Even though I grew up in sunny Southern California, I never wore tank tops. I was irrationally self-conscious about the appearance of my arms. I thought they were ugly. I thought they were too big. I thought they were too pale. I thought everyone would notice that they were covered in tiny bumps from keratosis pilaris, an insignificant condition so common that it affects up to 80% of adolescents and 50% of adults.
In the 4th grade, I wore a flannel over my sleeveless ballet recital costume until seconds before I went onstage. In high school, I braved family vacations to Hawaii and Arizona with a suitcase full of long sleeved shirts and a stick of Teen Spirit. And when Alterations told me my wedding dress would look janky if they added sleeves, as I had originally intended, I was crestfallen and terrified; it was supposed to be the Most Important Day of My Life… how was I going to enjoy it with all the guests staring at my arms?
My mom struggled with her weight while I was growing up, and I vividly remember her saying she would never wear a tank top. Almost like it was the right thing to do, like she was sparing the good citizens of our community the discomfort of having to look at her body. Still, it never occurred to me that my tank top aversion was a learned behavior. That is, until my early twenties, when I discovered that my sister, who has always been a lanky bean pole, shared my irrational fear of sleeveless tops. She too had memories of our mom’s troubled relationship with her arms. We had certainly been paying attention.
In 2010, I moved across the country and experienced my very first New York City summer. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the unique agony of waiting for the subway in 98°F with 80% humidity. For the first time in my life, the physical discomfort of the heat had eclipsed my self-consciousness. So I bought my first tank top. And then I wore it. And the thing is… my world didn’t fall apart. People didn’t point and laugh. I was even cat called a few times by those rowdy Manhattan construction workers. I wore a tank top and it was fine.
I’m thankful for the lesson, and also curious as to what else in my life I’m not doing because I’m afraid and haven’t been pushed.
Look, I’m not saying my relationship with my arms is all butterflies and rainbows. I’ve still got a lot of relearning and reframing to do. But I’m much more mindful of how damaging it can be to harbor so much negativity toward a physical manifestation of YOU. If I’m working on self-love, it certainly doesn’t help for me to say, “Except for you, Arms. You, I’ll never love.” So I’m taking baby steps. I’m trying to be mindful of how blessed I am to have functioning arms, trying to be grateful for their strength and agility. I’m taking a great deal of pride in my arm balances in yoga – I could take a nap in Crow Pose. Some mornings, before hopping into the shower, I’ll perform a little Ayurvedic self-massage, paying specific attention to my arms, thanking them for all that they do. I’m also trying to reevaluate my conception of the ideal arm. Who says it has to be lean and sinewy? Maybe the perfect arm is broad and strong, thick with muscle and healthy tissue. Maybe that kind of arm can even make ballet look good.
A few months ago, my mom watched as an older woman carrying some extra weight stripped down to her bathing suit to enjoy the ocean. She decided then and there that she would no longer let fear dictate her participation in life. I am so lucky that I get to learn from her. And by the way, she wears tank tops now. And she looks hot.