When did you first realize that you had become a grown-up? For 2010 Life Lessons Essay Contest winner Andrea Avery, it was the day she came full circle, having learned to take joy in her body in a way she hadn’t done since childhood.

By Andrea Avery
Updated March 04, 2010
Laurie Frankel

I’m 33, and I have my very own walker. I keep it in the garage with my old schoolwork and the Christmas decorations. It’s a nice model―a collapsible platform style, with gray vinyl arm rests and joystick-style hand grips. I got the walker in 2004, when both my knees were replaced in a single operation. Having been diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis at age 12, I knew better than to think I could get rid of the walker once I had healed. I put it back in the garage for a couple of years and then dusted it off in 2006, when I had my left hip replaced, and again in 2007, when my left knee replacement failed and I had to have it redone. Now the walker is back in the garage, ready for the next, inevitable operation.

I often think about the years of my life before I developed rheumatoid arthritis, that ever shrinking “before.” I have always been what you might call “fashion adventurous,” and from the time I was very little, I put together look-at-me outfits that were equal parts Laura Ingalls Wilder, Stevie Nicks, and Wonder Woman. For the first decade of my life, despite a tendency toward pudginess and ragamuffin hair, I was completely comfortable in my skin. We didn’t, as far as I knew, own a bathroom scale, and my body was a reliable and solid (albeit clumsy) thing under my command, a thing to be danced and decorated.

The development of arthritis―a so-called old person’s disease―coincided with puberty. In addition to several awkward inches of height and new breasts, I was suddenly thin―too thin. My gait was an awkward limp. My limbs were spindly, punctuated by hot, throbbing joints. I had no choice but to become aware of my body, to take an inventory each morning of what hurt the most. Dressing became an exercise in camouflage. I stopped wearing sleeveless shirts because I hated the way they exposed my elbows, frozen in a bent position. I stopped wearing shorts or skirts because I detested the way my pale chicken legs sprung from them. I wore jeans and flannel shirts three sizes too big because I was so anxious that I weighed too little; I figured it was best to just hide it all.

And what I did with my body changed, too. No more soccer, tap, or ballet. No more sledding or rolling down the hill or evening bike rides or long days at the public pool in my hometown of Rockville, Maryland. No Saturdays spent tooling around the roller-skating rink. I stopped doing these things not just because they hurt but also because it hurt―differently and perhaps more―to be seen trying to do them. I focused my energy on reading, writing, and playing the piano. I became good at things I could do sitting down, safe behind a desk or a keyboard. I felt most powerful when I was heard and not seen, like the Wizard of Oz.

Like so many girls and women, I spent about 10 years obsessing over what the world would think if I went out in public in a bathing suit―and I decided the universe would not tolerate the sight of imperfect me. Far too many times, I did not go; I did not swim.

My exuberant sense of fashion didn’t wane, though, and as I grew older, I found ways to dress like a weirdo yet still work within the rules I had set for myself: Still no sleeveless shirts or shorts, but full 1950s skirts or tutus with layers of tulle were fine―and great for covering my still-too-skinny legs, which were also stuck at 45-degree angles. I worked hard to develop a walk that I thought disguised my limp. As a young woman on the dating scene, I chose to perch with my glass of wine at a high-top table rather than a cozy booth because it was easier to get down than up. And I hoped whichever man I was talking to would leave before I did, so he wouldn’t see my bottom half. I worked hard to protect perfect strangers from what (I assumed) would be more than they could handle. I did not enjoy the wine or the men or my own charms, because I was preoccupied with making a deft exit.

I have grown up since then. I am a teacher with a husband and a mortgage and a gym membership to combat those pounds that snuck up on me the very day I turned 30. But the moment when I realized I was really an adult happened at, of all places, the roller-skating rink.

One summer day last year, faced with more time off than I had had in ages, I found myself thinking about those “before” years. What was it I used to do on long summer days back when I was a kid? I considered my newly strong, straight legs (courtesy of my most recent operation) and matching pair of vertical surgical scars. I hopped on the computer and looked up the nearest roller rink.

This rink, despite being 2,500 miles away from the one I had grown up skating on, smelled exactly the same: rubber and leather and popcorn. The same sea horse–beautiful girls with their graceful, lithe bodies and long hair wheeled around the rink, fast and perfect. I felt a flutter of anxiety as I laced up the brown-and-orange rental skates and stepped onto the rink. I was wobbly. I thought, I’ll never make it around even once. But I did. I made it around once, then twice. Slowly but surely I moved away from the wall. My muscles recalled all that they used to know, and soon I was skating, truly skating, even working on that smooth crossover move for the turns.

Hours later, a flush had returned to my cheeks, one I hadn’t felt in ages: that post–soccer practice flush, that happy Saturday-spent-playing-outside exhaustion. For the first time in a long while, exertion was more joyful than painful. And I realized I hadn’t had a single thought about what any of those people―those not-so-perfect strangers―had thought of me, of my body. I had been more focused on how I felt than how I looked.

And so this is adulthood to me: emerging from those self-conscious years to find that people aren’t looking at me as much as I had feared (or, perhaps, secretly hoped) they were. In fact, I am―we all are―both horribly and wonderfully anonymous in this world. I realized I had grown up when I found that I could play like a child and enjoy it all the more for knowing what my body has been through, that this glee is hard-won.

I don’t long for the utterly body-unaware days of my early childhood; rather, I thrill at feeling my muscles and tendons and ligaments―that they have been severed and sewn back together and yet still do what I command them to do. Like a child, I love being in my body. As an adult, I know that taking pleasure in that body is itself an accomplishment. I am someone with a chronic, incurable disease, so I know I will have more surgeries, and I will need that walker again. When I do, I’ll reluctantly put my hot pink–and-white roller skates in the garage. But as soon as I’ve recovered from the latest procedure, I will trade my walker for my wheels in a few seconds flat.

Nowadays I go to the rink every chance I get. I bounce and bop and move my arms. When they play “Y.M.C.A.,” which I was happy to discover they still do, I never fail to do the moves. I refuse to miss out on one more second of simply moving. I smile at those beautiful sea horse girls, and silently I hope that they are enjoying those strong, powerful bodies they have right now, and that it doesn’t take them 15 years to get there. When I skate, I wear the cutest, shortest shorts I can find.

Meet the Contest Winner

A 10th-grade English teacher in Paradise Valley and a part-time instructor at Arizona State University in Tempe, Andrea Avery, 33, of Phoenix claimed the $3,000 prize after vying with a whopping 6,970 contenders. In addition to the cash and the publication of her essay, Avery won round-trip tickets for two to New York City, a hotel stay for two nights, Broadway tickets, and lunch with the editors of Real Simple. “Ecstatic is the word I’d use to describe winning this contest,” says Avery. “My husband is thrilled, too, since he will get to see New York for the first time.”