In third grade, at the age of 9, I sat in my bathing suit on a bench with my classmates, waiting for our turn to get back in the school pool for swimming lessons. We had been learning various styles and had taken this break to watch our teachers demonstrate the next stroke. I remember being cold, wet and covered in chlorine, and hugging my knees into my chest to get a little warmer. The boy next to me (whose name I remember exactly, but will not share, tempting as it is) glanced at my huddled body.
“Whoa,” he exclaimed, “You have huge thighs!”
I remember this as vividly as if it happened last week. I remember looking down at the fat on my legs, almost lit in blue under the fluorescent lights, rubbing together. I remember looking around me and noticing the girls in my class who were skinny. I remember realizing I should be ashamed. I remember learning to hate my body. I remember how it took me nearly eight years after that before I was willing to wear shorts in public.
Of course, I don’t want to place all the blame on this boy in third grade. Certainly that experience was a root in what would become decades of self-hate and self-abuse, but I could find a million more examples of things that concretized this belief that my body was too much, ugly, and in need of fixing. It was the magazines I read with pictures of girls and women whose stomachs were flat. It was the after-school specials about eating disorders that, somehow, seemed to glamorize these women’s ability to control what they ate. It was the high I felt after the first time I made myself throw up (at age 11). It was when boys started asking out the girls in class who wore jean sizes smaller than me. It was everything in a patriarchal society that told me I had to be be less. To be small. To shrink rather than grow.
But these external factors, for me, were just the instigators. The real work of body-hate began when, after internalizing those initial messages, I found ways to practice daily mantras of self-abuse so fervently that it become a part of me. Like green eyes, self-hate was just something I had. Can you imagine looking in the mirror everyday from age 9 until about age 17—(that’s 2,920 days)—and saying, “I hate you”?
Of course you can. This story is not unique.
The daily “I hate you”‘s did indeed stop in late high school. Instead, that mantra became more like every other day. It was a small victory that I was grateful for. I had found a confidence in myself through a variety of things, including punk rock, Left politics, great grades, and a loving boyfriend (and my family, who was never not a source of love). I started wrapping my head around feminism in a way that encouraged me to challenge hating my body. And as a, at that time, vegetarian, I found a way to keep off weight without starving or vomiting.
College deepened all the positive body forces even more. My feminism became more militant. I became vegan. My politics more firmly rooted. I had my first queer relationship. All of these things were ideal foundations from which to be a body-loving crusader. And, on good weeks, the “I hate you”‘s sometimes happened only every three days.
Throughout grad school, I continued to surround myself with amazing women (and mostly amazing men, and lots of amazing folks who don’t fall in either of those categories). I was part of a community of queer, fat-positive, feminist rebels. I continued to have mostly wonderful relationships with partners who seemed to truly love me and my body. I started teaching impressionable first-year college students about the patriarchy and how it works to shame women and encourage eating disorders and self-hate. And I talked about it as though I was removed from it, as though it was something that happened to girls who just hadn’t learned feminism yet. And that, Don’t worry, one day too you can speak about this from a distance as though it doesn’t impact you at your core, as though it doesn’t make you want to cry for being part of the statistics you’re sharing so cooly.
But that was a lie. Even with all the body-acceptance ducks in a row, I still continued to hate my body.
The hate started to develop in more unique and targeted ways. I started noticing two prominent themes in the self-hate that swirled about my brain and in my chest and out my mouth: I hated myself because I worked out harder and ate significantly “cleaner” than almost anyone I knew, and I was still not skinny. I hated myself because I knew better than to hate myself–I was a feminist!—and still I hated myself.
A therapist once asked me why I wanted to lose weight. This question, to my surprise, was incredibly hard to answer. She pointed out that I was within the “normal” BMI range (something, in my normal life, I would have called “bullshit” on, but giving my therapist a feminist critique of the BMI system after telling her how I made myself throw up my food for the past four days seemed a little misguided). She pointed out that I had relationships with people who found me attractive. She pointed out that I didn’t feel like there was anything wrong with the people in my life who were also not skinny. I nodded. These things were true.
“I just…want to be skinny,” was all I could manage for a moment. I then explained how viscerally I react to the extra cushion on my body. How seeing those same big thighs rub together makes me feel hot with anxiety. How rubbing my hand down my stomach on days it’s not flat can literally catapult me into sobs. How the pinch of a button against your skin while trying to close a pair of jeans over your un-taut flesh in a dressing room sometimes made me sweat with rage. It was less logical (I mean, of course I could still point to patriarchy, but since I could name that, it was no longer quite as easy a target), and more embodied. Hating my body had become part of my body.
There was a real shift for me back in 2010, right around when I started this blog. I did my first cleanse and started eating in ways that made me feel good (my binging and purging was, for the first time since age 11, almost non-existent). I am definitely grateful for the way cutting out refined sugar and other processed food helped improve how my body felt. It was a lot harder to hate something that felt so good!
But as I dug deeper into the “clean eating” blog world, I started noticing that most of these bloggers and Youtubers were still smaller than me. Waify, even. I remember thinking my remaining fat was just a result of the toxins my body was still clinging to, so if I could just do some more cleanses (and stricter ones, and longer ones), then maybe I’d have the body I’m supposed to have. The idea that my curvy body was the body I was supposed to have still didn’t seem right to me.
I made some progress away from that when I recognized that I was having some orthorexic tendencies, and started wanting to have more fun with friends again. I didn’t want to be the one who never ate any of the shared sweet potato fries at happy hour. I didn’t want to be the one who brought juice to parties because I wasn’t eating solid food that day. That no longer felt like self-care to me. I am grateful for the friends and partner I had in my life at the time who inspired me to “yolo” it a bit more. Loosening up about food (not throwing my healthy preferences out the window, just not being quite as restrictive), unsurprisingly, loosened me up about my body. Having more fun meant less time to dwell on food and my body (and less time dwelling on food and my body meant having more fun…it was a nice circular chain reaction). Being more social and not cleansing all the time gave me other stuff to talk about. It was a great leap forward.
(There is about a year between then and now that I am going to gloss over for now because body stuff became very much a result of a different kind of self-hate, and I plan to write a separate post about that in Self-Love, Part 2!).
Fast forward to today. After a year of tumult, I am in a place with body-love that feels manageable. There are still days that I feel like I am back to square one. But there are way more days and weeks that I feel really really awesome about my body in ways that are decidedly more significant than any other time in my life. Part of this is due to simply affirming that I love my body, even if I don’t actually believe it. “Fake it til you make it” sometimes works. (I have learned so much and been so so inspired by Lacy Davis, who writes about exactly this and a bunch of other really helpful stuff).
It’s also because I made an intentional shift from focusing on what my body looks like to focusing on what my body does. I love my body for getting through daily yoga practice. I love my body for it’s ability to lift heavy things, whether that’s dumbbells or air conditioners. I love my body for it’s resilience, for surviving the hell I’ve put it through. I love my body for the ways it feels pleasure (from food, from sex, from dancing, from bike rides). I love my body for being able to werk a pair of stilettos (thanks strong core!). I love my body for it’s energy.
And, to my delight, there are moments I love how my body looks too. I love how it fills out a pencil skirt. How it looks muscly in a tank top. I love how even though my thighs are still the thickest things on me, that I think I rock a pair of short-shorts. I love how it looks in a halter top and shows my chatarunga back.
I have been doing a lot of work and reading about self-love, and a version of this pops up in pretty much every text on the subject: “Nothing changes by hating yourself. Things only change when you love yourself.”
I have been repeating that mantra in my brain everyday. I try to look in the mirror and say, “I love you” at least once in the morning. I try to talk to myself the way I would talk to a friend. I try, when I’m doing my daily gratitude lists, to include my body among the things for which I am grateful. I’ve been getting into tapping, a practice that encourages working through negative emotions on a cellular level and replacing them with positive ones (I’ll try to do a post on this soon too!). I’ve committed myself to reading blogs that make me feel good and avoiding blogs that make me feel shamed. And I’ve tried to engage with other media that features positive body role models.
These are a small handful of tools I’ve been utilizing in the mission of self-love. Make no mistake, loving yourself often takes work. Hard work. I am fumbling through the project of loving my body with tiny victories and frequent defeats, but I am pushing through, because I have come to realize that the stupid cliche about the importance of loving yourself is really fucking true.
I would love to know how you practice self-[body] love. Let me know in the comments.
Have a super loving, awesome day! xoox