There was a time when I did not think about the way I walked; how I swung my arms, how my hips moved. I did not think of my body as a target or an invitation. But in the summer of my 17th year, in the late 70s, a man salaciously said hello to me. Though the hair on the back of my neck bristled, I said hello back. He followed me down the street and molested me. A few fire fighters were naively cleaning their truck within shouting distance. But I was paralyzed with fear. I could barely breathe, let alone call for help. A couple months after that, I was walking on a fire trail in the hills, wearing my mother’s baggy clothes in hopes of being invisible, when another man ran by me in athletic attire, said hello and, after I did not return his greeting, threatened to rape me. He started the sentence with, “bitch.” The rest was so vile, I shake to this day when I recall the violence of his words.
In the years to follow, men would say hello again and again; they’d tell me to smile, that I looked prettier that way. This is not a new story to women of all ages. But I feel the need to tell it, because it’s how I got here, to inhabit my body once again, despite experiences that force so many of us out of our bodies for good.
That summer of 1980 marked the beginning of my disembodiment. In the faulty logic of victimhood, I thought there was something I did to bring on these attacks. Because I did not know these men, I thought it was the way I walked, the carefree way I swung my arms. So I tried to pull myself inward, become invisible, swing my arms less, round my shoulders. But no matter how stiffly I walked or collapsed my chest, still the unwanted attention came. I either averted my eyes from or glared angrily at strangers. My body was no longer just my body; it was a target.
In those days when PTSD only belonged to soldiers back from Vietnam and “trauma” was a word I never heard, there was no name for my affliction. All I knew is several times a day my body would flush with adrenaline at the sight of anything that we now call “triggers.” When I wasn’t sweating with fear, my stomach in a knot, I bristled with anger, propelled by a recurring fantasy of retribution. I yelled at men who cat-called me. From time to time, I dreamed of fire fighters saving me.
When I saw that martial art was an elective at my college, I signed up. I picked up Tae Kwon Do and practiced it with vigor and passion. At 110 pounds, 5-foot-2-and-a-half, I was quick and exact. The first time I landed a roundhouse kick lightly and precisely on my teacher’s cheek, I was a green belt. I apologized; shocked that my foot could reach his face before he, a seasoned black belt, could block it.
But he wasn’t having it.
“That. Was. Beautiful,” he said, beaming like a proud father.
My fantasy of retribution evolved. I’d had enough of being a target. I decided to become a weapon. I grew more confident as I grew better armed to save myself. Instead of dreaming of being saved, I wanted to be a badass for all women.
I want to tell you that my posture changed here, that my shoulders began to settle into their rightful, easeful place. But that is not what happened. Not yet. Now I was practicing a posture of self-defense: hands up, target areas minimized. But trauma had taken up residence in my cells. It still lived in my tissues. My awareness of my body was still external, a thing out in the world for men to comment on. Though I felt more physically powerful, I was stuck on the outside. I was not able to revel in my own beauty. I still didn’t own my place on earth.
As the years passed, I acquired a third degree black belt, numerous trophies and 24 years of practice. I was armored. Hard. And I still didn’t really know how to walk. It was contrived, mechanical and self-conscious. I was also in chronic muscular pain, especially behind my shoulder blades. The body will speak, louder and louder, until we finally stop and listen. My body had begun to scream.
As the universe is wont to do, an editor assigned a story to me that began my journey back inward. The topic was “psychogenic pain”; how the body manifests the mind. I skeptically asked a couple of sources about the meaning of pain behind the shoulder blades – my particular pain. “That’s your little emotional backpack,” one source said. “It’s the back of the heart,” said another, “where you store all the things you’re not ready to deal with yet.” I rolled my eyes at this touchy-feely, anatomically vague description of pain.
Around this time, I began exploring the Gyrotonic method, first as a journalist collecting information. As the work moved from journalistic to personal, I began to experience an opening, a feeling of lightness and greater sense of grounding. The muscular pain began to unwind. I grew taller. Really. In that first two years of practice, I found another half inch to my stature. My arms began to swing again. I experienced the backward canoeing motion that the pelvis makes when walking naturally.
I began to ask, What if? What if my persistent muscular pain was my “little emotional backpack?” What if I could set that down? Or unpack it? What if I could drop my shoulders, face the world with a full target open? What if I could drop my hands and cease to think of my body as either a target or a weapon? What if I could open my heart and still feel safe? What if I could find softness and still be powerful? What if something beautiful could come from something fierce?
As I have continued practicing and teaching the Gyrotonic method over the past decade, the “what if” has become “what is”. Gradually, I have unpacked the trauma, the fear, and the grief of not getting to celebrate my youth and beauty. Little by little, the armor has come off. A deep healing has occurred. My hands have (mostly) dropped to my sides. My shoulders have rolled back to their rightful place, not like a soldier standing at attention, but like a bird spreading her wings.
I have learned to walk naturally again, swinging my arms, reveling in the way the pelvis naturally moves in figure eights. I have come home to my body. I am, once again like a child: embodied. My movement is in alignment with my true self. With each step I take, I celebrate my beauty. I have softened. But do not confuse this with weakness. I am a soldier, too. As I swing my arms and revel in the freedom of my body, that beautiful kick is always there, too, nestled like a saber beneath my bones.