Body Inventory

On loving the body I live in and with

Cai Emmons
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readFeb 15, 2022


A peeling and cracked foot
Photo: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

I was in college and deeply involved in theater. We were doing an exercise blindfolded, in a dark room, and we were instructed not to speak but to get to know each other by touch — a group grope. Afterwards one of the participants told me he’d noticed my rib cage was unusual for the way it went straight down rather than curving in at the waist. He said this without judgment; he was simply offering an observation. I hadn’t ever noticed this anomaly about myself, this certain way my body was different from other bodies. Bill Ochs is forever imprinted on my memory for having said that.

Over the years others have made comments about my body, and I always remember them. One summer in middle school a fellow camper noticed I had a protruding pubic bone. My former mother-in-law, measuring me for a sweater, was shocked at how broad my shoulders were. On the gurney in a New York emergency room an intern told me I had good childbearing hips; later, another doctor noted that it was unfortunate I couldn’t bear children because my nipples were excellent for breastfeeding. (I will not linger on the inappropriate nature of these comments from doctors.) My hairdresser has told me I have a long neck. After a hot yoga class in which we all faced the mirror, a young woman who was new to the studio came up to me and said: “You are a beast!” — a compliment about my strength. And, the most touching observation ever reported to me about my body was made by a seven-or-eight-year-old boy who I was reading with in a volunteer program. One day he pointed to a small lump of flesh between two of my knuckles. “What’s that?” he said, poking the lump. How keen-eyed he was. I hated to tell him I didn’t know.

Have others experienced such comments, or have I invited them? I don’t know. But I do know that I have an elephantine memory for them. I have always taken a keen interest in bodies, my own and those of other people, long before I was afflicted. I thought of becoming a doctor, but I didn’t want a doctor’s relationship to bodies. I wanted to observe, appreciate, describe. Personalize, not depersonalize. People have remarked that my fiction is full of descriptions of bodies, and that is probably true. So much of character stems from bodies we live in and with.

I don’t have a “perfect” body according to our cultural standards, those of Hollywood and advertising, but I have never hated my body as some women have. I went through an adolescent period of trying to become thinner, and I have always tried to become stronger with exercise, but I have mostly accepted the body I was born to.

I am constantly taking inventory. I’ve made a study of how my feet (a favorite body part) respond to changes in the humidity, swelling and shrinking, bones and tendons become more or less visible. I compare my two feet — the right has a bunion, the left does not. I keep track of accumulating scars: the one across my right thumb from childhood when I was opening a tin of cat food and was sliced by the sharp top. The abdominal scar from the ruptured ovarian pregnancy I had in my twenties. The longitudinal scar down my left wrist where a titanium plate was implanted after I broke the bone. I wear these scars proudly, signs of a life lived fully, sometimes a bit recklessly. And I monitor my two new “orifices” with particular fascination. The hole in my belly — a direct line to my stomach — for my feeding tube, small and discrete, with a seal that clicks into place. And the bump near my clavicle (another favorite body part) that houses a port for infusions. My inner anatomy has never been more present to me.

Do others take stock of their bodies as I do? I don’t know because the culture legislates against discussing these things too much. We must enjoy our bodies’ workings, their smells and functions, privately, illicitly. Thinking too much about bodies — and discussing them — is considered inappropriate, even impolite. Perhaps focusing too much on bodies reminds us of our mortality, the difficult reality that eventually all our bodies will succumb to decay.

When I was growing up I received mixed messages about the human body. When my sisters and I were young kids our mother, thinking of herself as bohemian, took us skinny-dipping and led us to dancing naked in the rain. What joy we all took in that, loving the mischief. She liked to think of herself as open to talking about sex, too, but when we were teenagers and the subject arose, it was horribly awkward, and we tried to shut her up. And there was a part of her that was scared of bodies. She made it clear that anything to do with the body’s malfunction was best concealed. The message was: Suck up pain and, when ill, try to stay out of view and heal privately; this isn’t something we discuss. The dark subtext was that any illness you suffered you might have brought on yourself, a Puritan New England way of thinking that ran deep.

Despite my Puritan inheritance I have always enjoyed reaping the pleasures that living in a body delivers: dancing, eating, sex, skinny-dipping, along with numerous other physical activities like cross-country skiing, yoga, hiking, biking, strolling. Did I mention sleeping, an activity I relish? Doing these things is the perfect counterbalance to the cerebral activities of a writing life. But I haven’t been able to shake the Puritan attitudes entirely, and I often admonish myself: Get back to your real work, the life of the mind! Since Descartes, the idea that the mind and body are separate entities has been hard to shake. In that dualistic way of thinking the body is the mind’s servant, and this view persists, despite what we have learned about the gut biome being like a second brain, and the research that shows that thought, feeling, and flesh are inextricably entwined.

I am confident that I will continue to love my body even as it atrophies. My mother set a high bar for me to emulate. When she was well into her eighties she called me one Sunday morning, sounding very chipper. “Well, Cai,” she said, “how are you doing? I’ve had two orgasms; I walked two miles; and I swam for 10 minutes.” Do you really need to share this, I thought, but how could I keep from laughing? I realized I was happy for her — and proud.

I am my mother’s daughter. You won’t be getting such calls from me, I promise, but I’ll be here taking ongoing inventory of my body’s changes, living with as much gusto as I can muster, and finding creative ways to shock my friends.

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Cai Emmons
Human Parts

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.