Hate your beautifully imperfect body? Worry less, dance more

What was the age at which you decided you didn’t like your body? Or wanted it to change? That you first felt physical shame, or inadequacy, or frowned in the mirror? If you have never felt anything but unabashed pride, I salute you and marvel at you.

For the rest of us, it usually starts creeping in when we’re kids.

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack star in the comedy Good Luck To You, Leo Grande.

For actress Emma Thompson, it was during the teenage years. She told Stephen Colbert: “I think I started hating my body when I was about 14 and those neural pathways are well carved into my soul.” As Colbert chuckled, she said: “I know we laugh but think about all those eight year-olds out there going I don’t like my thighs.”

“What would you say to them?” Colbert asked. The audience cheered as she responded: “Don’t waste your time, don’t waste your life’s purpose worrying about your body. This is your vessel, it’s your house, it’s where you live, there’s no point in judging it, absolutely no point.”

It’s been quite delightful watching Thompson popping up on talk shows in snappy suits over the past few days. She’s been promoting her new movie, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, in which she plays the character of an older woman, a former religious schoolteacher, who is recently widowed, has never had an orgasm, and hires a younger sex worker to help implode her repression.

At one point, Thompson appears naked, in front of a mirror. This, she says, was the most difficult thing she has ever done in her career.

IllustrationCredit:Simon Letch

Thompson has been heralded as “brave” for disrobing, which totally misses the point. Especially given she is hardly an ogre, and really very conventionally attractive as Hollywood would have it. (Which is partly why so many have questioned why she needed to wear a clichéd fat suit to portray Mrs Trunchbull in the new Matilda film, with one reporter asking the very good question: “Of course – how else would the film industry portray an antagonist, who is evil, ugly and has a nasty disposition, than with a slim actress in a grotesque fat suit?” Why fat suits at all?)

But in this film, her character Nancy is just like many women, not that young, not that old, just women, who are not overly inclined to devote long hours and large pots of income to the gruelling, fruitless and largely unfulfilling bind of daily trainers and surgical solutions, all intended to erase one of the greatest privileges of all: ageing.

Thompson points out we are not used to seeing “untreated bodies” on the screen, only bodies that have been trained to their limits, “out of all proportion”, to be somehow visually palatable on our big, unforgiving screens.

Emma Thompson says appearing naked in her latest movie was the most difficult thing she has ever done in her career.

She knew her character would not go to the gym, would “eat biscuits”, and have the “normal body” of a woman who is 62 and had two children. “Women have been brainwashed all our lives to hate our bodies and everything that surrounds us reminds us of how imperfect we are,” she says. “Everything is wrong with us”, she says. And her challenge is this: how many of us can just stand still in front of a mirror, without flinching, flexing, shifting feet, moving side-on?

I remember once mentally itemising all the things I considered – or had been told were – defective about my own body, and the only thing left were my ears. That’s the way the patriarchy works; to be female is to be flawed, requiring remedying.

Part of the reason I have loved Thompson’s sensible rebuke to our constant shaming of women – and, increasingly, men’s – bodies, is that I have just read a book by Kerry Egan called On Living. It’s not new, but it’s wonderful. An aged care chaplain, Egan writes about what preoccupies people in the months before they die, what they care about, what stories they tell and what they long for.

One of her most striking findings is that they are saddened by the way they viewed, and treated, their bodies as problems, or sources of embarrassment, shame, sin and guilt. She writes: “There are many regrets and many unfulfilled wishes that patients have shared with me in the months or weeks before they die. But the time wasted spent hating their bodies, ashamed, abusing it or letting it be abused – the years, decades, or, in some cases, whole lives that people spent not appreciating their body until they were so close to leaving it – are some of the saddest.”

One woman told her, that she would never admit it to her husband and kids, but what she will miss most of all is her own body: “this body that danced and swam and had sex and made babies. It’s amazing to think about it. This body actually made my children. It carried me though this world.”

Second in intensity to the regret of hating their bodies, says Egan, “is the wish of the dying that they had appreciated their bodies in the course of their lives”. This means that people, in the final stages of their lives, love to reminisce about their bodies, and all of the best things they did with them: “the feel of the water the first time they went skinny-dipping. The smell of their babies’ heads. The breeze on their skin that time they made love outside.”

And most of all? Dancing. They spoke of dancing, of losing their bodies in sound, and finding them in rhythm. Of the sheer, too often under-rated pleasure of moving limbs to music until thoughts fade, your muscles ache and you are drenched in sweat and joy.

Egan writes: “I can’t count the hundreds of times people – more men than women – have closed their eyes and said, when describing [armed forces] dances during World War II, or shagging at South Carolina beach houses, or long, exuberant nights dancing at roadhouses and discos and barns and wherever else there were bodies and music.”

“If I had only known,” they would say, “I would have danced more.”

So there it is – our bodies, our misshapen, lumpy, wobbly, birth-marked, uneven, scarred, imperfect bodies are our vessels. They won’t last forever, they will eventually grow frail, we will miss the strength and vigour of our younger selves. But for now, when alive, when upright, when walking through days with purpose, without pain, they are vessels for adventure, for sleep, for song, for dance, and a place where we experience joy.

And, surely, the less we worry about them, the more we dance.

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