Your body is not the enemy

Posted at 20:46 on 12 May 2011 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: Body positivity, health and disability, Kink activism, learning curves, meta-analysis

My new exercise regime this year has been a wholly positive experience. I've felt less back pain since I started, and my physio tells me that my back problems have lessened. I've gained strength and energy - and there have been stimulating knock-on effects where my partners are involved.

For years, my back pain was a monster in my attic. Thinking about it made me ashamed and frightened. I didn't know how to confront it, or how to think about it. Since I became sexually active at about the same time as my back problems started to develop, in all that time, kink and sex have been my primary route to body positivity. It's only this year that that's changed.

I note now that I am coming to this from a position of able-bodied privilege. Not everyone's body plays by the rules; not everyone can benefit from exercise. My chronic back pain doesn't count as a disability (although if I'd left it untreated it probably would have eventually, once I developed RSI). I am lucky to have had a condition which was fixable, lucky to have had the means and the encouragement to start fixing it before it was too late. I empathise with people who aren't able to negotiate successfully with their bodies, and who don't have a clear path to improving their situation.

Since I am writing this from my own experience and therefore from a particular, privileged perspective, I welcome any contributions from people with disabilities. If you are minded to add to my limited perspective, I'd be very glad to have my ideas enriched by what you have to say.

Learning and D/s dynamics

In addition to the original two pilates and one swimming session a week, I've now added a weekly squash game to my schedule. Tom is teaching me how to play, and I'm loving it.

First, I love the game itself. The speed and competitive thrill of it are compelling; the adrenaline rush addictive. As a break in a long work day it's unparalleled. I can work the morning, then play a game of squash mid-afternoon - during which hour I am wholly inhabiting the moment physically and mentally, focussing on nothing beyond the game - which refreshes me enough that I can work through the evening. Right now, that's exactly what I need.

Then there's the interpersonal aspect. Tom is a great sports tutor. He's perceptive, patient, encouraging, offering articulate praise and constructive criticism. He tones down his game enough that I can realistically play against him, but every time I demonstrate improvement he steps it up a notch. Sports have always been a big part of his life and he loves finally having a girlfriend he can actually share it with directly.

Me, I just love being taught things by my doms. It's the same when D is teaching me iceskating (or new programming languages or processes, but there's something unique about being taught a physical skill). I love the matter-of-fact, pragmatic submission that comes from a relationship of teacher to student between friends. We are equals and it doesn't preclude them learning from me in other contexts, but in this particular field, he has more experience and right now, I am here to learn. Applying myself and earning praise and respect from someone I think so highly of is a great pleasure. The flush of excitement I feel when I please them is very different in tone from how I'd feel with a teacher to whom I did not also sexually submit.

Meditation and physical learning curves

Swimming and pilates are less energetic, less exciting than squash, but no less important. Due to the nature of my back problems I needed to begin with these gentler pursuits first; if I'd dived straight in with a high-impact sport the consequences could have been disastrous. Both pilates and swimming are meditative experiences for me; positive, but in a different way.

The pilates session I go to is slow, controlled, deceptively useful; halfway between a martial arts kata and the wholesome calisthenics practised by Victorian ladies in their living rooms. The bio-feedback it's taught me has helped me listen to my body in a new way; take its needs seriously and engage with it productively. Movement is essential for physical wellbeing. I suppose I've always known that, but the truth of it has settled in my consciousness these last few months. Regular, controlled exercise of all its parts is necessary to keep the body happy, and it's amazing how effusively a neglected body rewards you for your efforts. After spending all day in an unnatural position at my desk, a mere hour of stretching leaves me feel light, floaty, like I'm at home in my skin rather than fighting with it.

Swimming is more of an immediate pleasure. The solitude of it is marvellous, and I've always felt an elemental joy at being immersed in water. As soon as I start to do it regularly, the capacity of my exercise-starved body leaps forward, as if it were desperate to reward my meagre efforts so as to tempt me to keep going. The number of lengths I can do in an hour seems to increase by the week. I spent a few months polishing my back and breast stroke before getting bored, and now I'm teaching myself front-crawl with remarkably swift progress.

Perhaps it's just that, having been an awkward sort of nerd at school, I have very low expectations of myself in any physical activity. This year I've been surprised by how easy and immediately rewarding physical skills have been to learn, how swiftly I see improvement. I spent my teenage years feeling trapped in a hostile body, and even after the spots faded and I realised how much fun sex was, my primary pursuits and talents were all very much cerebral. My body was an inconvenient necessity, frustratingly limiting in its persistent needs, more of a hindrance than a help.

I don't know if school sports are taught all wrong, or whether I just needed to come to this consensually, in my own time. Despite my identity as someone who was picked last in games, even as a child I enjoyed playing musical instruments, hiking, climbing trees - but it wasn't until I discovered sex and kink that I started thinking about my physical relationship with myself, and to accept that in some contexts, my body might be a comrade rather than a liability.

This year, it's felt like all my body needed, all along, was some love and attention. Enjoying the sensations of power and control that accompany swimming, it's finally sunk in: my body is not the enemy. In fact, if I only listen to it, it's a grateful and supportive friend.

I always thought I had no time to go to the gym, but I hadn't appreciated how much more time you have with the added energy you gain through regular exercise. The rewards have been manifold: a swift, predictable improvement that motivates even my short attention span; a feel-good boost during and afterwards; better sleep at night; better confidence; increased libido (not that I needed it!); greater physical and mental stamina in the medium term.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's also had a positive effect on my sex and kink life. Confidence, energy and feeling at home in myself all carry over into sex. Reduced back pain makes play less of a minefield, and I'm pretty sure my endorphin response has increased somewhat, and my pain tolerance has gone back up to what it was in my early twenties. (Fun fact: OKcupid's profile data suggests that women who enjoy exercise tend to find it easier to achieve orgasm.) I wonder, would I have had the confidence to start topping if I hadn't felt more at home in myself, fitter and more powerful?

Finally and most significantly, my back pain (and the slight but enormously humiliating disfiguration of my kyphosis), which has affected my quality of life since I hit puberty, feels manageable, beatable. I have hated my body for being the wrong shape, for giving me pain. But like much racial prejudice, I think this hatred has been born of ignorance. I didn't understand how quickly and positively my body would respond if I made friends with it.

Exercise, kink and disability

I don't mean to imply that less healthy bodies are the enemy. Pain is never fun, and illness sucks. But I think there's truth in the notion that the true enemy is not the ill or injured body, but a society that does not accommodate the differently abled.

Regular exercise is certainly not an option for everyone, and I'm very lucky that I've been able to make it work for me. I'm writing about this here partly because of the extent to which the way in which exercise has improved my relationship with my body mirrors the way in which kink has. Both have not only improved my confidence, but my trust in my body, my liking of it, my respect for what it's capable of.

Is, perhaps, kink more accessible than exercise as a route to body positivity? I know full well that health problems can hinder someone's practice of and enjoyment of kink, but I've also seen the joy it can bring to people who otherwise feel betrayed by their bodies. Kink bridges the boundary between mental and physical; without much physical exertion, it can have positive physical effects. Kinky play can be a hugely positive way of befriending your body; learning how it ticks, focussing on it and enjoying the experience of living in it.

I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity and the ability to befriend my body through exercise. But you don't need to be pain-free or able-bodied to enjoy consensual pain or power play - and doing so can connect you with your physical self in a way that is healthy and rewarding.

Comments

I must say that I've seen quite a bit of you, and I never noticed the kyphosis.

I think we need to add exercising together (and making friends with our bodies together) on our "to do when we get the chance to be around each other" list!

This post made me so happy for you, and has inspired me to get up and go do some yoga!

I guess it's not as extreme as it looks in the mirror, but I'm very conscious of the curve in my upper back, and envious of women whose backs are a lovely straight line down from their necks. My perception of the problem is very pain-dependent though. On bad days I feel like a hunchback - on good ones I can pretty much ignore it.

There is a rant in the fact that my S-shaped kyphosis, which has caused me so much pain, is one of the reasons my waist and bottom are considered pretty. The exaggeration of my upper back curve is one of the reasons my waist appears to go in so much, and the exaggeration of my lower back is one of the things that gives me "arch" and the appearance of having a shapely, sticky-outy bottom and a narrow waist. It's not like my bottom would be flat anyway, but it does make me angry sometimes that our standards of physical attractiveness mean that a painful disfiguration can be praised as beautiful! And when a lot of the stretches I'm doing are aimed at pulling my pelvis forward into alignment, it feels kind of fucked up that most photographers will tell me to push it back and exaggerate that curve. I guess it's lucky, in a way, that the "attractive" lower back arch helps distract people from the "unattractive" upper back curve, but it makes me cross that making my body healthier and stronger will compromise its "attractiveness" in some people's eyes. (Something I'm sensitised to - as I imagine you are - because of the unhealthy fetishisation of underweight bodies in our culture.)

Sweetie, I would love to exercise with you. Yoga is something I've been meaning to take up, I've enjoyed the bits of it I've done. Another friend of mine who has ME always finds it very beneficial, so I know you don't have to be perfectly fit and strong for it to work for you!

Hi Franklin! I guess I always knew that taking care of your body was important, I just never quite knew where to start because I didn't realise how easy it was. It's been a bit of a kick up the arse, now I've started, to realise how foolish I was to put it off for so long. Which is why I'm leaning quite happily on the "privilege" aspect of this - improving fitness/physical health isn't easy for everyone, and I don't want to erase anyone's experience claiming it is. I just feel like a bit of a fool for leaving it so long, and very glad I didn't leave it any longer :)

I'm really interested - and happy - to hear that kink and pain play have been useful tools for you and your wife in helping her with her fibromyalgia. My friend Jimmy has had a similar experience, and so have I on occasion (the acute pain of an injury, the chronic pain of my back condition, and things like menstrual cramps are all helped a lot by a spanking).

It's a tricky line to walk though - sometimes being in pain means you aren't able to relax enough to get where you need to get, no matter how much it might help. And sometimes you just aren't in the mood. Even when I am, when I'm seeking pain relief I'm usually looking for a scene which I retain some control over the pace, and not to submit to my top's whims. But I'm lucky in having tops who are pretty good at knowing what I need, and if what I've asked for is a pain relief spanking I'll usually get a nice long warmup and not be pushed harder than I want.

Yeah, fatigue is one of those horrible invisible things. Although more chronic health/pain problems are invisible than not, in my experience :/

You’re absolutely right about the knock on positive effects on mental health of physical care. It sometimes seems as if all aspects of health and wellbeing are interconnected. We are very complex organisms!

Congrats on your surgery, and I wish you all the best for your recovery! There's definitely something a bit kinky about squash - the adrenaline and competitiveness, the high spirits...

The problem with the "rearward thrust" is that it's very bad for my back, and I'm having to improve my core strength with a view to permanently holding my pelvis in a more forward position, which is what my spine needs. At this point I'm inclined to prioritise managing my pain over "looking good"!

Pandora,

I'm really glad to read your post and I'm glad that you're getting a lot out of regular exercise on a number of different levels. Not enough is being talked about in most communities, particularly kink-oriented ones, about the challenges and value of taking care of ones body in the best way for that individual.

My wife/submissive has fibromyalgia and several related syndromes. Although, as you mentioned, there are different levels of physical ability, her chronic and unpredictable pain and joint issues are a challenge for both of us in maintaining a fulfilling D/s life together. One thing that's really helpful is that she finds the endorphines from a severe spanking, caning, or belting actually helps relieve her of the unwanted kind of pain.

Fortunately, we've been able to get a swimspa installed at our home that allows for her to be able to exercise in warm water which is tremendously helpful. Also very recently we've been reading about the many benefits of vitamin D and how devastating it can be to be deficient in it. She started taking it about a month or so ago at a prescription level and has noticed significant improvements in a number of areas.

Thank you for sharing this with us. I'm glad to see that you're finding ways to gain more D/s and kink fulfillment personally and in your relationships. I take it as inspiration.

Best Regards,
Franklin

Hi Franklin! I guess I always knew that taking care of your body was important, I just never quite knew where to start because I didn't realise how easy it was. It's been a bit of a kick up the arse, now I've started, to realise how foolish I was to put it off for so long. Which is why I'm leaning quite happily on the "privilege" aspect of this - improving fitness/physical health isn't easy for everyone, and I don't want to erase anyone's experience claiming it is. I just feel like a bit of a fool for leaving it so long, and very glad I didn't leave it any longer :)

I'm really interested - and happy - to hear that kink and pain play have been useful tools for you and your wife in helping her with her fibromyalgia. My friend Jimmy has had a similar experience, and so have I on occasion (the acute pain of an injury, the chronic pain of my back condition, and things like menstrual cramps are all helped a lot by a spanking).

It's a tricky line to walk though - sometimes being in pain means you aren't able to relax enough to get where you need to get, no matter how much it might help. And sometimes you just aren't in the mood. Even when I am, when I'm seeking pain relief I'm usually looking for a scene which I retain some control over the pace, and not to submit to my top's whims. But I'm lucky in having tops who are pretty good at knowing what I need, and if what I've asked for is a pain relief spanking I'll usually get a nice long warmup and not be pushed harder than I want.

Yeah, fatigue is one of those horrible invisible things. Although more chronic health/pain problems are invisible than not, in my experience :/

You’re absolutely right about the knock on positive effects on mental health of physical care. It sometimes seems as if all aspects of health and wellbeing are interconnected. We are very complex organisms!

Congrats on your surgery, and I wish you all the best for your recovery! There's definitely something a bit kinky about squash - the adrenaline and competitiveness, the high spirits...

The problem with the "rearward thrust" is that it's very bad for my back, and I'm having to improve my core strength with a view to permanently holding my pelvis in a more forward position, which is what my spine needs. At this point I'm inclined to prioritise managing my pain over "looking good"!

Not sure that it really counts as a disability but it is something that I always have to be aware of and watch out for. I have a genetically inherited form of repeat DVT (for some reason the doctors tell me that it is not Hughes syndrome, just something that is almost totally identical to it). Since diagnosis, regular blood tests and medication means that I can live normally, most of the time. I do have episodes of fatigue though, that can be debilitating and it annoys me having to explain to people that true fatigue is a bit harder to cope with and fix than just being a bit tired.

Being banned from flying by airlines is the thing that winds me up the most. I'm no more likely to develop a blood clot on a flight than anyone else and if I did, I always carry medication to cope with that and would be better off than most people in that situation. Unrealistic medical paranoia on the part of the air transport industry, me thinks. I used to love flying :( it was my favourite form of long distance travel.

Glad to see that the exercise regime is working out for you. The ability to do something about a condition is also good for mental health.

Prefectdt

Yeah, fatigue is one of those horrible invisible things. Although more chronic health/pain problems are invisible than not, in my experience :/

You’re absolutely right about the knock on positive effects on mental health of physical care. It sometimes seems as if all aspects of health and wellbeing are interconnected. We are very complex organisms!

Congrats on your surgery, and I wish you all the best for your recovery! There's definitely something a bit kinky about squash - the adrenaline and competitiveness, the high spirits...

The problem with the "rearward thrust" is that it's very bad for my back, and I'm having to improve my core strength with a view to permanently holding my pelvis in a more forward position, which is what my spine needs. At this point I'm inclined to prioritise managing my pain over "looking good"!

I have just had surgery for my back problem; I don't think it was a bad as yours and it seems to be completely resolved which is brilliant but I have to be very careful about what exercise I take for 12 months.

I really miss squash, horse riding and cycling but I have enjoyed all the walking and I am counting down the months until I can get back in the saddle - both literally and metaphorically. Teaching my (female) friend to play was a great pleasure for the sense of achievement, bouts of uncontrollable laughter and the occasional excuse to slap her lycra clad bottom.

On your point about a slightly forced posture that makes you look more desirable. Before I walk into a room full of strangers I stand up straight, shoulders back, chest out and chin up - most men do. I think we all adopt postures to suit different situations and that rearward thrust of your rump looks sublime - you don't need to do it all the time but when you do it looks great.

Congrats on your surgery, and I wish you all the best for your recovery! There's definitely something a bit kinky about squash - the adrenaline and competitiveness, the high spirits...

The problem with the "rearward thrust" is that it's very bad for my back, and I'm having to improve my core strength with a view to permanently holding my pelvis in a more forward position, which is what my spine needs. At this point I'm inclined to prioritise managing my pain over "looking good"!

I am glad to read about all the positives you are getting out of your exercise regime!

My own memories of sports at school are mixed - not too cheerful, but not entirely bad, either. I totally sucked at team sports because of my bad eyesight. Team sports was, of course, the most important thing among "the boys", so that was a source of much frustration for me, to always be selected as one of the two last guys for the teams (the other one being one boy who was seriously overweight and, therefore, just as useless as I in his own different way).

On the other hand, I did well in athletics and gymnastics because I was basically in good shape physically (astoundingly so, I guess, for a guy who spent his entire free time sitting on his arse reading books or playing PC games). So I got some experiences of success from athletics and gymnastics, even though they were not enough, for me, to fully outweigh the feeling of failure from the team sports.

Regarding how I view my body today: I am basically quite happy with it. There are some things I would love to change if I had the option, such as the bad eyesight or the fact that I have a somewhat under-developed ribcage because of being born prematurely (no matter how much exercise I do, my chest will never look as "manly" as that of a normal guy who does the same amount of exercise). But I am not neurotic about any of these physical things, and they are pretty low on my list of life's wishes.

Personally, I view this as a healthy and honest middle path: to not delude yourself into believing that you are perfectly happy about everything about your body when you are really not. But, at the same time, to keep these things in perspective, to not let them dominate your thoughts and to recognise that you can be a beautiful human being no matter what body you have.

This is such a great post. And really timely for me. I've always felt wrong and awkward in my body. Feeling too tall, bad knees, uncoordinated, clumsy always knocking into things or falling over. A lot of this is a hangover from a sudden growth spurt in adolescence. I have a still painful memory of someone making fun of the way I ran during a game at school--I couldn't have been more than 7, and it's not until very recently that I realised how I've carried all of that with me. All these years! I always assumed I was terrible at sport, and lazy, and that my body was no good to me.


Even when I discovered sex, it didn't go away. I'd sometimes achieve a feeling of release and be able to lose myself, forget about my body, but--forget about my body? That's what I was trying to achieve? That's not how sex should be. For me, sex just brought up a whole new way of feeling insecure about my body. It wasn't until I discovered kink that I started liking the things I could do with my body.

When I did exercise, it felt like a punishment. It came out of self-hatred, it was boring, it was uncomfortable, and I hated it. Not surprisingly, I never stuck with it for long. I resigned myself to a life of only moving when it was strictly necessary.

And now, recently, I've started exercising every day. Out of necessity--I've been very busy, with no transport, and I needed to cycle everywhere, all over a very hilly city, up to 2 hours a day. And at first it was hard, and I hated it, and it was boring, but as I did it more and more, and my body got stronger and stronger, something started to change. I could rush up a hill against a strong wind and feel as if I was winning something. I took delight in the sensations of my muscles moving under my skin. I noticed myself becoming quicker, smoother in my movements. I liked the independence and the control...I'd tell my body to do something and it would respond! Without fail! I started to feel grateful for it.

And I started eating better. Oatmeal, whole meals, things I never would have bothered with. More vegetables, more fruit. I wanted to give things to my body.

This is all still new, but it's wonderful. I'm so glad you're finding the same thing!

Aw, lovely, I empathise with so much of this. Isn't it weird how many of us carry those physical hangups with us for years and years?

A friend of mine said something a couple of years ago that really stuck with me, talking about physical self esteem. We're taught to only esteem our bodies for their appearance, but she found it helpful to think about capacity: my body has hands that can play musical instruments, legs that are good for climbing trees, etc. That sort of practical estimation of our physical worth is left out of our cultural narrative in many ways, particularly for women. The association (at least at my school) with sports as only being something that goodlooking, popular kids do which alienates a lot of bookish, awkward or shy teens and prevents them from developing a good relationship with their body or prioritising physical health.

I just had to take two weeks off from the gym because I've been away so much, and I was looking forward so much to going back. Pilates last night felt very necessary!

But the fact I'm struggling to find the money to renew my gym membership has highlighted the extent to which physical health in our culture depends on financial privilege. Same goes for eating well; the cheapest way to eat in this country is high-carb, junky food. I guess cycling is an exception, if you can find enough cash to buy a second-hand bike - and I had a similar epiphany to you when I was cycling a lot at uni - but still, if your bike is nicked (which tends to happen semi-frequently) and you can't afford insurance or a replacement, you're stuck. This week I'm prioritising money for the gym over nice fresh fruit and salad, but I'll be cooking with lentils and beans and veg, so that's okay. And my garden salads will be ready to eat soon :)

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