Our Anatomical Accolades: Practising Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes in Adulthood

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Content warning: early pregnancy loss, miscarriage

“All day, all night, the body intervenes…”

In her essay On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf implores readers to develop a language in order to explore the experience of inhabiting a human body. No stranger to the myriad of ways the body can falter, Woolf considered this process integral to the art of living.

I was considering this as I waited in my surgical robe at the beginning of this year, ass and anxieties exposed, for a procedure treating my endometriosis.

Under the bright pale green halogen, I stretched my memory back to my five-year-old body reaching her little fingers to the dizzyingly colourful classroom ceiling while singing about all the different parts of the body and how marvellous it was to have one. It was joyous to know that the vessel through which I experienced living could do all sorts of remarkable things, and was going to get even stronger and faster.

As I developed, so too did the complexity of my relationship to my body. Even in an era of exposing and discussing antiquated beauty ideals, insecurity has a nasty habit of diffusing into our bloodstreams via cultural osmosis. Like my peers, I learned to discern the shape of my error as it reflected back to me in the bathroom mirror. Through illness, injury and mistreatment it is all too easy to become alienated from our bodies situationally as we navigate through life. How we view and approach our bodies is dynamic. No longer do I understand my body to simply be the sum of its constituent parts: the head, shoulders, knees and toes I sang about with glee when my body was much smaller.

As I was wheeled into the operating theatre, I wondered if we could reintroduce a healthy dose of heads, shoulders, knees and toes to our daily routine as we age, to explore the multitudes that the body contains. In adulthood, this singsong from our childhoods morphs into the subject of dry anatomy textbooks, but what if it didn’t have to? Perhaps we could take heed of Virginia Woolf’s argument: that the relationship with one’s body is multifaceted and worthy of exploration. So this is my brief ode to our anatomical accolades. A prompt to begin a ritual reflection of what we are made of, fingertips to the ceiling and all.

Heads

My favourite part of the brain, since my first ever neuroanatomy lesson, is the medulla oblongata. An unlikely choice, you might think, when you consider it within the constellation of talented brain structures surrounding it. It is a quiet achiever, and your number one supporter. The medulla sits atop your brainstem, and controls seemingly automatic processes: breathing, swallowing and blinking, to name a few. Like our moon gently tugs the tide to shore, the medulla oblongata signals the pull of oxygen into, and carbon dioxide out of, your lungs. Often without much thought or deliberation, noise or fuss, you are kept in the realm of the living.

Shoulders

The bones that form the shoulder joint, and in fact your whole skeleton, are simultaneously light enough to lift and strong enough to withstand extraordinary force. At your very foundations you are tough as rock, yet weightless enough to roam. While bones may seem stagnant, they are very much alive, fluctuating in density according to relative levels of exercise. A hopeful thought, maybe, that the structure in our bodies that seems the most concrete is in fact not fixed at all. It is dynamic, and capable of growing and morphing just as we do.

Knees

Knees offer clues as to our lives lived up to this very moment. Often they are adorned with scars from an overestimation of our agility, or a lack of forethought in moments of pure excitement. Knees can illustrate a scoreboard for how many times we fell off a bike before it made a slow and shaky descent down the driveway. Maybe a mindmap of young drunken mishaps etched into skin. Knees are also as unique as fingerprints, meaning no other person on this earth has the same knee knobbles as yours. You are unique down to the knobbles of your knees.

Toes

The toes, or the feet in general, are the most deserving of an accolade in my opinion.

In August, I discovered that I had fallen pregnant. The murkiness that had shrouded all of the surgeries, procedures and early miscarriages of the past had faded into a distant memory and was replaced instead by the thrill of a palpable atmosphere of hope. In October, at a 13-week scan, the tiny drum of the heartbeat we had heard in weeks earlier did not sound; instead, there was only silence, and the nervous finger tapping of the ultrasound technician. In the weeks that have followed, my feet have carried me, in spite of my overwhelming lack of will, to the shower when I have needed one. They have carried me to see friends and family whose sad eyes I had been avoiding. Most notably, they have carried me to the hospital to meet my pain toe to toe. When I woke from my surgery and blinked myself into wakefulness, the first thing I thought to do was wiggle my toes.

The relationship with our bodies is one of the longest we will ever have, and it is deserving of our time and thoughtful consideration. As with most things, lessons from childhood can guide us in our practice of presence, when the body feels like an incredible feat of nature, and perhaps most importantly, when it seems to betray us.

Photo by Larm Rmah

If this piece has brought anything up for you and you’re in Australia, you can call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436, 7am to midnight (AET) to speak to a maternal child health nurse for advice and emotional support. Also, SANDS is an independent organisation that provides support for miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death. You can call them on 1300 072 637 or visit www.sands.org.au.

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