Last night, I lay in bed naked. I don’t do that very often—I’m too awkward, not comfortable enough in my skin—but last night, I needed some alone time with my body. Under the covers, I rested my hands on my stomach, feeling the small hill of my abdomen and the quiet echo of my pulse. I touched my feet together, feeling the calluses on my big toes meet. I began to think about everything I’ve put my body through in my twenty, almost twenty-one, years, and I decided that I owe it thanks for persevering with me for so long, for safely carrying my heart and kidneys and liver and other organs, for stretching with me as I grew, for being stronger than I often realize. So here it is: an essay in appreciation of all the things my body’s done.
My body has survived a lifetime of athletics—soccer, softball, one unsuccessful season of middle-school basketball, one disastrous attempt at ballet. It has suffered broken fingers, bloody noses, sprained wrists, bruised shins, chipped teeth, and black eyes. It has endured ice packs, splints, stitches, and trips to emergency rooms and walk-in clinics. It has suffered pulled muscles and dislocated joints. It has withstood all this with only the slightest of scars to show for it: a few tears, a matching set of rug burns on my knees, one or two swollen knuckles, and a set of front teeth made up not of calcium and phosphorous but of porcelain and plastic. My body shows no signs of its well-intentioned childhood abuse.
My body has survived an eating disorder, a sad and scary time in which I deprived it of the nutrients it needed, consuming nothing but Yoplait and gum for days and then forcing it back up. My body cried out to me then, protesting in the form of fatigue, dizzy spells, headaches, and protruding hipbones, but I didn’t listen for several months. It weathered this storm, too, though, and now, I accept its curved shoulders and rounded stomach. Now, it fights much easier, healthier battles: hours spent puffing away on the elliptical or pounding pavement with my running shoes or motoring my bike up steep hills. These hours make my thighs ache and my calves cramp, but my body and I are proud of each other at the end.
My body has survived the ingestion of substances, sometimes illegal and mostly unhealthy, that I have fed—and, no doubt, will continue to feed—it in my adolescent quest for altered states of mind. It has pushed countless ounces of alcohol through its bloodstream, conquering and expelling the booze with a moment of nausea when I roll out of bed. It has outlasted periodic spells of smoking, during which I eagerly draw nicotine and tar into my lungs, relishing the biting taste and the heat of a flame against my lips. My body politely reminds me of the injuries I have caused it with a fleeting raspy voice. It has endured, in a similarly civil manner, everything from caffeine pills and diet pills to weed and energy drinks, things that speed its heart up and then slow it down, things that send chemicals into its brain.
My body has survived the indignity of my dissatisfaction with it for quite some time. It has withstood hours, days, in the sun without protection as I wait to see it darken. It has, in fact, withstood the harsh, false ultraviolet light of tanning beds to the same end. In response, it has turned red, it has peeled, it has prickled painfully beneath hot water in the shower and chafed tenderly under the softest of clothes, but it has recovered. It has suffered ointments that dry it out, sometimes leaving unintended patches of scaly white across its cheeks and nose, layered with lotions that rehydrate it in my continuous quest for an unblemished complexion. It has endured the scrapes and occasional cuts of sharp razors on its legs and groin and underarms, and it has meekly protested only with small, temporary red bumps. It forgives me my disloyalty; it is not offended by my discontent.
Last night, I lay in bed naked, and I thought of all these things my body has endured. It is resilient. It is elastic, flexible, pliant, supple. It is sturdy and durable and tough. I wanted to thank my body, and I ran my fingers across the fine, light hairs on my arms and felt my short nails, bitten to the quick, on my skin. This catalogue of offenses has made me think: I will respect my body more, now, because I know it will not be this resilient for long. I cannot promise that I will protect it fully in the same way it protects me; I cannot promise I will never bruise or starve or intoxicate or alter it again. But when I do, I will thank it for allowing me to do so, and appreciate the knowledge that it will recover, and listen more closely to its small noises of protest. I will try to thank my body every day.