This past Saturday, Dwayne, the kids and I took a bike ride around the Battlefields.
I wore shorts for the ride because it was hot and I thought perhaps soaking up a bit of sun might help conceal the writhing sea monster veins coursing up my thighs.
I was, of course, vaguely aware of my legs the entire time. I don’t have a great relationship with them. They are disappear thin. And not the kind of sexy thin that models sport, but an oddly shaped thin. Isosceles triangles, inverted. Big block knees and fault lines of varicose veins.
I like to think that I’ve evolved beyond the social constrictions of attractiveness, that I am liberated enough to wear shorts and bathing suits from time to time. So I do. But who am I kidding? I’m always self-conscious.
Every turn, every pump of the pedals, I tried to beat away the body checking buzz at the back of my mind. I pushed myself to focus instead on the gorgeous sun, the fields waving green arms, the delicious breeze.
Soon we found ourselves at Culp’s Hill, and I followed Dwayne as he turned left and peddled into a steady incline. This was a new path we’d never biked before. I don’t think he realized just how steep and long this particular hill would be.
I flipped the gears into my favorite numbers, and pushed my way into the ride. When the hill bent up, I stood on my bike, focused my breath, and then pumped, pumped, pumped.
Surprisingly, I didn’t tire. This thrilled me. I doubled down, bent my chin to my chest and worked. One push. Two push, Three push. I shoved the pedals down toward the pavement, then felt them lift my feet again. I felt the muscles in my narrow calves contract, the pull of exertion above my knees.
Soon, I caught up to Dwayne. He and Noelle had gotten off their bike and were pushing up the hill. But still. I wasn’t tired. My legs felt good. My lungs clear. So I kept going. Up, up, up, hauling 30 pounds of Nathan behind me around three or four bends.
Finally, I reached the top of the hill. I sat back down and let my legs rest, sucked oxygen deep and coasted. Beside me a large SUV rolled by. I turned to see the husband and wife smiling and clapping. They had trailed me the entire way and watched me work my way to the top.
I beamed, then sailed down the rest of the hill contemplating just how strong my legs were in that moment, just how well they served me. And yet, despite this fact, I still struggle to find them beautiful. Society will never call them pretty.
Carol Heldman says in her Tedtalk, The Sexy Lie, that boys are taught to view their bodies as tools to master their environment, while girls are taught to view their bodies as projects to be improved. In other words, women are not taught to value their bodies based on how healthy their bodies are, or how strong they are, or how well their limbs serve them.
I know I’m not the only one who has internalized this emphasis on appearance. It’s a daily battle to switch the view finder on my body, to dismantle a value system that says my body is only as valuable as it is attractive.
As Nathan and I sped down the back of the hill, I scuttled the veiny images of my pale legs and chose to to speak a word of gratitude. “Thank you for a healthy body, strong legs.” I let the words carry behind me on the wind like party streamers.