When I found out I was pregnant, I was training for a half marathon. I was also swimming regularly, about five times a week, sometimes with a club. I hadn’t been that fit in years; maybe I had never been that fit. I certainly remember thinking, after I’d peed on the obligatory stick, that my body was working better than it ever had before. Athletically, reproductively, it was doing exactly what it was supposed to do.
I asked my doctor if I should still run the half marathon, which was about a week away. He shrugged. He said it was up to me; it would probably be fine. But he also said that maybe it wasn’t worth it. That if, on the very off chance everything wasn’t fine, I might never forgive myself, even though there was nothing to forgive. And I thought: that’s probably true. I never would.
So I didn’t run the half marathon. As it turned out, I came down with a nasty cold that weekend anyway. I stayed in bed all Sunday, watching documentaries about pro surfers and Ethiopian runners, admiring the way they seemed to so fully understand and command their bodies. I worried about whether the mild fever I’d had for a few hours on Friday night could cause complications. I worried about what I’d been eating, whether I should keep doing tumble turns at the pool, whether it was too soon to be worrying at all.
The other thing my doctor had said, when we spoke, was that miscarriage was common in early pregnancy and that in most cases, when it happened, it was unavoidable, the result of chromosomal abnormalities in the embryo that would have made it unviable anyway.
I worried that even with all my worrying, I wouldn’t be able to control anything.
A few weeks ago, scrolling through my Facebook feed, I noticed a photograph posted by a well-meaning acquaintance who has decided to eat healthy and get fit and wants, I assume, to inspire her friends to do the same. The photograph featured a girl standing in her underwear, showing off a six-pack and long, strong legs. She was glistening, as if she’d been doused in oil. A caption, stamped across the bottom of the image, read: “Determination…”
For awhile, every day or so, another such photo would pop up in my newsfeed. I understand that these images are meant to be motivating, and also that they’ve been widely critiqued for promoting unattainable beauty ideals and privileging appearance over health. And while they don’t motivate me, I do find them weirdly haunting. The implication seems to be that there is some end point, some ultimate self to work (out) towards. In one photo, for instance, a girl hikes up her shirt and inspects her defined but still demure abs. The caption says: “When you’re struggling: imagine your dream body.”
Your dream body? It’s an idea that seems equal parts alluring, dangerous, and ridiculous, but the juxtaposition of the spiritual or intangible “dream” with the physical, material “body” nevertheless intrigues me: what body, I find myself wondering, do I dream of?
In a literal sense, I dream of an impossible body, a body that breathes underwater. This is a recurring dream, one that I’ve had for many years now: I’m swimming laps, as I do most mornings, when I realize that I don’t have to roll my head to the side to breathe, because the water is like oxygen, and I can inhale and exhale exactly as I would on land.
No amount of imagining, let alone working out, will make this amphibious body possible. But is coveting a model’s rock-hard abs and long legs any different? Assuming these characteristics is as unlikely as breathing underwater: my legs will never be longer than they are today, I can’t change the foundations on which I’m built, I can’t remake myself completely. Still, controlled change of some kind is clearly possible; the body, as these glossy, manipulated images successfully suggest, is a continual work in progress.
No one knows this better than the serial exerciser, who engages in regimented, often rigorous physical activity as a form of literal recreation, that is, re-creation. Through exercise, as the geographer John Bale puts it, “The body is re-created so that it works better.” After a few weeks of repeating the same actions, those actions become easier; the body adapts to new knowledge. Running 10k no longer feels like a feat of inhuman strength; doing 10 push-ups becomes possible; swimming 1,000 meters is not enough.
Sometimes at the pool I’ll see someone who looks more or less like me: a woman of comparable height, weight, and age, swimming much faster than I can. Why can’t I do that with my own body? I always wonder. And part of me believes, in these moments of envy, that perhaps I can, at least in theory: I’m faster and stronger than I was a year ago, after all; I’m making progress, and maybe someday I will wake up to discover that I am the ultimate version of myself, as fast and lithe as the fastest and lithest bodies in the pool.
Another part of me, though, understands that while repetition is key to re-creation, there are other factors at play. The similarly sized and shaped woman in the other lane may seem comparable to me, but she has her own intellectual and emotional life, her own interior physical geography. Her relationship to swimming is not the same as mine. She has a longer history with it, perhaps, a different mentality, a more pressing motivation, a deeper understanding of her own limbs and lungs. These invisible factors render her able to put on a spurt of speed that seems impossible to me. There is only so much control we can exercise over ourselves, and only so much comparison it’s possible to draw.
The bodies in the motivational imagery on Facebook are fairly uniform: hard, taut, symmetrical, like machines produced in the assembly line of weight benches and treadmills, calling to mind Mark Greif’s Against Exercise: “The exercise world…expresses a will, on the part of each and every individual, to discover and regulate the machine-like processes in his own body.” Nothing can make this process of discovery and regulation less individual, even if one body outwardly resembles another. Ultimately, it’s a lonely business, being in a body.
Perhaps the “dream body,” then, is an expression of yearning for things we cannot have: for the machine to be flawless, smooth, well-oiled, just like the other machines, for ceaseless efficiency, for certainty and predictability. What body do I really dream of? The one whose machine-like processes are normal, the one that’s fertile and bears children without complaint, the one that doesn’t get prematurely sick, that ages gracefully, that never reveals its own wildness, but remains comfortably within my control, or comfortably controls my own whims.
An underlying theme of a lot of these images, and their corresponding message, is “discipline.” This is a tricky word. On the one hand, it implies an admirable trait: we admire, for example, the discipline of athletes, their devotion to their sports and their bodies. On the other hand, discipline is sometimes more about deprivation than dedication, as Roxane Gay has recently elucidated:
Part of disciplining the body is denial. We want but we dare not have. To lose weight or maintain our ideal bodies, we deny ourselves certain foods. We deny ourselves rest by working out. We deny ourselves peace of mind by remaining ever vigilant over our bodies. We withhold from ourselves until we achieve a goal and then we withhold from ourselves to maintain that goal.
When it comes to the female body, this idea of physical discipline is often tied to maintaining or striving for a certain appearance. “For women,” writes the Australian novelist Charlotte Wood, “so much exercise promotion is also the promotion of self-hatred: we should exercise because we’re fat, our bodies are the wrong shape, we’re sagging, we’re aging, we’re undesirable.”
Discipline in the sense of denial, then, becomes a way for women to take back control while simultaneously giving in to societal pressures: through withholding we can make different, more acceptable, versions of ourselves manifest.
The counter to this seems to be a celebration of what the body can do, rather than (just) of what it looks like. This is maybe most obvious in competitive sport, which is supposed to be all about the body’s abilities: as spectators we are impressed and entertained by how fast, how strong, how finely-tuned a truly disciplined, truly exceptional body can be.
And yet even in this context, and particularly where women are concerned, what the body looks like is still noticed, commented on, judged; a recent study, for instance, indicated that a high number of elite British sportswomen “fear that the way they look is judged to be more important than what they achieve in their sporting careers.” I’m reminded of Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli’s response to John Inverdale’s comments last year that she was “never going to be a looker”:
“I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No, I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”
In other words, the body’s performance is independent of its appearance; whether a commentator finds Bartoli attractive or not has no bearing on her ability to beat every other player in the tournament.
Sport is also, though, very much about what the body can’t do: in order to have a winner you must also have a loser. Someone is always, in the end, slower, weaker, less able. Often loss is circumstantial, or even entirely random; it’s about luck, fortune, superstition, things we don’t completely understand, things that discipline can’t impact.
At seven weeks pregnant, I miscarry. Put more accurately: I begin to miscarry. This is a process that happens differently for different women, and for me it is quiet, understated, slow. One morning I wake up and feel, it’s strange to say, like myself again – not weary, not queasy – and that evening I experience mild pain, a quick gush of blood which soon slows to a trickle, and a sense of foreboding.
Maybe it’s nothing, my partner says. You don’t know yet. No, I tell him. It’s something. I know. I make an appointment for an emergency scan. The soonest they can see me is in two days, and in the interim period I carry on as usual: I go to meetings, answer emails, run errands. It’s not as hard to do this as I would have imagined: after all, what choice do I have? But in the moments between tasks, dread is my companion.
The scan reveals an embryo with no heartbeat. The doctor schedules me for another scan the following week – just to be sure, not to encourage hope, she stresses. She is very young, soft-spoken, apologetic. I am indescribably sad, but I also feel something like relief at the raw edges of the sadness. The terrible thing, the thing that I was worried about, has happened: I no longer need to worry.
To minimize the risk of infection, the doctor tells me not to swim. I am thrown by the disturbance to my routine, the removal of the most obvious coping mechanism I have for dealing with what is essentially an entirely uncontrollable physical situation. I miss the ritual of swimming, the release. The shape of my days changes: I wake late, I go for slow walks at lunchtime, bundled up against the wind and the rain, and in the evenings I find myself full of strange energy. What can I do to relieve the tension? I think. How can I regain a sense of control? Go for a swim; this is how to right the world when it’s been tipped sideways.
I find I am concerned, too, and in no small way, about what will happen to the way my body looks. I don’t want to lose fitness, but maybe even more pressingly, I don’t want to lose the public indicators of my fitness: the muscle, the shape of my arms and legs, the things that say to other people that I’m disciplined, my body is under control.
But my body is not under control. Even the miscarriage does not naturally progress quickly and smoothly enough, and eventually surgical intervention becomes necessary. I am scheduled for a D and C: a routine operation, low risk, quick, I’m assured. D stands for dilation, a widening of the cervix; C stands for curettage, a scraping of the walls of the uterus. They knock you out with general anesthetic and fifteen minutes later you’re done.
In the days before the procedure I become irrationally worried about the general anesthetic. What if I have a bad reaction, what if I don’t wake up, what if, what if: still more things I can’t control. When I meet the anesthetist I tell her I’m nervous. She walks me through what to expect. “I really want to ease your concerns,” she says, serious but sympathetic, almost like a friend, even though we will probably never see each other again. As they prep me for the procedure, set up an IV, she asks me questions about my PhD. I’m researching lap swimmers, I tell her. It seems like an absurd thing to research. But I go on talking about pools and bodies and routines, and then I’m asleep, and I dream that I’ve finally figured out how to structure my thesis, and when I wake up I am momentarily giddy.
“Do you feel any pain?” a nurse asks me; “No!” I cry, almost ecstatic. “I feel drunk!” In a few weeks, I’ll stop bleeding, the hormones will leave my body, it will be almost as if none of this ever happened.
During this period of recovery, I think often of all the kinds of things the body can sometimes – but not always – do: set world records; reproduce; recover from open heart surgery; adapt to dramatic, traumatic changes. I think of the things we cannot control; of the irrationality of illness, which seems to strike out of nowhere, like an enemy crouched in the forest, but which actually comes from within; of friends struggling to conceive, whom biology has seemingly betrayed. I think of the thing my doctor told me when the miscarriage was confirmed – “there’s nothing you could have done” – and of how there really wasn’t.
Sometimes no amount of discipline can influence a body. Sometimes discipline is just an excuse to punish ourselves: I will make my muscles ache and my lungs scream for air, because I am not yet a good enough version of myself. And in the end we cannot control ourselves, we have no choice, we are at the mercy of our wild, untamable bodies.
Geographers write about what the poet Adrienne Rich called “the geography closest in – the body,” and the inseparability of the body from our experience of place: we sense places, are bodily present in them, see them, hear them, smell them, move within them. “Geographical experience,” writes Paul Rodaway, “is fundamentally mediated by the human body, it begins and ends with the body.”
I know my local pool through my body: through the feel of the water on my skin, the smells – chlorine, a faint and inexplicable whiff of sewage – that settle on the edge of my nostrils, the years of habitual movement through the place. I undress and pull on my tight suit and tight cap and walk to the showers and stand under them and stretch my arms, touch my toes; I go to the edge of the pool, I jump into the shallow end, I push off from the wall, I flip at the other end. I swim up and down and up and down. I know the distance that I’ve done because I’ve counted laps in my head, but I also know it more intuitively from the tiredness in my muscles, the way my body feels.
Geographers write, too, about the idea of place as something fluid, processual, always-becoming, “not a given but something immanent, forever forming, and in progress.” The body is a place – the first place, the place we must make peace with – and like any other place, it is in a constant state of flux; it changes from moment to moment, year to year, gets older, bigger, smaller, more and less capable of performing certain tasks. Not that long ago, my body was capable of running 13.1 miles, of swimming 3,000 meters without complaint; not that long ago, my body was actually hosting another body, or the beginnings of one.
Now everything is different, and everything will be different again someday, and different again, and different again. How much of this I can directly influence I do not know: the body demands active ownership and management, but it also disobeys and disregards, decays, betrays.
Perhaps the most geographically dissonant experience of all, then, is to be alienated from our own bodies, to feel out of place in the one place we can’t leave. Exercise feeds on this dissonance. It is vanity, it is cultural pressure, it is fear that drives me to swim: if I don’t, I’ll be the wrong shape, the wrong size, the wrong me. But it is also a method of assertion, a way of being physically present, a way of channeling that urge to deny or discipline in a productive, constructive way. The thing I like most about what swimming has done to my body is not that it’s reduced my size in any meaningful way – not that I’m thinner as a result of all the hours in the pool, not that my jeans are looser – but that I’ve built up muscle in places I didn’t previously have visible muscle, that if I wear tank tops now it’s evident to me (even if not to anyone else) that my shoulders are stronger and bulkier than they once were.
More than that, though, my own brand of discipline – waking up early, cycling to the pool on weekday mornings, stripping down and plunging in and plowing up and down – is a way I have of exerting control when other things can’t be so easily controlled: my finances, my success as a writer, the viability of an embryo.
“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born,” wrote the author and environmentalist Roger Deakin.
Exercise, but swimming particularly, makes me aware of both the abilities and limitations of my own body in a way that nothing else I’ve found does. The swimmer floats and breathes, apparently at home in an alien aquatic environment, but remains constantly alert to the fine line between thriving and drowning. For the swimmer, writes the philosopher Damon Young,
Breathing is hampered…water compresses the chest, making it more difficult to inhale… blood pools in the lungs, leaving less room for oxygen…Put simply, even the local pool can suggest danger, by highlighting the continual effort required simply to keep our head above water. Swimming, whether in salt water or chlorine, evokes the sublime by revealing just how vulnerable we are.
How vulnerable we are. Vulnerability is one thing, at least, that is undeniable; we are not machines after all, though motivational imagery and uniform gym equipment and rigid lane lines might make us feel briefly closer to some mechanical ideal. The dream body is not an extreme – not the underwear model with washboard abs; the Olympian; the infallible woman who reproduces without pain or fear or without giving over some part of herself; the perfectly sized, perfectly shaped specimen. It’s a state that exists in an elusive, elaborate balance: between giving and taking, asserting and concealing, allowing and denying.
So in order not to deny myself, I deny myself – and every footfall, every quickened heartbeat, every third stroke as I turn my head to breathe, becomes a reminder: I have control, I don’t have control, I have control, I don’t have control.
For two months I obey my doctor’s orders: I don’t swim, I take walks instead. I wait: for the bleeding to stop, for a little plastic stick to confirm that everything is normal again, whatever that means. During this time I soften and slow, and sometimes I lie in bed and think, in spite of all I know, that my body is not working properly at all, that it is a faulty machine, doing exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to do. But maybe there is no supposed to: a thought which is both frightening and liberating. I remember reading an essay by Kathleen Jamie, about the idea of “wildness”:
to give birth is to be in a wild place, so is to struggle with pneumonia. If you can look down a gryke, you can look down a microscope, and marvel at the wildness of the processes of our own bodies, the wildness of disease. There is Ben Nevis, there is smallpox. One wild worth protecting, one worth eradicating. And in the end, we won’t have to go out and find the wild, because the wild will come for us.
When I return to the pool, I find it too has changed. There are new stains on the walls, different posters taped to the doors, lifeguards I’ve never seen before patrolling the perimeter. I stretch my underused arms in the shower, reach for my toes. I am conscious of the thin straps of my suit cutting into my back.
At the edge of the pool I pause for a long time, carefully considering which lane to enter. How much speed have I lost? But when I get in and push off speed suddenly and briefly seems to matter very little: for a moment submersion in this familiar water is all about surrender. And then it’s back to the old routine, up and down, up and down.