September 5, 2016

Health : The Pursuit of Damage

Glen Canyon, Arizona. October 2010.
When I received the 21 Day Fix workout in the mail, I texted the photo of Autumn Calabrese's zero-fat body to my friend and asked, "Is this what we're going to look like at the end of three weeks?!"  For some reference, this is what she looks like.

As you follow her workouts, she reminds you that you're working hard to get this body--you can't get these sculpted abs without the pain of lunge jumps! (I want to kill her when she does these while talking and breathing all at once). And you can't help but want to look like her, because she's really strong and beautiful, and again--she has zero fat.  

After spending half an hour every day for 21 days watching her, I got to thinking how much of perceived beauty is about taking away, paring down, removal.  It's getting rid of fat, hair, lines, spots. There's no room for texture or gradations.  

As a girl growing up, I remember thinking how many more details a woman had to worry about than a man. Not only did I already think my nose was too flat and my calves too big, my hair was supposed to smell good and my fingernails were supposed to be long and filed. I developed cellulite in early high school when running induced a growth spurt in my thighs, and long before I knew what it was I knew I wanted to get rid of it because they were marks, and no one wants any sort of marks.  It's all about being stainless, colorless.  My pale-skinned mother, with all the best intentions of her upbringing, spent most of my childhood asking me to stay out of the sun and purchasing large-brimmed hats for me, gifting me skin cream every Christmas (she still does this), hopeful that the tan I've had since birth would fade into a more pure light.  

I think we all know, at least rationally, that this is ridiculous and unrealistic, and that our worth and beauty as women isn't measured by how many human blemishes we can successfully hide or remove.

But I didn't realize until recently how much beauty is about acquiring blemishes. 

I was first struck by this as I examined myself after a 3-day climbing trip to Rumney, New Hampshire.  In these three glorious days: I hung with fingers onto sharp rock, slammed my left foot into rock while falling, slammed the big toe of that foot into rock while I caught my partner's fall, got slapped in the face by taut rope, hit my (helmeted) head on a ledge, and banged my knees countless times.  I didn't pay much attention to what any of this meant for my physical self while I was camping.  But when I finally made my way to a real bed, I lay down and realized I was hurting from top to bottom.  My forehead hurt; my neck ached; my back, chest and arms were sore; my fingers burned; my knees and legs were tender; my left big toe stung.  

So I went to a mirror and looked at myself.  A welt on the left side of my forehead where the rope hit me.  Skin scraped from several fingers, a pink that usually lies deep now visible. Huge green-blue brusies over both knees, mosquito bites all over my legs that had reacted into angry blotches (my body responds very strongly to bites), and the entire patch of skin over my left big toe peeled away.  I know that my hair did not smell good and that my fingernails were not long and filed.

...I was pretty impressed by the damage.

I was already pretty pumped about the amount of climbing I'd been able to do, but looking at all this--I felt so satisfied.  We're always striving to physically clean ourselves up, that it can be really filling to deliberately mess it up.  This isn't to say that the point of things like climbing is to get scraped and injured.  But it is to say that the point of things like climbing is to put yourself out there, and to love it when your risks and efforts are visible.

So much of perceived beauty is about an effortless perfection--no one can really tell how much work goes into Autumn Calabrese's six pack, and no one is really supposed to know.  In contrast, it feels so open and honest to bare the rawness of what you did, showing what you can put your body through, not trying to cover or protect or modify.  And when we feel okay showing this--when we want to show this--we're driven to do the things that get us there.  We want to engage with rock and water and ice and air or your choice of element, battle it and be subject to it. The marks we then bear are tallymarks of our strengths: the courage to venture, the courage to flail.  And this is the body I want to strive for.

When Autumn Calabrese says to me, don't you want these abs?  I'd say yes (let's be honest), and I'd also say, I want those abs so that I can climb and be a mess.  Messy is growing as you hurt. It's healthy as your body takes on injury and heals naturally, without creams and removers.  It's not just about giving up the pursuit of perfection; it's also pursuing damage because that's both the source and result of strength.  


  1. I love this so much!!! So well written and a great reminder that our bodies are meant to do much more than "look good." Not to mention everyone's perspective of what good is is different so you can never win.

    1. Thanks Nicole! Totally true about perspective. I learned from your challenge group that everyone has different goals and routines, and what's most important is we're all working on something :)


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