I have a confession to make. I’ve told you that when I hear women around me talk negatively about their bodies, I speak up and tell them why I think they’re lovely, just as they are. I do not comment on weight gained or lost by myself or by other people. I do not cast judgment on different body types. Since I decided to do or not do these things, I’ve generally felt more positive about myself. Seeing the different kinds of beauty in other women helps me to accept the possibility of beauty in me. Seeing the strength in other women makes me want to nourish my own strength. Seeing the bravery in other women helps me work to overcome my fears.
The last week, though? This last week has SUCKED from a personal body image point of view. None of my clothes are fitting. None of the clothes in the stores are fitting. I’m wearing the same five outfits to work every week and hoping no one will notice. I will say “it’s not me– it’s the clothes” until I’m blue in the face (and to some extent this is true– a spaghetti-strap synthetic dress is not high up on the list of things I want to buy and wear in 95 degree heat), but when I struggle to find pants that are long enough, shoes that are big/narrow enough, and blouses and dresses that are fitted enough, and I struggle in all the stores ever. . . yeah, that gets old.
I’m actually feeling better about my body than I have in years. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. My arms are toned, toned, toned, which I never thought I’d see. My butt has never been perkier. My legs are slamming. When I get dressed in the morning and default to the same thing I wore two days prior, I try to hold my head high. I have muscle where I’ve never had muscle before– of course my clothes are going to fit differently. I can swing myself around a pole and upside down and land in the splits without trying too hard.
And then last night I burst into tears in the middle of class.
It had been a long time coming. My shrinking wardrobe, long hours at the office and resulting loneliness and lack of a social life, self-consciousness about my writing, lack of sleep, impending rent increase, messy apartment– these things all fed on each other. The assignment for class was “Island Girl”, and I wore a bikini for the first time in two years with a man’s white button-down shirt tied at the waist. The lights were low, the music was loud, and I was doing fine, I really was: feeling good, moving to the music, stretching and arching my back and trying to bask in the moment. Then as I swung up onto my knees and ran my hands over my torso, I glanced down, and at the same moment my hands hit my belly. In the dim light I saw pale rolls and pinkish stretch marks, and I felt the shift from the muscles on my thighs to the softness of my stomach and back and breasts. I closed my eyes and said to myself “You’re ok. Your curves are beautiful. They make you womanly and soft and lovely and embraceable. You’re ok.”
And then my brain said “HAHA JUST KIDDING, you FAKER! God, will you just look at yourself? Yuck. Who do you think you’re fooling? Can you imagine if [That Guy You Like] saw you right now?” And then I froze in place and ugly-cried until the song was over.
Thanks, brain. Asshole.
My belly has been the epicenter of my shame spirals for my entire life. I saw it as the manifestation of my sins: slovenliness, laziness, greed, lack of self-control, unworthiness. Growing up I was told to suck it in, to hide it. Even though I was a scrawny child, I still heard comments about my chubbiness and “big tummy” as early as age five. It seemed to me that a woman’s flat stomach was the deciding factor in the measure of success, of happiness, of self-control, of health, of attractiveness.
I’ve been working to overcome that early brainwashing, but as last night proved, my body image demons are still there and still sneaky. Today I can say “Fuck it. It’s just my belly, for shit’s sake. I am more than the checks and balances of my negative and positive physical attributes. All women are more than this.” I thought I’d want to dance to an angry, woman-power song when it was my turn for an individual dance. Instead I danced to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I barely touched the pole. I held on to my wounded self, and I tried to soothe her and love her. I cried again when I got home. I cried again writing this.
Ladies (and Gentlemen), if you struggle with body image, you’re not alone. Keep fighting to soothe yourself and love yourself, even when it’s hard to do. Especially when it’s hard. We’ve been taught, in many, many ways, both overt and subtle, that something’s wrong with us. That we’re not enough. That we’re too much. That something needs to be changed or concealed or fixed or erased or camouflaged or lost or gained before we are worthy of love or self-esteem or kindness or compliments or praise or nice things. Or pretty underwear.
Just as It’s Not You, It’s Your Bras, our shame and self-disgust don’t originate with us, but with external forces. Our advertisements, celebrities, parents, friends, co-workers, partners, cat-callers: I am slowly beginning to separate those voices from my own. I can say “that voice is not mine. It has crept into my brain, but it’s not mine.” I don’t need more shame, more criticism, more analysis. So instead of saying “stop thinking bad things about yourself”, only to find myself unable to think of anything else, I’m going to try to quiet. To soothe. To rock. To comfort. To cry if I need to. I’ll get up the next morning, and I’ll keep fighting.