Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

A love letter to my body

In a quirky take on St Valentine's Day we asked three women to write a rather unusual letter. Columnists, Frances Burscough and Nuala McKeever, and cancer survivor Ciara Priestley put pen to paper

Frances Burscough

We've certainly come a long way together, haven't we? Fifty years and still going strong! Life hasn't exactly been easy I know, but you always keep going like an old and faithful dog and for that I am truly grateful.

I just want you to know that despite all that we've been through – the ups and downs, the highs and lows – I really do appreciate you.

But before I can tell you just how much, I need to confess a few home truths about our lifelong relationship for which I'm far from proud.

I say mean things all the time about you just to get a laugh. I've called you names and disrespected you in front of others just to fit in. I've described you as a "dumb blonde" and "mutton dressed as lamb" more often than I can remember.

I've cursed you; I've doubted you; I've tried to change you so many times and made fun of you to anyone who will listen.

I've wished you were taller, thinner, prettier. I've complained when you've been feeling ill, instead of looking after you properly. I've given you junk food when you really should have had a salad, I don't allow you to do half the exercise you really need and even encourage you to smoke and drink without so much as a second thought about your health and wellbeing.

I've never once given you a probiotic yoghurt, Omega 3 fatty acids or anything containing bran. I don't know or care what "good bacteria" is and as for cholesterol intake, the more the merrier as far as I'm concerned.

And worst of all, I've never even once ensured you got your so-called five-a-day. Unless we're talking about alcohol units, that is.

I admit all of these and promise I will do my best in future to treat you the way you really deserve, because deep down, you've always been more than good to me.

And here are just a few examples of why I'm pretty damn proud of you.

I'll start with the best things first: my wonderful boys. The two greatest things that ever happened in my life are thanks to you. I know it wasn't easy for you either. Four miscarriages and all the heartbreak that went with them nearly finished us off didn't it? But finally we got there in the end... and just look at them now! Two perfect young men; tall (how did that happen?!) dark and handsome with such great personalities, kind hearts and thoughtful minds that I still can't really believe were a gift from you. The best gift ever.

Who needs Valentines?

You can still fit into most of the things you wore 20 years ago and I don't just mean the earrings. So far, you've avoided the dreaded middle-aged spread, rarely feel the need to wear compression hosiery or big knickers and only then when you know there's absolutely no chance you'll get lucky.

You've never done botox, fillers, lifts, nips or tucks and yet still get wolf whistles from time to time.

Your hair hasn't started to go grey yet and the crows' feet only appear when you frown, so you rarely do.

You can still swim like a fish, sing like a bird and see heaven in a wild flower. You still have all your faculties, all your senses, your health, your happiness and your freedom. And what's more, deep inside is the same joie de vivre and sense of fun you had when you were a kid.

So, all in all, you suit me down to the ground.

It took a while, but now I've grown accustomed to your face and I wouldn't have you any other way.

Nuala McKeever

If they'd asked me to write a love letter to you a year ago, I would have laughed. "A love letter to THIS chubby, scarred, wrinkly embarrassment? Are y'mad? I want to cover it up, not talk about it!"

But now I can't shout it loudly enough, "Body, I LOVE YOU!"

What's the difference?

I went from looking for problems to seeing gifts. Those chubby cheeks that my Ma told me I'd be glad of when I was older, even though they were the bane of my teenage life? Look at them now, with laughter lines and smile lines and deepening lines from every facial expression I've ever had.

This face is the map of my life. This face is ME. I don't need a Facebook history slideshow to record what I've done and who I've been. Every year of my history is being carried right here in this glorious facial archive.

These bingo-winged arms I used to be ashamed of? Why would I want rid of them? They're the arms that have hugged every person I love. They've held newborn nieces and nephews, gone round the shoulders of my mother as she recovered from a heart attack, squeezed my beloved with joy and held him when he was gone.

These legs that need shaved and tanned just to be presentable, never mind hiding that cellulite?

Look at those scars from being tripped in a school race and that time playing 'sardines' with a boy I fancied when I was nine! These marks say I lived!

That swollen arthritic foot joint that I've gurned about and blamed for my lack of exercising? It's a constant reminder that I can still walk. And, of course, my very worst enemy, and now my wee friend (well, when I say 'wee', I mean in the affectionate sense) my wobbly belly. Come rain, hail, diets, exercise, it's always there. Perhaps it used to be in the IRA, because it definitely hasn't gone away y'know.

I've defined my self-worth by you, Buddha Belly, since I was 11. Holding you in, fearful someone would touch you when I wasn't concentrating and discover my shameful secret – I'm fat!

Now, I thank you for being the place I place my hands on when I lie in bed at night. My centre, my anchor, my always there core of me-ness.

Dear body, I haven't got anyone else, but I do have you, for as long as you'll keep breathing in and out. I only exist because you give me expression.

Without you, I couldn't enjoy anyone else and they couldn't know me. You'll be with me and I'll be with you every single moment of every day until I die. If that's not love, I don't know what is ...

Ciara Priestly

When I look at you, I see scars. The first ones come from the double mastectomy I elected to have in 2009 shortly after my daughter Poppy was born.

I desperately wanted to stay alive for her and my older son Jake (now 10).Testing had revealed that I had the BRCA1 gene which increased my risk of breast cancer.

Those scars are testimony to the surgery that saved my life. Two weeks after the operation, when the stitches were removed, doctors told me -- to my astonishment -- that I had stage three breast cancer.

It's standard procedure to send the removed breast tissue to the pathology lab and that's where the disease was detected. It would have been six months before it was discovered otherwise and by then it would have been too late.

The next scars come from surgery to remove my lymph nodes, following which I went through a course of chemotherapy for six months.

It was when I was having chemo that I started to dress to design brightly coloured scarves to hide my hair loss instead of scratchy wigs. Now, that's how I make my living.

After that came a radical hysterectomy -- the BRCA1 gene is also linked to ovarian cancer, and markers in my blood had risen during the chemotherapy indicating potential problems. That surgery left more scars. I call it my year from hell.

There are more scars still from my breast implants. I've had constant problems with them since they've been put in. Last year they both ruptured and had to be replaced.

More surgery.

When I look at my breasts now they don't feel part of me.

Dear body, I look at you differently now. Before, I was the same as everyone else, wanting to lose a few pounds and tone up, the way everyone else does. All women are harsh on themselves.

When I look at you now I know you'll never be the same as you were. You have those scars for good reason and without them, I wouldn't be here.

I look at you now and the old hang-ups aren't there. I just want to be happy and healthy; it doesn't matter what you look like.

We've been through a lot together, you and I, and I hope we go on together for years to come. That is a hope shared by my fiancee, Peter Wilson.

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