Pole dance, pain tolerance, and privilege

My physical therapist once said to me, “You have a really high tolerance for pain.” I was lying on my back on her treatment table as she kneaded a stainless steel scraping tool into my shoulder. As she worked, she implored, “Just let me know if this is too much.”

I was at her clinic for my cranky shoulders, a not-uncommon gripe among pole dancers. My first reaction to her assertion was a polite, “Oh, really?” I had no idea if my pain tolerance was any higher or lower than the average person’s, and no reason to think her observation was anything more than just that: a neutral observation. Your fingers are cold. Your arms are freckled. Your hair is brown. Yet I was proud. In a way, I had been training my body for many years to receive a comment like this—and not just through pole dance.

I grew up a fat, sedentary, depressed child. My body was a stranger, a thing that happened to me—all of its aches and pains, its weight meted out in gradually increasing numbers on the bathroom scale. It wasn’t until college—out of my parents’ house, alone in a new city—that I stumbled into bodily autonomy. Able to feed and dress and move myself in ways that had no baggage or expectations attached to it, I did. I became higher-educated, and I became un-sedentary for the first time in my life. The college gym gave way to outdoor running gave way to—eventually—the pole studio.

With each new endeavor, I developed a greater familiarity with my body. My eating and exercise habits changed. The aches and pains that I didn’t understand began to disappear, replaced by aches and pains that had a clear source. Sore calves? That’s from the 18-mile run I did on Saturday. Headache? Oops, I forgot to drink enough water yesterday. I became so in-tune with my body that I could even sense the earliest signs of an oncoming cold—and prevent it, with a few modifications to my behavior.

Pole is an inherently painful sport, and pursuing it has taught me the difference between good pain and bad pain. I know, for example, that the searing pain between my thighs in superman, or across my stomach in a hands-free cradle, should not worry me the same way shooting pain in my shoulder does.

Contorting myself around a hard, inflexible metal bar and using my skin as friction to prevent sliding, my nerves have become peripherally desensitized. The initial, brutal shock of the pain that is pole dance has become less and less. I wouldn’t call it a completely painless sport—not by far—but the sensations are comfortable, familiar. They throw up no red flags.

By this alone, I wouldn’t be surprised if pole dancers did have higher pain tolerances than the average person. But my complicated relationship with pain and malady goes beyond this.

This past week, my brother graduated from college and I went “home” to visit my parents. A couple of days into my trip, a pain like no other pain I’ve ever experienced settled into my bones—or what I can only guess is my bones. It was an all-encompassing, my-bones-feel-like-they’re-exploding-and-nothing-gives-me-relief pain. Not foam rolling, because the pain wasn’t in the muscles. Not stretching, which was impossible: just bending over slightly would send a searing pain down the backs of my legs and through my pelvis. I didn’t know what was causing it. I didn’t know how to make it stop. It was, quite simply, like my body was malfunctioning.

The fact that I was in my childhood home complicated this. My mother is very into natural healing and alterative medicines. Growing up, if I had a headache, a cold, a cavity, a stomach ache, eczema, or even acne, I was shamed for it—especially if I chose to treat the pain or discomfort with over-the-counter medicines. In her view, my suffering was the direct result of something I’d done wrong. If only I didn’t eat the things I ate, or took the supplements she recommended, or stopped “letting” myself be anxious, I’d be fine. My mother had the answers, and I was—and am—just a child, less knowledgeable about my own body than she.

Obviously, when this pain started, I didn’t tell her about it. I’m an imperfect human, raised by an imperfect human, and instead of saying, “It’s my body, and only I know what I’m feeling, so please refrain from offering unsolicited advice,” I waited in agony for her to go out to her garden so that I could scour the house for Advil, in hopes that it would allow me to sleep through the night.

As much as I disagree with my mother’s method of sharing her learnings and passions with the world—and as much damage as I know internalizing her beliefs have caused me—I don’t want her to be disappointed in me. It’s never been easy to earn her approval—yet it’s not even something I’m sure I want. Rational-me certainly doesn’t. It’s some other part of me that does. I have a high pain tolerance, but it’s come at a cost.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live with chronic pain. This last week has been the closest I may ever come to experiencing it, if I’m lucky. It was scary, thinking my body had betrayed me. I have never felt more thankful to feel nothing than when the pain lifted—whether briefly, thanks to the Advil, or finally, when at last yesterday I started feeling like “me” again.

Yet, who is “me”?

“Me” is the person who makes choices without having to consider her pain level, but “me” is also equally the person who was waylaid for a week by pain she didn’t choose or even see coming.

She’s proud, but she’s also ashamed.

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