" our imperfect, damaged, or aging bodies is that we can't. We may win a few battles, but the war always goes to entropy. This is not something our society readily acknowledges. Our advertising shouts, "Here's how to fight aging!" not "You're going to die; get used to it!" But making peace with the enemy—totally accepting our physical condition at any given moment—is the only way to win the conflict. How do we do that? Conquer new territory in our brains.
View What's Left, or Choose What's Right
At the age of 37, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke that damaged the left side of her brain. As she lost the linear, verbal thinking of the left hemisphere to the wordless sense-perception of her right brain, Taylor experienced something she later called Nirvana. "I felt enormous and expansive," she explained to the audience at a recent conference (you can see her talk online at ted.com). "My spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria."
Now, there have been times when I've felt "enormous and expansive...like a great whale," but this only caused me to diet obsessively. Like most people, I generally see my body through the critical, socialized judgments of my verbal mind. We modern folk call this left-brain perspective "reality." Before the stroke, Taylor the scientist knew herself as "a single solid individual separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you." But when her left brain shut down, she found herself part of a connected universe in which, she said, "we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful."
Wise people from every cultural tradition have experienced this euphoric awareness. But in our environment, their more subtle teachings tend to be drowned out by commercials shrieking, "Fifty's the new 40!" However, after a self-esteem wallop—in the moment we find a new varicose vein or notice that gravity is slowly pulling our faces right off our heads—we may tune our desperate ears to the words of the wise.
We Hear You!