The Weight Of This Body.
I remember the first time I was ashamed of my body.
It was days before I began the fifth grade, and I was running around the beach in the late-August sun, wearing just my swimsuit. My mom pulled me aside to remind me to “stand up straight, so my stomach wouldn’t stick out.”
She said it gently, with sweetness. Internally, I reeled. “There’s something wrong with me?” I looked around, wondering who else noticed.
I was still a child, but the way I related to my form shifted. And though I wish she’d never said them, it wasn’t just about my mother’s words — if the shift hadn’t happened in that particular moment with her, it would have happened in any countless number of incidents to follow.
The times when my physicality has been openly scrutinized by someone who isn’t me are too many to count or even remember.
Still, several of those incidents have remained in my memory — the time a trusted friend told me in all seriousness to “lay off the groceries,” or the time a man I was intimate with suggested I go to the gym, or when my mother told me that when I sat down on the edge of the bed, I created more of an upheaval than my uncle who is a bodybuilder over six feet tall.
These comments live in my body, little pockets of poison wedged between my shoulder blades or festering behind my stomach.
And these examples come from only a handful of direct experiences; they don’t speak at all to the narrowness and shaming in the media, or to our social circles quietly exerting pressure, making sure there is never a question about what is physically acceptable and what is not.
Each time a girlfriend criticizes her own body aloud, she adds to the list of rules about what we believe is okay and what is not for all of us.
Frequently when I read a piece about body-acceptance, the author (nearly always female) is reflecting on a breakthrough she’s had: realizing the groundlessness and subjectivity of the standards we work so hard to maintain, or sharing about the profundity of experiencing actual self-love and acceptance.
I’ve felt the lightness and freedom in those breakthroughs, too. Still, every time I think I’ve moved past the pettiness of body-hatred, or outgrown the senseless habit of comparison, something happens and I realize how insidiously these beliefs have taken hold and rooted down in my subconscious, and I wonder if I’ve actually broken through at all.
For example, how many of us have stayed home when we didn’t feel we looked our best because we didn’t want to be seen?
The belief that we don’t deserve to take up space in the public sphere if we don’t look a specific way is truly a mental sickness.
And that’s only one twisted-but-socially-accepted belief of so many.
The other day, as I sat to work in a cafe, I overheard the conversation of two college-aged girls at the table next to me. One told the other with disgust about meeting with another mutual friend of theirs who dared to show up with sweat circles under her armpits.
She spoke with such venom in her voice — again, about someone they both called a friend — that she may as well have spat on the floor to punctuate her sentences… and all because this other girl was a human being with functional sweat glands.
This attitude is not natural, it is not inherent. Our families, friends, teachers, and peers hand it down to us, passing the torch they themselves received from their families, friends, teachers, and peers.
In our culture and many others, it seems that very few are immune to this particular brand of self-criticism and hatred. But I cannot pretend that, in my life, this attitude doesn’t feel like a particularly female-specific legacy.
We’re at a point, I think, where we almost believe it to be our duty; we think, maybe, that we’re doing a service to the women we love by tactfully suggesting another hairstyle or skin-care routine, or gently encouraging a diet plan or different meal choice.
Other times, the intention isn’t so innocent as that and all we’re really doing is dumping our own pain and self-hatred onto another in the hopes of relieving it in ourselves.
Recently, I spent a week visiting my best friend. She and I live on opposite sides of the country, and see each other once or twice a year at most. One day, in the middle of that week-long trip, we met up in the evening for coffee. We hadn’t seen each other all day and I was so looking forward to spending time with her.
And yet, the first thing I said to her when I saw her was, “When’s the last time you washed your hair?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could slice through the air and knock them to the ground before they reached her. I apologized over and over, and even shed a few tears in frustration and anger at myself: how quick I was to say something hurtful and destructive to a person I loved so immensely.
And the strangest part is that the sentiment of that statement was not mine at all. It was just a robotic reaction I’d learned. I was simply a mouthpiece, giving voice to all the garbage that’s been passed on to me.
In my heart, there is only adoration for my best friend’s radiant beauty, external and internal. My mind, however, is still trying to untangle itself from decades of judgment and rigidity.
And this is how the cycle lives on.
But it’s also where the cycle can end. That moment when I first recognized and then intentionally discontinued the gratuitous damage I was causing is precisely the space where a new cycle is birthed.
So even if I haven’t had that lasting breakthrough I read about so often, I have found a place I can start.
And for now, I’m resting in the certainty that I my idea of what is beautiful is continually opening and my understanding of what is perfect has expanded immensely.