My husband, Bear, snuggled against me, wrapping his arms around me. "I love how soft you are," he said.
A while ago, when he said this, I'd feel uncomfortable for a hint of a second. "Softer now than I used to be," I'd say, wondering if maybe he was thinking that, too. I'd make a poorly structured joke about my thighs.
It has not been easy for me to be soft. To get soft and to admit how soft I already was.
I remember, in college, this guy I was dating kept saying, "You definitely work out," in this admiring way, looking my body up and down.
"Nope!" I said, proud.
"No, come ON. You definitely do."
"No, I swear! I just look like this!"
"That is so crazy... Who just has a body like this? It's so hard!"
Me. I do. I did. And I felt relieved. Because I didn't want to work out, and apparently, I didn't need to, because the point of working out was to create for yourself a body that looked the way mine already did.
"You have runner's legs," guys told me, even though I never ran. Even though my friend who ran every day was always complaining about her legs, about how fat they were, how her thick, pronounced muscles made her legs ugly.
"There is, like, no fat on your body!" my friends sighed.
It felt like the world was celebrating me for being hard, lean, and accidentally fit-looking. (Sometimes I think people don't actually know what "fit" looks like -- it's all different, but we seem to only have one image, which often doesn't even correspond with fitness.)
My body felt cutting edge.
And then I started to get soft.
And I was nervous. Because softness isn't good. It's weakness. It's vulnerability. It's crying in class. It's having no will power. It's wimping out. It's giving up. It's admitting that you're actually not as cool as you've been pretending to be.
I used to fight not to cry. Crying was the worst thing. I would hate myself for getting upset. I'd hate myself for being so sensitive. For reading too much into other people's cues. For ascribing too much calculation to their random moods and casual rudeness. I wanted so badly not to care. Or at least, to care less.
In grad school, I felt like such a girl all the time. I didn't want to have to keep mentioning people when everyone else was talking about ideas, but I kept thinking of how the ideas would affect people, and then I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I felt strongly first, instead of thinking strongly. Because I spoke too soon, before I'd reasoned it out. Instead of thinking things out -- laying them out in neat, logical strips, side by side, until the line of them made a theory. Instead, I reacted. I got invested. I was moved by my research. I was soft.
A soft girl in a world where girls could finally be hard. Where girls were finally rewarded for hardness.
I wanted to be one of those girls.
I began to believe that inquisitiveness about the world -- the kind of curiosity that had brought me to grad school in the first place -- was better left to my brilliant, hard-minded classmates. That I should go write a song somewhere and give it a rest. That I wasn't going to change anyone's mind about anything important. That maybe I didn't have anything important to say.
It's been a few years since my body has gotten soft. It keeps getting softer.
It's only been a short time since it began to occur to me that my vulnerability might be OK. That maybe it's even a good thing.
That maybe the things that my mind holds onto are just as important as the things it releases. Not all of them, of course. For example, it is probably time to let go of all the lyrics to every Smashmouth song.
I am soft. I am fundamentally gentle, but not passive. I have some fire in my eyes, I think. I can pillow my head on my plush arm, and it's really convenient to always have a pillow. I exercise sometimes now, and I think of my heart, not my legs. I don't exercise and I think of my heart, not my legs. I look down at my legs and am surprised to find that they are no longer lean. The boy from college would not have the same compliments to give me. He would have to figure something else out.
Bear already has: "I love how soft you are," he whispers, half asleep.
"Me too," I say, mostly to myself.
Now that I've gotten soft, I wonder where it'll take me. Somewhere more comfortable, I think.
Maybe I'll even read some theory again, someday, with a softer eye.
As it turns out, I have something to say.
A version of this piece appeared originally on Eat the Damn Cake
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