I emerge from the pounding surf triumphantly. The saltwater stings my eyes, my hair, coarse with sand and salt and sun, the blue and white surfboard dragging behind me as the calf-deep ocean tries to pull me back out to sea. My strong feet grip the black volcanic sand, my toned calves and thighs winning a battle of will and strength between the undertow and me. I have the sensation of looking down on it all, watching this determined, tenacious middle-aged woman emerge from the water, pick up the surfboard, and walk back across the wet expanse of desolate beach.
I’m 53 years old, and as I walk, surfboard on head, sand clinging to most parts of my body, I wonder at how proud, strong, and beautiful I feel today, my first day learning to surf. Not only have I ridden the wave to shore, but I’ve also ridden the wave of life to a place of self-love.
I’m an accomplished woman: an emergency physician, athlete, mother, and professor at a medical school. I’ve always been complimented for being fit, smart, perceptive, and funny. Although I’ve been told I’m beautiful, I’ve never been beautiful to the one person who truly counts: me.
I grew up poor. We got food stamps and federally funded bulk, nasty, rancid, 5-pound blocks of butter. We were on the game warden’s ROADKILL LIST for meat (honestly, who knew there was such a thing????) My father still delights in my skills as a five-year-old dumpster diver (I was small so could, “Really wiggle down into those dark nasty spaces to come up with a luscious peach.”)
As a teen, I developed an eating disorder, exercising to eat, rather than eating to fuel my life or eating for pleasure. I weighed myself several times daily, and if I was up in weight, would starve myself or go out and run 10 miles, or both. I ate sparingly and purged with exercise. I overdosed daily on ibuprofen to treat my chronic shin splint pain so that I could keep running. Despite my athletic teenage body, soulful eyes, and easy smile, I always thought I was ugly and fat. My calorie restriction and compulsive exercise improved significantly after high school when my behavior normalized, but my obsessive thoughts around food and exercise never did. Self-love was nowhere to be found.
As a young woman and young mother, I realized that every time I started exercising regularly, I would start obsessing about what I ate and whether I was exercising enough to use up the calories I ate. I exercised so I could eat. Any attempt to begin regular exercise was done at a cost to my mental health. No amount of weight loss or fitness, no makeup, haircut, or new clothing could ever make me feel attractive.
Like all women, I grew up with unrealistic beauty norms.
For girls growing up today, in the digital era, the norms are worse now than ever. As a teen and young adult, I felt the emphasis was always on what I looked like, not who I was, how kind or smart or funny or engaging I was. The message I received from society was that my worth is in my sexuality and looks, and as I age, I will lose all that is valuable to society because I will inevitably gain weight, get saggy skin and wrinkles, and therefore lose my value. Simultaneously with the loss of “beauty,” my children will fly off to lives of their own, and my second area of worth, that of a mother, will also be over.
The multi-billion-dollar “Beauty Industry” preys on the insecurity of women. Our fear that we will lose our value, lose love, lose worth if we lose our “beauty” fuels, and feeds the hungry ghost. The closer to “perfection” we were before we got old, the worse an aging woman’s insecurity is likely to be, and the more we are willing to do and to spend to maintain the illusion that we are young and beautiful. From cosmetics to diet pills, and hair dye to surgery, all are fair game to help a woman try to feel beautiful for her entire life. And yet, despite our efforts, we continue to feel ugly or fat or somehow “not enough”. We feel like frauds and insult our bodies, faces, skin, and hair. We use verbal, emotional, and physical insults. We put ourselves down and deflect compliments as though they were daggers.
We would never consider treating our children the way we treat ourselves, yet we willingly engage in self-destructive behaviors in the name of self-worth and the never-ending quest for beauty.
When I was 52 years old, I suddenly broke the cycle of obsessing over unrealistic beauty norms. I cured myself of a lifetime of feeling ugly and fat, a lifetime of “My boobs are too saggy,” a lifetime of being too curvy, and wishing I looked a different way. I cured myself of a lifetime of exercising to eat, counting calories, and deflecting compliments.
I embraced my “old lady lines” and each added year that they represent. I ate to exercise, and I exercised because it made me feel good. I started loving my strong, resilient aging body. I complimented my breasts for feeding 3 children and providing sexual pleasure throughout my lifetime. I chose my food because I wanted my body to feel strong and amazing.
Now, when someone compliments me, I say, “thank you.” I have learned to love myself.
I FEEL BEAUTIFUL. I appreciate my life in all it’s glory and hardship. For the first time ever, I actually love and respect myself and my body. I have embraced adventure, learned four new sports (single-track mountain biking, fat biking, rock climbing, and now surfing), have started doing stand up comedy, and have raised my self-worth, self-love, and self-care to a level I never thought possible.
They say that going through chemotherapy ages a person 10 years. They also say that menopause adds 10-15 lbs for most women. They say that cancer is linked to anxiety and depression.
For me, breast cancer has done the opposite. Rather than making me anxious and depressed, breast cancer has made me happier, calmer, more accepting of myself, and a better caretaker for myself. I exercise daily and eat what makes me feel good. I am more fit now, at 55, than I was at 35. Suddenly, I feel self-love like never before.
You see, the changes I referred to above were brought on by being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 52.
I had no risk factors. I never smoked, never used drugs, ate mostly organically, and didn’t drink alcohol. None of my older relatives had previously been diagnosed with cancer, I breastfed, exercised, and did all the “right things” for my health. Still, cancer found me.
The night I found the lump, I knew. I knew something had to change. I knew I lacked self-acceptance, self-love, and self-care. So, as crazy as it sounds, I decided to have a little conversation with my tumor:
Me: Ok, tumor, what’s up? I’m listening, what can I do for you?
Paraphrasing (the G-rated version) the tumor in my right breast: I’m not here to hurt you, I’m here to help you. Slow the heck down and get a life.
Looking back on that conversation now, it is truly the most life-altering conversation I have ever had. I take my tumor’s message very seriously. I realized early on that I would never put up with someone bullying and emotionally abusing my child the way I had bullied and emotionally abused my breasts and body over the decades. The negative energy that I sent to my breasts came back to try to kill me with breast cancer.
To this day, one of my big life regrets is how I treated my body which spread to my whole identity, my self-worth, and my ability to love myself.