For many years I tried to control my body rather than to learn not only how to live with it but how to live in it. It often felt (sometimes still feels) like something I experienced secondhand. Like a loose strap on an old shirt, I was constantly wary of it, constantly adjusting it, constantly concerned anyone would see it—me—slipping.
“when and how do you experience your body solely for yourself?”
I thought I left this pattern of self-punishment in the past, but the newfound circumstances of COVID proved me wrong. Despite all the inspirational images that implored me to forgive the vessel that was literally carrying me through a pandemic, I continued to catch myself chastising my body for being too tired and for craving too much. Suddenly I reverted to looking at my body with microscopic vision and began picking it apart. The pandemic proved to be a reminder of what little control we truly have over our bodies—that all we can really do is care for ourselves as much as our resources will allow.
“When I consider the times during which I feel most present in my body, I think of getting tattooed.”
I began to wonder how our bodies will continue to carry the memories of this pandemic long after we have tried to forget. I think many of us, myself included, take for granted the ways in which our experiences live on in our bodies. Perhaps it’s in the width of one’s walk, the faint scar below the surface of one’s skin, or the knots in one’s back. We, women in general and Black women in particular, are encouraged to disregard our bodies, often to the point of complete ignorance. We have entire shows dedicated to sensational stories of people silencing bodily signals until they end up in the ER or giving birth in the toilet. That’s not to denigrate anyone on those programs but to prompt the question: when and how do you experience your body solely for yourself?
When I consider the times during which I feel most present in my body, I think of getting tattooed. I was 19, had just finished my first semester of college, and was feeling incredibly unsure of almost everything. It wasn’t something I ever seriously considered and given how indecisive I can be, I was surprised by how little I cared about the design itself. For someone who finds comfort in control, there was a freedom to be found in the impulsiveness of my decision. Until then, my answer to dealing with uncertainty was through punishing my body for not solving my problems. I’d be lying if I wrote that the pain didn’t pull me in. It did. But I had no idea that the process would actually help me make a home of my body.
“while I may not have control over the environmental circumstances that affect my body, I do have the power to choose what I do with what I can control.”
I was a ball of nerves while I lay face down in the black leather chair and waited for the tattoo artist. The anticipation of regretting my decision began to sink in, but so did the exhilaration of doing something to and for my body regardless of anyone else’s opinions. I focused on my breathing amid the buzz of the tattoo gun. The prickly pain felt different than when I had tried to inflict it on myself in the past. This was not an attempt to escape myself. This was grounding. I sat still and felt every sensation.
Four tattoos and almost one-half sleeve later, when I sit in that chair I’m reminded of my body’s resilience as I watch the design slowly stain my skin. The completed image is for the most part fixed, but the meaning of the tattoo itself remains flexible. Oddly enough, tattoos help me accept the inevitability of change. They are reminders that while I may not have control over the environmental circumstances that affect my body, I do have the power to choose what I do with what I can control. I am able to define for myself what it means to care best for my body with the resources that I do have, and there is little else as exhilarating.