I found a butterfly on the sidewalk yesterday — freshly passed, wings fully spread, lying still on its back as if it expired midair and floated to the ground. I picked it up for a friend, an artist who had recently revealed to me her love of such things. Though I cringed at the thought of carrying a butterfly carcass in my hand (not my thing), I figured it would be better served by making the trip to her home than by getting run over by a bike.
It was so large that the only way to transport it without doing damage was in my open palm, cupped gently against my side to prevent the breeze from carrying it away. I corralled my pit bull with my left arm, pulling back on his leash to slow our pace, and set out on the six-block walk home with my right arm crooked stiffly at 90 degrees.
As I walked, protectively hunched over, I could see passing drivers craning their necks to see what was wrong with me and realized that from a distance at 40 miles per hour I must have looked impaired somehow, either injured or disabled. People stared freely, peering out over their dashboards as they drove down the tree-lined street, seemingly unaware that I could see them right back.
It made me think of a personal training client of mine, a young woman — currently 20 years old — who had a stroke at the age of 11. She navigates the world with a severe tremor and no feeling in one side of her body. She has told me what it’s like to be stared at — carelessly, thoughtlessly stared at.
Walking down the sidewalk that day, I felt the drivers’ eyes on me and got a taste of what it’s like to be watched, but not seen, observed as an object of curiosity and pity. As a woman, I’ve been objectified countless times on the street, dodging catcalls from passing men, but this was different. These stares were not overt. They were silent, sideways observations; strange and disconcerting.
Of course, I wasn’t disabled or injured — I was just transporting a dead butterfly, trying to keep her wings intact. But to do that, I had to make my way down the street with what looked like a broken wing of my own, and that sort of thing makes people nervous. Bodies that don’t conform make people nervous.
I work with other people’s bodies for a living, and the greatest gift I have received from that work is the ability to see beauty in every living, breathing one of them — no matter what size they might be or what disability they might have. Our bodies are all a little odd, but there is reliable elegance in muscle and bone working together to move and lift and breathe.
I catch myself staring at strangers on the street, too, but for a different reason. I’m in awe of their ability to stay coordinated and in motion, to push a double stroller up a hill, to ride a bike, or corral a rambunctious, slobbering, joyful harem of mutts down the street. Sometimes it’s OK to look – but not to judge; instead to watch and learn the value of bodies we so often dismiss or neglect based on how they appear.
The butterfly was delivered safely. By the time she found her final resting place on a small branch in my friend’s curio cabinet, she had arched her back and stiffened into an upright pose with wings back and together, as if about to take flight again.
We all have a broken wing now and then, especially around the holidays with our hearts wide open and the weather putting us on ice. As winter creeps in, I can feel my own wings curling up, my back arching against the cold. But my clients have taught me to feed and nurture my body, to value whatever capacity I have, whenever I manage to have it. Working with them has taught me to notice what’s right with other people’s bodies instead of what’s wrong and take inspiration from that — and to keep right on moving.