I’ve been in a conflicted relationship with my body for over thirty years. A tidal relationship: conflict surges over me when my chronic fatigue, food sensitivities, and lowered immunity lift my feet out from under me and carry me flailing and protesting through the days until I’m washed up on the shore of surrender. For so long, my only choices are to fight against myself or to trust that everything is going to be okay. I am learning to choose trust, again and again, through fearless kindness to myself.
About a year ago I wound up in the ER because my body had shut down in adrenal fatigue. Just as I must surrender to the surf, I had to stop fighting my body, my battle ground of shame. I’ve always tried to change it. I remember eating half a package of hot dogs when I was twelve, shoving them angrily in my mouth and crying because I’d been teased for being too skinny; I believed my size meant that my body had betrayed how unworthy I was of love. And then my body blossomed. From the age of thirteen I came to a few conclusions about the body I was growing into: My butt was a strange and shape-shifting cushion for my bones, not a swimsuit model’s smooth flanks. My shoulders were too wide, my legs too long, and in terms of a waistline, I looked like a walking frog with breasts.
When I was fifteen I went to a boarding school where eating disorders circulated through the girls’ dorms as rampant as gossip. Girls took speed and exercised all night. One girl existed on black coffee, cigarettes, LSD, and alcohol, with the occasional piece of food. It was there that I learned to stick my finger down my throat and deny myself food I didn’t “deserve.” Bulimia was the perfect expression of the way I inhabited my body and life: I wanted to be nourished and experience pleasure but I didn’t feel I deserved either–surely there was something ugly on the inside of me that had been made manifest in my appearance. This message had been spoken to me in many different ways since I was a child, and I’d woven that criticism into my body until I’d forgotten that it was not a fundamental truth I’d been born into.
This body has paddled me out into waves; it has stretched, sweated, and danced; it has borne three children; it has tried to protect me with its deep gut knowing; it has held the more difficult experiences of my life in safe spaces, keeping them from me but not letting me forget they exist–always there in the tension of my shoulders. These wounds are present in the way my throat is sometimes gripped by dark anger, and in my muscles as I hold myself taut. My stories live in the scars and the lines and creases. And now, I’ve brought some of the hidden stories to the surface of my skin in the form of a tattoo my husband designed.
After watching several of my close friends go through major life transformations that culminated in a tattoo, I thought, I think that is going to be me. For all three friends, the tattoo was part of a spiritual journey. They wanted a record on their skin to keep them honest and committed to the gifts they’d been given through the difficulties of loss. They had all been betrayed or betrayed themselves in ways that broke relationships and mended broken parts of themselves.
My relationship to myself was also broken, and I was not good at trusting my instincts when it came to others. Again and again I’d allowed unhealthy relationships into my life despite my gut telling me to run away. I mistakenly cherished my ability to see the good in others as my greatest strength, even if those others would sooner or later harm me.
As a surfer, the shark has featured heavily in my dreams (and every time I surf the ocean). For a long time, the shark represented the fear that kept me from paddling out into the beauty of my life because I dared to want joy. But more recently, the shark has arrived as an ally. I had a realization that the sharks were trying to teach me something: They were not there to harm me, they were there to teach me about their sleek strength and authority, their single-minded commitment to their purpose. Sharks do not apologize for their existence. They trust all of the information their body is giving them about the environment for survival. I needed to learn from the shark and apply its nature to my own.
So I asked my husband, Dan, to design the shark part of my tattoo for me. When I was a free-spirited surfer in my twenties, I camped out at a break in Baja, California. The surf spot was miles down a washboard road through the desert on the way to a ramshackle fishing village. At that time, only surfers “in the know” could find the surf break. I met some great characters camping at that spot for almost two months. More importantly, this white sand stretch of surfers’ Neverland gave me my future. On the evening of a full moon and what they call a ‘king tide’ (when the tides are extreme) I went out to clean the dishes and subdue my anxiety about my future. A Maori bone carving awaited me on the beach. Freed from a barnacle it had been tangled around by the recent swell, it washed up in the tide line, where I found it. I felt called to New Zealand, where it originated. Two years later I arrived in New Zealand and met Dan, a man of great mana (spiritual presence/authority) and found home when I married him, and with his Maori family I inherited.
My shark tattoo incorporates Maori designs and the bone carving I found on the beach almost fifteen years ago. There are also three tiger lilies representing my three children, and a half-opened bud representing the baby we miscarried at thirteen weeks. The shark represents my lesson of trusting my gut instincts, purpose, and allowing both to protect the soft underside of my heart. The shark wraps around from my belly to the back of my ribs. I chose the lilies because in my childhood they captured my imagination and represented a wild, fierce, and beautiful freedom.
I have a reputation with my friends for not doing things by half-measures, and this tattoo has left me no room to argue that. One friend said, “For her first tattoo does Alegra get a cute little butterfly? Oh no, she gets a shark on her ribcage.” After I explained to a friend that the experience was a little bit like having my skin sliced and burned with a cigar, and my ribs carved at, the friend said, “That doesn’t sound like a ‘little discomfort’ that sounds like a Game of Thrones episode!” It’s true. By the end, I was squeezing my friend’s hand like I was in the last stages of labor and breathing with the same amount of focus. But I realized why all of my inked friends kept saying to me, “Alegra, pain is part of the process. Just surrender to it.”
There is something powerful about enduring pain that you have chosen. It can be a commitment to transformation. As I breathed through the pain of the tattoo, I thought about all the pain my body had weathered, and how there is no way out of pain but through. The pain of the needle awakened a beautiful image on my body, brought my stories to the surface so I would never be able to forget their lessons. I’d chosen to own my experiences and celebrate them.
Now, when I look in the mirror I see a love note to my body and spirit that says: you are worthy.
Photo credit: “Grey Reef Sharks” by Greg Boyd Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.