Our legs help us defend ourselves, move around, dance in celebration, and connect to the earth. They make up approximately 30% of our body mass, offering a large space to help us manage emotions.
Our whole body mobilizes in an emergency, including our legs. They might want to kick as part of a fight response or run as part of a flight response. They might want to stay closed to defend against rape. They might get “weak-kneed” and collapse as part of a freeze response if escape seems impossible.
The intense mobilization in the legs often gets suppressed rather than used. We disconnect from our legs, losing our connection to movement, grounding, and a reservoir for emotion.
We can reconnect by understanding our structure and sensing into our legs. When the suppressed energy starts to move again, you might notice trembling, heat, or tingling. In its wake, you might notice increased delight in the present moment.
Human legs vary in girth, length, proportion, strength, flexibility, smoothness, and hairiness. We quickly learn to judge our legs for how they appear to others rather than embrace them as an integral part of ourselves. Especially for women, “ideal” legs are attainable for a select few in adolescence and become increasingly unlikely as we age.
Legs also vary in their ability to bear weight, walk, run, sit comfortably, and move without pain. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, our constructed environment is still unnecessarily difficult to navigate for people who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs, scooters, and baby strollers.
Relate to your legs
As you learn more about their structure, notice how you relate to your legs. You might find friendliness, judgment, numbness, distance, gratitude, anger, and other emotions and attitudes.
Also notice how your legs relate to you. When you listen to them, what do you hear? You might get sensory information, impulses toward movement, associations with the past, numbness, or emptiness. If you rarely reach out to your legs, you might notice resentment or loneliness at first. The body is usually quick to forgive and happy to reconnect.
When we put “hands on hips”, our hands actually rest on the iliac crests of the pelvis. The hip joints, where the femurs (thigh bones) meet the pelvis, are below the iliac crests on each side, about four inches down. The top of the femur has a knob you can feel when you push in gently. (See figure.)
Stick figures and dolls often incorrectly show legs sticking out of the bottom of a square torso, angling out from the center, or hinging forward and back. In truth,
- Our legs are on our sides, like our arms, and start above the hip crease.
- The femurs are separated by the width of the pelvis and angle in toward the knees.
- Our legs rotate forward, back, and to the side with a ball-and-socket joint.
When we stand, our pelvis and legs make a strong arch to support us. When we sit, our legs rotate out of the way to allow our torso to rest on the rounded sit bones.
The knee is a hinge joint where the broad end of the femur meets the supportive head of the tibia (larger bone of the lower leg). The patella (kneecap) floats in front of the femur, above the main joint. Bend and straighten your legs and feel the broad area of contact and movement in your knees.
The fibula, the smaller lower leg bone on the pinky toe side, meets the tibia below the knee.
The knobs that we often think of as our ankles are the ends of the tibia on the inner leg and fibula on the outer leg. The ankle joint is under and between the knobs, a hinge joint between the two lower leg bones and the talus bone in the foot.
When you bend your knees while standing upright, your lower legs also hinge forward over the feet at the ankle joints.
The front half of each foot has long thin bones like the fingers. The back half is made up of tarsals, a group of asymmetrical bones including the calcaneus (heel bone) and talus, mentioned above.
The joints between the talus and calcaneus allow the foot to move side to side on the leg. While sitting, rotate your feet, wiggle your toes, and notice the wide range of motions you have available.
Many of us imagine that our feet stick out from our legs, forming a capital L. In truth, the strong calcaneus extends behind the ankle in each foot, forming part of the outer arch that supports the leg bones from its center. Our feet have three arches: the familiar inner arch, a parallel outer arch, and a transverse arch across the foot. They yield gracefully to our weight and spring back each time we take a step.
While standing, slowly lean your weight more to the inner sides of your feet, and then more to the outside. Rock forward toward your toes, and back toward your heels. What feels most familiar? Where do you feel the most support and connection to the earth? Experiment with placing your feet differently as you move around.
Our legs and feet give us the power to change our location, defend ourselves, and dance for joy. To survive, we sometimes have to suppress that power. To thrive, we slowly reconnect with our legs and enjoy the power they give us. If our legs have disabilities, our body finds other ways to dance, kick, and run.
In My Body Politic, Simi Linton discusses her vibrant career, relationships, and activism as a disabled woman after a car crash paralyzed her legs.
Skeleton image modified from wikipedia.