I will never be able to remember a time when my body was not something that needed to be fixed. You see, the thing about being born with cerebral palsy is the fact that your body will never ever be considered “normal.” There will always be this integral part of you that just doesn’t fit into what society deems acceptable. I was lucky, sure. It could have been worse. I still have all my limbs, walking is just a little harder for me. I get tired easily, my leg muscles are stiff all the time, my balance is pretty awful and sometimes people stare at me when I limp across a room. I’m 25 and admittedly, the staring still makes my skin prickle. I’ve learned to smile though, and nod in a way that says; “I’m here, I can see you and I’d like you to stop looking at me, please.” It works. Most of the time. Disability sort of teaches you to have a stern but internal gracefulness that often goes unnoticed unless it’s directed at you. I like to think it makes up for the fact that I couldn’t ever take a ballet class growing up.
One of the most annoying things about being a teenage girl was the way that people acted surprised when they saw me out with a large group of friends. Some well-meaning souls would even call it ‘inspiring’,that I went out and did things and went as far as to inform me of that in front of my friends, which was not only awkward but also kind of ignorant. I understand that it was a compliment, but it never really sat right with me. It always seemed that no matter how charming or intelligent I was, the fact that I limped but could still hold a lively conversation was surprising and revolutionary. (Here’s a gentle piece of advice, it’s wonderful that you see something triumphant in me living my life, but I’m honestly just trying to have a good evening. Just like you.)
And that ridiculous notion, the idea that it was surprising that I could still be a ‘real person’ despite disability stuck with me growing up. It unsettled and irked me. It felt as if the world was saying I wasn’t allowed to be pretty, well-dressed, or social — all because I was different. Like I didn’t have permission to be womanly or flirtatious because a physical trait that was beyond my control somehow made me unappealing. For the longest time, I was obsessed with being skinny, because God forbid I be disabled and fat. Now that I’ve gained weight, the insane dialogue I have with myself from the minute I wake up to the moment I fall asleep is only amplified.
I live every day with the idea that my body is chubby and wholly imperfect, that I’m special in that patronizing sense of the word. From birth, I’ve been trained to look at my form critically, to find the bits that don’t fit into what is beautiful and cut them out. Every morning, I get dressed and see the scars on my hips from the operation I had at 6 so I could stand up without a pair of crutches. I have six scars that tell me how my body is a champion, but society quietly tells me that it’s never going to win. Because I’m not skinny, and my toes are skew, and my knees turn in a little. On the bad days, I will listen to society and I will wear a dress that covers up my arms and skims over my belly and falls just below my turned in knees. Because my body isn’t perfect, so it must at least be acceptable in case someone decides to look at it. These are the things I have been told. These are the things I tell myself. Millions of people, of all shapes, creeds and sizes tell themselves the same thing too.
The most wonderful and difficult thing about having a conversation with yourself is that only you can change it. So when I start to pick myself apart, I tell myself that my body is perfect. Some days I can say that aloud without any trouble. But there are some days where I have to hiss it at my reflection through clenched teeth because I don’t believe it.
I tell myself that my body is beautiful because it works. My body is perfect because my heart is still beating, even though it got stomped on and punched by people who didn’t know any better. My body is perfect because I have my mother’s eyes and they’ve seen a lifetime of African sunsets. My body is perfect because my thin lips can still speak kindness and truth. My body is perfect because my chunky and dimpled thighs are at the top of my short legs that limped me across the stage at my college graduation. My body is perfect because my flabby arms carried my library books home when I was seven, and those books taught me how to write. My body is perfect because my tiny hands with those freakishly long fingers and broad wrists is writing this. Right now. My body is perfect because my slumped shoulders have held the weight of my crumbling and scary world but I am still standing. My stretch marked skin has nothing and everything to do with how beautiful I am because it is what holds the body that carries my everything together.
Remember all those times you didn’t feel good enough and somebody consoled you with “Don’t worry, you’re beautiful on the inside?” They were wrong. Because that implies that your body doesn’t matter, and that’s bullshit. Your body matters because it has carried you thus far, because it is the place you have lived while you have failed and succeeded and loved and lost and existed. It is a vessel, a book full of secrets and memories and experiences. It’s not a separate piece, an arbitrary part to be discarded while handing out consolation prizes dressed as compliments. It is a valuable part of the whole living and breathing complexity that is you.
The minute we stop separating our insides and outsides and condemning one or the other, we begin to feel whole. We begin to acknowledge the space we inhabit within ourselves and the world is unique. When we acknowledge our uniqueness, we begin to see ourselves as valuable. And when we see our value, we treat ourselves lovingly. The minute we love ourselves is golden.
These are things I tell myself.
These are the things I’ll tell you.
You are whole.
You are unique.
You are valuable.
You are loved.
You are golden.
You are perfect.