Beautifully Vulnerable

I went to morning water aerobics today. A class whose demographic doesn't have a lot of variety. Gray hair or dyed hair for the ladies, thin and gray or no hair for most of the men. Sags and bags and dimpled thighs - but none of us is there to impress anyone, we're just trying to keep everything on the inside as loose as our outsides are becoming.

I can generally keep up with what the instructor is trying to get us to do, except Wednesday which is water zumba. I can't dance on the ground, so trying to attempt it in water is even more ridiculous, but again, nobody really cares. Just move something. I do better the other days when it's just water aerobics which is essentially just keep moving. I can do that for an hour, and when I'm sore afterwards I sometimes spend 10 minutes in the hot tub, soaking the parts I suspect will ache that night.

Usually though, after class is over we all climb out, put our weights and noodles away, and head to the locker room. Men to the left, women to the right.

I decide not to bother with a shower, just head to the dressing room to dry off, dress and head home. The locker room is a tricky place because there are no stalls, no curtains - just one open room that isn't big enough to get away from each other. Not a lot of privacy. For men, they've been doing this since jr. high gym class; for women, we never get too comfortable with it.

A new woman has joined our class for the first time, and when I walk in she's standing there topless. Apparently completely unruffled by my entrance combined with her lack of clothing, she starts talking about the class. I look for somewhere, anywhere, to fix my gaze, act like I'm completely comfortable with her semi-nudity; worse, I realize I'm going to have to get out of this wet swimsuit that is stuck to my body and pull on my clothes, and if I try to cover up in the process she'll know I think it's weird she's uncovered. I'm feeling every bit of the anxiety I did back in high school gym class, when we'd strip off those one piece, pale blue jump suits, and Ms. Stahl would stand there, glaring at us all as we waited in line for the open shower, towels firmly wrapped around our naked selves.

I come up with no solution. I give in, pull down the top half of my wet suit, and without even drying much I hurry to pull on clothes, all the while trying to appear as if I'm in no  hurry, then sort of hide under my too-short-to-cover-anything top garments, to drop my swimsuit to the floor and pull on underwear and yoga pants.

In the middle of this awkward process another woman comes in and stands in between the two of us. She pulls everything off with no hesitation, and I'm standing there feeling like I'm surrounded by naked people, and not quite sure what to do or how to feel about it. They are completely unbothered. Maybe it's growing up in a house with eight people and one bathroom my entire life. This modesty is not a new addition, since childbirth or middle age began to settle on me; it's always been there. Today it's in full mode and there's nowhere to run.

The naked woman in the middle of the room starts talking to me, and her accent is so heavy European-something I can barely understand her. I notice there is something unusual about her body, an unevenness, but her sags and bags make it impossible to understand at first glance, which I'm doing as covertly as possible, all the while trying to fix my gaze on her face, and trying to understand what she is saying. This heavy, saggy, uneven older woman with hair sticking out from her head like a wet Bart Simpson. What is it about her?

Then she says words that are hard enough they cut the air, in spite of her accent, "The cancer, it was gone. Twenty years. Then it came back. And.....' and she points to the right side of her chest and I realize I'm seeing what was left behind from her mastectomy. I see the unevenness of her breasts, one full and looking like you'd expect the breast of an older woman to look; the other is just a lump of flesh high up on her chest, with no finish, because she didn't have reconstructive surgery. She continues talking to me about her cancer treatments, the surgery, and out of the corner of my eye I see a small something on the bench next to me. Her prosthesis, lying there.

I keep listening, looking at her face, my brain going a million miles a minute, nodding my head at her words.  She grabs her Playtex Cross Your Heart, fixes it on, then reaches down and picks up the tiny little package and slips it in the right side of her bra. Never bats an eye. Just matter of fact.

She's telling me she's at water aerobics because she had to quit her job because of her health. That the doctor told her the best thing she can do is exercise and eat healthy and she's not so good at eating healthy, so she's here to exercise. Because what else can she do?
We continue to chat, me almost unaware of the words being said between us. There is so much going on in my mind and heart that I have no idea what I'm really saying, but I try to hold up the conversation, encourage her that yes, we just have to keep trying, take care of ourselves, etc. etc. etc.

She smiles, I smile and we say goodbye and I leave the locker room to head home. All I can think of is how hard it was for me to bare my middle-age--and-some body to a couple of older women who don't bother much with modesty these days, and this scarred woman has been through so much that she doesn't fuss with trivial stuff such as hiding her naked, scarred body in a locker room of women.

What has she gone through, to get to this point? Her complete vulnerability, her strength, the beauty of it, her beauty took my breath away.

I wish I would have told her so.


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