After a long, COVID-induced absence from aqua aerobics, I’ve fallen back in love with it. Now I’m there, a couple of times a week, bouncing off the bottom of the pool like my life depends upon it, or maybe skiing luxuriously through the water in the deep end, the workout giving me a huge energy boost and an injection of pure joy. A big smile on my face. Why do I love it so much? I think it’s a combination of the company (the ladies in the classes rock) and the return to my status of water baby (you couldn’t get me out of the pool when I was a kid).
I won’t lie to you, there’s a lot of jiggling going on in these classes. The age range of the attendees is definitely middle age and beyond. Yet the pace is frenetic. It’s astounding to be part of a group of women throwing themselves into activity so fervently, so gloriously. These women know how to own it. Recently, as I wiggled and jiggled along with them, I realised that I have finally (finally!) taken ownership of my body back.
I know we all own our bodies in a technical way. Our body is, perhaps, the only thing we’ll ever own. Nina Simone sang it so well in ‘Ain’t Got No (I got life)’:
"Yeah, what have I got nobody can take away? Got my hair, got my head, got my brains, got my ears, got my eyes, got my nose, got my mouth, I got my smile … I’ve got life and I’m gonna keep it, I’ve got life and nobody’s gonna take it away."
What makes this song so inspiring is Simone’s expression of freedom: the freedom that comes from realising that her body belongs to her, it’s all she has.
The song also makes me sad. Because I think that, for a very long time, my body hasn’t belonged to me. Of course, I’ve been attached to it in a literal sense. It’s been with me through and through. But I think I’ve spent a huge portion of my life underneath a thick layer of self-consciousness that has caused me to give my body away.
When I was a baby, my body belonged to my parents. I had no agency.
When I was a child it was mine, and I used it wholeheartedly and joyfully. I was a water baby. A bike-riding, cricket-playing, trampolining, skipping, running, hurdling kid who threw herself into activity just because.
When I was 10, though, the diet industry got to me. I was in that awkward phase that girls go through when their straight little bodies start developing curves, and that’s when the dieting began.
As a teenager, my sense of ownership of my body was further chipped away by the models in Dolly magazine and Cosmo and the girls in bikinis on posters in surf shops and bus shelters and on Home and Away. I gave it to them. I wanted to be them. I would have given anything to be them. I tried (unsuccessfully) to get anorexia so that I could be like them. I tried bulimia too.
The boys started to take ownership of it at around the same time. Especially the one who said: ‘Gee, Lyndall’s really grown, and not the right way if you know what I mean.’
Grown men took part in this takeover. Men who stared. Men who catcalled, whistled or jeered. The guy who pinched my bum while I was riding my bike. The boss I worked with in a greasy café. To get our pay packet, all the female employees had to sit on his lap. Once he offered to drive me home and, as he did, he reached over and squeezed my boobs. Yeah, he owned it.
Grown women played a part in this too. My mother, of course, with her saccharine-flavoured food and the companionship she demanded of me as we stood together in the queue at Weight Watchers, ready to be weighed. Jane Fonda, Denise Austin and a range of other women who looked like plastic sex dolls, flexing themselves on the TV. Those women at the gym, on the dancefloor, in offices, on trains: all those women (including me) who did the casual look up and down another woman’s body, sizing them up. Every single woman who did that took a piece of me and simultaneously gave up a piece of herself, too.
Somewhere in my 20s, the ownership structure became even more complicated. Boyfriends and lovers took what they saw as their due. And plenty of other people – friends, family members, colleagues – claimed an interest in it too. “You’ve lost so much weight,” someone would say. “You’ve inspired me. If you can do it, I can do it too.”
Since 2003, my husband has had a stake in it and, after 20 years of marriage, that’s like a mutual time-share arrangement in which I get some sort of a say in his body too.
My kids took their part in it, living in my womb, stretching out my belly and taking their nutrition, something I gladly gave. Then as they grew, they climbed on it, cried in its arms, rode on its back, held its hand, lived in its warmth.
And then they moved on. Their grown-up young person bodies, owned by them, no longer mine to share, but theirs to stride out into the world within.
About 10 years ago, I learned to meditate. I worked out that I could climb right out of my body; I could head off to the astral plane. My body then became nothing but a meat suit, a costume that my soul wore as it lived in the physical world. I gave up ownership of my body then, too, because I thought that seeking the freedom of a floating soul was more important than any worldly pursuit.
But then I settled down. I grounded myself. I did a lot of yoga. I found a way to sit in the self. I read and I read. I got older. I grew.
So now I go to aqua aerobics; I wiggle and I jiggle. I live in this new realm that some might call invisibility. Like many middle-aged women, I have become unseen. I am grateful for the averted gaze. Because now, finally, I can fully be myself. I can own the space. Make a giant splash. Eat the cake. Take up all the room.
Here’s something that Eloise Grills wrote in big, beautiful female theory:
“I’m wasting away but not in the conventional sense
In the sense that I’m wasting my life thinking that my body’s all wrong
and if I spent less time hating it I coulda been a female astronaut
I coulda been a female physicist a female doctor a female brain surgeon which is of course just a brain surgeon except it’s not”
So much energy gets wasted when we let other people take ownership of our selves.
And there’s too much living to do.
I take this body back. I own it now. It’s official. You read it here first. No one gets a say in it except me. I’ll share it when I choose. And I’ll use it how I please. I’ll stretch it at yoga. I’ll fling it around the pool. I’ll walk it up hills. I’ll feed it what it wants. And I’ll sit it down in this chair so that it can type, it can write, it can exercise this other glorious form of taking up space.
Dear readers of any and all genders, may you take ownership of your bodies too. May you shape it, or not. Grow it, wield it, love it, share it, enjoy every minute of living in it. Tarryn Brumfitt, our very own body-positive Australian of the Year, sums it up:
"You weren’t born into the world to hate your body. We’ve got about 28,000 days on the planet, if we’re really lucky, let’s not waste them hating our body."