Whose Legs Are These?
By: Tara Ruttenberg

Pudgy.

Freckly.

Veiny.

Dimpled and doughy, they stared at me in the fitting room, nearly three decades of gravity showing up in a hurry on a Thursday afternoon in June. It didn't help that I was wearing grandma's retro one-piece, whose threadbare bottom left something to be desired where lift and perk were concerned.

This has to be a fat mirror, I thought. You know, the kind that make you look short and stumpy and like you want to run home and change into your period pants? Of course it is, I went on in my mind. They put the fat mirror in the fitting room so when you try on their ass-lifting spandex you just have to buy them because the alternative is unstomachable and staring you in the face from all directions. Now that's a sales tactic that works.

Still, that image of sag and cellulite struck deep, unexpected. And it wasn't pretty.

Whose legs are these? I asked my 18-year old self as I climbed into one-size-too-small overpriced yoga pants. By then, my legs and butt looked pretty good stuffed in there like sausages, magic fabric working wonders on otherwise absent curves.

But the spillover at the top sold me right out, love-handles drooping over suffocating waistband. I wished I was ten pounds lighter. And a whole lot firmer around the middle.

Images of food played in my memory. In shame, I regretted that red-velvet cupcake sample I devoured outside the store. and that cream-filled puff pastry i ate on a bench at the airport in Rome last month. And that damn prosciutto and sheep-cheese sandwich on heavy artisan bread at the farmers' market in Lisbon, enough wheat, fat and gluten to choke a hungry pony at the petting zoo. (#whitegirlproblems, I know.)

"Not mine!" screamed 18-year-old me. "Those legs are definitely not mine."

Of course they weren't, that little bitch.

Her legs were tight-skinned, tanned, firm and fancy-free. A far cry from the sloppy vision glaring at me from all angles, in reflection of reflection of reflection. Like a bad dream on repeat.

18-year-old self was high on judgment as I undressed, pinching and poking at flab wherever she could get her hands on it. Frowning in disgust, she examined thin white lines of stretch marks forming on my hips, embarrassed I had let it get that bad.

Cocoa butter. For the love of god, go find some fucking cocoa butter.

"It's just the lighting in here," I told her, now a little girl pleading with her scary stepmother to put the wooden spoon back in the cupboard. "And don't worry, I'll start a cleanse this week and get back to my exercise regimen. And I'll stop eating out and I won't ever binge on chocolate cake again, and I promise I'll get in the best shape of my life!"

And I'll fit into these size 2 yoga pants. Just you wait and see.

28-year-old me grabbed flab with conviction.

...and I'll do squats. lots and lots of squats.

18-year-old self nodded into the mirror, arms crossed in the scorn of approval.

***

...the old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be,

ain't what she used to be,

ain't what she used to be.

the old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be,

and she can't even remember the last line...

Driving to yoga last week, late around the jungly mountain curves, I actually found myself singing that song.

About myself. 

Flowing through my vinyasa practice robotically, core tight in chaturanga-to-updog transition, I caught my gaze in the mirror. Dark circles around my eyes, my skin looked dull.

'What am I doing to myself?'  I thought, pressing palms into the mat, lifting hips to the sky in downward facing dog. That morning, I had surfed for two hours straight. And later that afternoon I had run-hiked the steep mountain trail, huffing and puffing my way up to the even steeper stairs, lunging to the top and power-squatting it out when I got there. Nature held me in trees and birds and monkeys throwing things as I dripped sweat to the muddy earth below my neon Nikes. Fitness in the jungle.

I had been making good on my promise to 18-year-old self for nearly two weeks now. Surfing, running, yoga. two-to-three physically challenging workouts a day.

And squats. Lots and lots of squats.

I was juicing beets and leafy greens and cilantro with hemp protein and spirulina. I was downing chia by the spoonful and flax-flushing like a fiber-fiend. Skipping fats and sugar and living conscious of what I was putting in my body. Counting calories. Googling nutritional information on avocados. Writing food diaries and shit.

And before I knew it, this war on self had become a full-time job. 

As I stepped my right leg through my hands and lunged up into warrior one, my body trembled in overuse. my legs looked strong in the mirror but they could barely hold me. I watched the skinny pretty girl in the back, her body lean and bendy. She's probably vegan, I thought, extending my arms in envy and tucking my tailbone into warrior two. I guessed she was twenty one; maybe twenty two, max.

"Enjoy it while you can, sweetheart," my eyes told her reflection from the front of the room. "Enjoy it now, because it's all downhill from here."

I reversed my warrior and extended my side-angle, praying for savasana.

At the end of class, gorgeous blond instructor chick stepped out of her half-naked yoga show and reminded us to thank our bodies for their strength, and to thank ourselves for showing up to practice.

Her legs were perfect.

Thank you body, I said, unconvincing. Thank you self, even less so. 

Sitting cross-legged in that brief moment before namaste, my hands in prayer, thumbs pressed into third eye in connection with my higher wisdom, I wanted to cry. I wanted to eat a cheeseburger. I wanted to be proud of me for loving myself and my body so much that I had found the discipline to exercise, to eat healthy, to do all the things I was doing to get my body back in shape.

But I wasn't proud of me. Not even a little bit. In fact, I was disappointed in me for not listening when my body whispered 'rest' and i told it to shut-up and go for a jog. When I dragged it to power yoga still sweaty and dirty from the mountain.

And now my shoulder hurt from too much side-plank, and that little roll of belly fat was still there, taunting me with her tongue out.

I was angry at my thyroid for being on the hypo side of balanced; at my hormones for slacking on the job; at my metabolism for not bouncing back like it used to.

Eat like you love yourself. Move like you love yourself. Live like you love yourself.

My guiding mantra played in my headspace. I was doing everything right. Eating, moving, living. Going through the motions of loving myself. But for what?

Belly roll laughed at me again in the mirror. Thighs smirked in injurious insult, their dimples far from cute. Underarm flesh jiggled as I pinned sweaty hair off my neck.

Belly roll. Thigh dimples. Underam jiggle. I was 0-for-3 in the battle against flub. Despite my grueling efforts at self-abuse disguised as self-love, this body that wasn't mine was winning. And I was furious.

And sad in my bones.

But it's only been two weeks, I told myself. Give it time, you'll see the results any day now. Don't give up. You are strong. You can do it. Hang in there.

Self-abuse self-love pep talk 101.

18-year-old me was a slave-driver, her whip constantly at my hind-parts. She wouldn't rest until I was 18 again.

28-year-old me cowered in the futility of myself, in the impossibility of my predicament, no escape in sight. Thyroid. Hormones. Metabolism. Gravity. Nearly three decades of physiobiology weighed heavy.

The old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be...

Whoever came up with that fucking song should be shot in the head.

...too bad they probably shot the old gray mare instead.

I left class in a sort of daze, thanking top-model yoga teacher, and sweating into the humid air of evening at the beach. I walked through town and tried to make sense of myself.

Lucky for me, it was 28-year-old self who chimed in this time, the voice of reason and nurturing; manifesting herself as mother, comforting me in acceptance of who I was in that very moment, of who I've been forever. She loved me no matter what.

"You're beautiful," she said sweetly in her low, soothing voice.

I felt a little warmer in my chest. For a second.

"But look at these legs," I said, looking down at loose skin swagging to and fro in the dim light of street lamps as I slowed to a stop, to make it stop. "These legs are not beautiful. I can't accept them as my own," I pleaded.

"Whose legs are these?" I asked, begging for her answer.

"Oh, my sweet love," she said, "If only you could see what I see, you would love your legs as I love them, now and always." She hugged me close in that 'every little thing is gonna be alright' sort of way.

"Just look at your legs," she said. "So strong and capable. Taking you surfing and running all the time; so flexible in your yoga practice."

I smiled a little bit as she kissed the top of my head.

"These legs, my love! These are the legs of someone unafraid of life, of living every experience that comes her way. These are the legs of someone who knows it's a sin not to eat gelatto twice a day everyday when you're on vacation in Italy; someone brave enough to sit with herself in meditation and write her authentic stories to the world; someone who skips the gym to have tea with a friend she hasn't seen in a while."

"These legs!" she continued, and I definitely didn't stop her. "Just look at where they've been, where they've taken you, how they've held you up every day for nearly three decades. These legs are your legs. And they are beautiful."

Where I saw flab and dimples, she saw the legacy of a life well-lived. And she thought it was beautiful.

I yearned to believe her. Even if momentarily, I wanted to feel okay in my skin. I wanted to see myself as she saw me. I wanted to love myself like she loved me.

And so I did. For a second.

I changed out of my sweaty bra and met friends for dinner. I ate a cheeseburger. With fries. and I loved every second of it. 28-year-old mother-in-me smiled in satisfaction. In the non-judgment of unconditional love. 

But on the drive home, my toes and fingers swelled up. And I felt sweaty and anxious. And too-full. And guilty in my gut. And now I had half a cow in my stomach and I wished I had eaten salad. With no dressing. And I promised myself i would wake up early and go for a run up the mountain. And when i reached the top i would do squats.

...lots and lots.

Self-soothing and nurturing embraced acceptance. Discipline sided with willpower. Like roosters on steroids with razor blades tied to their tiny legs, they would fight to the death. And I was stuck somewhere in the middle, getting stabbed simultaneously by their impossible extremes.

And I asked myself, is self-love a jungle hike in the mountains, a power vinyasa class and a green super smoothie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Or is self-love a cheeseburger and fries with friends after a long day of self-love self-abuse?

Could it be both?

I didn't know.

I still don't know. 

***

And so it goes, this constant battle between self-love and self-abuse in the negotiated space between 18-year-old me and 28-year-old me, between relentless slave-driver and ever-loving mother.

Because they don't warn you about this. About the inevitable challenge in transition from maiden self to mother self, where we must forego, in grace and grieving, the attributes of self that once defined us; where we must accept in integrity the changes on the outside and the lessons they teach us on the inside. Like the serenity prayer: To change the things we can. To accept the things we can't. And the wisdom to know the difference.

In my memory I see women's faces looking at me in the same way I looked at the young woman in yoga class that night, silent in wisdom and telling of a certain future I could never foresee. That was them telling me about this phase of life I'd have to experience to understand. I see their faces now as my own in the mirror, reminding me of who I am; of who I was. Of where I've been and how it's shaped me. Reminding me that my body tells my story in ways I may not be ready to accept, while still allowing space for transformation into all I'm yet to become. 

"So whose legs are these?" I asked myself again today, twisting backwards around my naked body to get a glimpse in the mirror over my left shoulder.

And with the steadiness of my still-wavering balance between change and acceptance, I owned them as mine. I owned myself as me in maiden-mother transition.

These legs - doughy and dimpled, strong and flexible - are mine.

These legs are mine.  

All mine.

 

Tara Ruttenberg is a PhD student, surfer, and writer currently transplanted in Costa Rica. Read more of her stories at Tarantula Surf.