Monday, June 02, 2008

Space

I'm fairly large for a woman. I'm tall (5'9") and busty and am probably best described as "solid" rather than curvy. I've never been ashamed of how I look--sure there are the odd bits that I'm not thrilled about, but all in all it's a pretty decent package. The only time I ever feel bad about my body is right after I visit a doctor, where they inevitably harp on me about my weight. It's pretty tiresome, especially when they seem to miss the forest for the trees: I walk everywhere, I eat healthy foods, I have a quick (and awesome) smile and laugh, and an eager, playful approach to what I think is a well balanced life. In the grand scheme of things, I can't believe 20 extra pounds really matters. But doctors seem to make it their special mission to humiliate overweight people, and blame as many of our ailments on our weight as possible. It's like they had a whole class in med school about bullying techniques and diverting the attention from what really matters.

I've noticed a pattern in my Alexander Technique lessons, where my instructor will have been repeating a certain phrase or action for weeks (months!) and I have no idea why, and then suddenly, it clicks. One of her longest running expressions is about me having "enough space" around me. Sadly, it's one of the few that I haven't entirely been able to understand (which is surely why I'm still going!). I suspect that my habit is to kind of withdraw my limbs and head into my body as much as possible, which is a tense way to hold and move my body.

It's a strange comment for me to hear, because, of all the flaws I might have, overdoing self restraint in limb movement has never been at the top of the list. I'm one of those eager, clumsy puppy types, arms and legs flying all over, knocking things off walls and tables, hitting strangers in the head on the street, and making shop clerks very nervous. I've always sat with my legs sprawled out, knees wide and ankles flung out, often an arm draped over the next seat if it's empty. All my friends know that when I arrive anywhere I sort of take over the place--bags and hats and coats distributed across all surfaces, inching into their space.

And yet, somehow, this other me has edged in, one who needs to be told to take up my allotted space. I think some of this may be my (possibly misguided) attempt to "grow up" and toe the party line in terms of "how adults behave". Moving to Switzerland has surely made that worse--in an attempt to fit in and not be the big loud American, I've felt myself getting more stiff, trying to control my movements and those damn limbs! My first year here I tried to dress "European" (leather shoes, blouses and slacks), and I even kept my hair all bound up in Pippi Longstocking braids. Talk about symbolic. At some point, though, an acquaintance mentioned that I even "walk like an American", at which point I realized the jig was up. There was no pretending I fit in, and I have since reverted to wearing sneakers and a lot of t-shirts, and I let my crazy hair fly loose. Even in the US I'm a bit eccentric, but it's OK to be eccentric in the US. I'm looking forward to not feeling like a freak of nature every time I step out of my house, of letting my loud voice boom away at it's natural, unrestrained volume, and letting my crazy-fun personality flourish the way I used to.

The other "space" that I have not been fully using is my contribution to groups, especially meetings at work. I've always been the type to speak up and express my opinion or ask questions, but I've really struggled with that lately. After I read Why So Slow by Virginia Valian , I realized that when it seemed like my input at meetings was repeatedly being ignored, that feeling isn't all in my head. And the wind just went out of my sails. Valian talks about how continuing to speak up in group situations and being ignored can actually be ultimately damaging to a woman for a couple of reasons: one is that all her colleagues repeatedly see her speak up and then be ignored, which harms her reptuation, and the second is that it's damaging to self esteem. And it's true--no matter how many times I tell myself it's them and not me, it still hurts when I'm ignored, and I find it ultimately less painful to just keep my mouth shut. I'm pretty disappointed about this (both that I'm in such a situation and that I don't seem to have the energy to fight this battle right now), and it's another thing I hope to work on in the future.

I've certainly consumed more than my share of adventure-space, leading a lot of people to tell me I must be really brave. I'm not sure brave is the right word--it's more like I have no idea what I'm getting into, and I perpetually think, how bad can it be? I'm pretty proud of myself for this: acting despite my fears, pursuing my life-long dreams, and biting off more than I could chew a time or two. But I've always survived, and I have a raft of great stories to tell, and I like knowing that I can try my hand at anything that takes my fancy. I hear so many women undercut themselves before even trying something new, even something small like knitting a more complicated pattern than they've ever tried before, and it's so sad. It's not like someone will die if the sweater sleeves come out the wrong size! I think my freedom from self-limiting beliefs is one of the things I treasure most about who I am because it means that anything is possible in my life.

For the June, 2008 Scientiae.
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