How Trying To Take Up Less Space Landed Me In Physical Therapy

I remember the body I envisioned for myself: “Strong-looking” (not strong), “toned” (not bulky), “healthy” (trim). Image: Thinkstock.

I remember the body I envisioned for myself: “Strong-looking” (not strong), “toned” (not bulky), “healthy” (trim). Image: Thinkstock.

What is the medical term for trying to shrink because the world doesn’t want you to exist?

I don’t remember when I started holding in my stomach.

Maybe in junior high, when it first hit me with some serious earth-shattering force that boys were judging my looks. It might’ve been at age 11, when I was told I couldn’t fit into a pair of white capris I desperately wanted, and so I silently swore I’d diet my way into them. Or perhaps it was sooner, a lesson gleaned through the mirrors of the ballet studio where I never quite felt at home.

It’s hard to trace a habit so ingrained that I don’t know it exists.

Until I’m lying on a table and her hand rests at my solar plexus and she tells me to let go. I can’t. I don’t know how, or not yet.


The medical explanation for why I’m in physical therapy is this: I am a musician with an overuse injury.

At the end of a particularly demanding summer of practice and performance, often clocking up to eight hours a day, my arms are exhausted and sore. I take a week off to rest, filling it with plenty of warm showers, stretching often. I ice the troubled areas every morning and night to reduce inflammation. Then I take another week off. Then one more.

It’s a month of fruitless self-treatment before I finally seek out the help I need.

I find myself in a pale gray studio, light pouring in through bay windows lined with spider plants and succulents. A tall bookshelf speaks of anatomy and grief.

Why are you here? Where do you feel it? How long?

I point to the place my physical therapist will say feels like a rock. This is not a small thing.


“Your hands are worth more than gold,” my mom used to tell me. “Take care of them at all costs.”


In the first few sessions, we practice sitting down and standing up. She tells me to imagine my spine as a single line from tailbone to crown. Let my heels sink into the floor and release my knees, softly, to come into a seat.

There, I am tense. Even in stillness, each muscle that moved me remains clenched.

She asks me why, but the only answer I can come up with is that it never occurred to me to relax.


I’m sick of trying to be small. The pursuit of smallness is literally breaking me.


Week after week, she guides my shoulders out of their typical forward slump. At first, the unfamiliarity aches. I’m used to falling asleep and waking up in a fetal position, adapted to narrowing myself to fit in a packed train or a backseat of a car, accustomed to accentuating my collar bones by rounding my back convexly. No wonder my arms are exhausted, she reasons. The shapes I hold aren’t structurally sound.

Gradually, I learn what that means: that my misaligned back causes my neck to seize up, and my neck is connected to my shoulders are connected to my arms are connected to my fingers, and when my back doesn’t do its job, everything else works overtime, and shouldn’t this all be obvious?

But somehow, it’s not. Somehow, I don’t know how to be in this body without hurting it.


On the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, I build a fire in the snow. Just me and my teenage journals dismembered into kindling.

Words jump out at me as I feed pages into the flames: names of books I’ve read, names of extinguished crushes, names of muscle groups exercised, and exactly how many repetitions. Sexy Arms Workout, Butt Blast, Flat Abs in 15 Minutes.

Yes, I remember now.

I remember the body I envisioned for myself: “Strong-looking” (not strong), “toned” (not bulky), “healthy” (trim).


I say I’m in physical therapy because I’m a musician with an overuse injury. That’s the simplest way to put it.

Truthfully, though, I’m in physical therapy because I’m a musician with a misuse injury.

Even more truthfully? I’m a musician with a misuse injury because I’m a person who misuses her body all the time.

I suck in my stomach to look thinner than I am. I turn in my toes like a little girl. I slink my shoulders towards one another to be small, smaller, always smaller.

And when I do these things, unnecessary contraction creates strain on my entire musculature. Under these conditions, not only does movement become more laborious, it becomes self-destructive.

What is the medical term for trying to shrink because the world doesn’t want you to exist?

I’m sick of trying to be small.

The pursuit of smallness is literally breaking me.


It takes me just under an hour to get to my appointment: a bus and a train and a walk through a bustling neighborhood dotted with sandwich shops, upscale used furniture stores, and clothing boutiques.

Faceless mannequins face the street with their necks forward. Pelvises forward. Shoulders forward. Backs sinking back. Bodies that were built to withstand feminine ideals of beauty.

And when mannequins break, they are easily discarded and replaced.


My physical therapist says I’m getting better.

I want to believe she’s right, despite the doubt and anxiety that creep in at night. But then there are moments when progress is undeniable. I can feel it down to my bones.

It doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen by accident.

If my injury was a result of bad habits cemented through constant repetition, then my recovery is the outcome of doing it differently over and over again.

Recovery is taking the time to do my homework between sessions. Recovery is being mentally present as I go through each motion seven times, doctor’s orders. Seven — for good luck, maybe.

Recovery is applying the lessons of my formal treatment to everyday life: We practice sitting down and standing up, so that when I leave her studio, I can take a seat on the bus and stand up as we approach my stop without clenching every muscle in my body.

We practice lifting, rotating, and spreading my arms wide so I know this full range of motion exists — so I don’t forget my own true size.


On Valentine’s Day, I don’t dream that I am cured, but rather, that I am en route.

In an open field, in the company of fictional characters, I am performing again. Solo. As in waking life, it’s been months since I’ve played music.

I don’t expect to sound my best, but it’s OK, that’s not the point. I’m wearing an incredibly unflattering dress and my hair looks like an abandoned bird’s nest after winter, but it’s okay, that’s not the point either.

All I think about is broadening my shoulders, my un-gripped tummy filling with and emptying of breath, my limbs moving freely.

It does not hurt.

And when I wake up, I believe all of this is possible.

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