First, I think it is important to acknowledge that I come to this conversation with privilege. I am white. Black bodies face so many more challenges than I will ever face, and I acknowledge that. Women of color are treated as though their features are aberrations from the white “norm.” People who are differently abled face many challenges that I will never experience. Trans people struggle with the dissonance of the bodies they were born in and their internal identity. I do not claim to understand these experiences and I do not claim that my experiences speak for all of us. I can only speak from what I know, and this is my story:
I remember the first time that I looked in the mirror and hated what I saw. I was a junior in high school. A cross country runner. The child of a health-food family – no junk food, no candy, no red meat, always low-fat. I grew up knowing that health was important. I was always involved in sports – soccer, ballet, running. So, at the age of 16, after devouring the photos in a fashion magazine one after another, I suddenly realized that the choices I had made for my body weren’t enough. The daily exercise, the vegetables – these things had not turned me into a fashion model, and I could not understand why. I stood in my bathroom, pulling at my stomach and thighs. I remember holding the magazines in my hands and crying for hours, until I resolved to do something about it. And for the next several years of my life, I forced myself into disordered eating habits and dieting.
The worst of this happened in the spring of my junior year of high school. I didn’t run track that spring, so the effects of my disorder didn’t show up quite as aggressively to others as they might have if I had been running on the track team. But I was miserable. I hated myself, and I hated everyone else. Every day was a game. Food was the enemy and I was there to conquer it. Thankfully, I emerged from that year healthier. Gradually, I ate more but still regimented myself to particular eating habits: no dessert, no snacks, no sugar, as few carbs as possible. I felt best about myself when I ate mainly fruits and vegetables. So, while I was doing better externally, I still couldn’t escape from the terrible internal relationship I had developed with food.
I don’t want to blame my negative relationship with my body entirely on the pictures in Teen Vogue 2006. We get these images from everywhere – TV, school, our families, even our own psyche. As a perfectionist, I took what my family had taught me about healthy eating to an extreme. Instead of balancing health with indulgence, I saw myself on a sliding scale: the more “healthy” foods I ate, the better I was doing. Even through college and grad school, I felt guilty about skipping workouts or eating too much pizza. I didn’t know how to just let my body have what it craved on occasion and be okay with my decision to rest or eat some ice cream. I always felt the need to justify my behaviors.
There were two significant periods of time in which I saw myself gain weight. The first was the ever-classic “freshman fifteen.” Given, coming out of high school with restrictive eating habits, I probably needed to gain those fifteen pounds, but watching the numbers go up on the scale was not something I was mentally prepared to handle. I pretended that I was okay with it, constantly joking about it with other friends having similar experiences, but it really challenged me. The second was my last year of grad school. This was a much more graceful time of weight gain. I was much more gentle with myself about it. I knew I was skipping workouts to study. I knew I was drinking more beer than I was used to because my new boyfriend was a beer connoisseur. This last time around, instead of panicking and feeling terrible about my decisions, I simply cut out a few things when I realized that I was having trouble fitting into my pants. I replaced beer with wine. I tried to find time for even a small workout when I was busy. I ate a few more salads. I didn’t feel devastated. I tried to see it as a feasting season for my body.
Recently, a friend explained to me her concept of feasting and fasting seasons. Our bodies experience different things at different times. There are times when life is stressful; we have less time for healthy habits, and we skip out on what we know is best for us. There are also times when we are more intentional about health and prepare meals for the week ahead of time and make time for yoga. The body goes through seasons, and just because my body is one way right now, it might be different next year for any number of reasons. This concept of seasons allowed me to have more grace with myself.
I am still learning every day how to best love myself. Most recently, I’ve begun a practice of self-love that is both simple and transformative. When I look at my body, I try to let go of judgment or comparison. Instead of looking at my face and wishing I had less wrinkles, I look at my face and think “I have a laugh line on the left side of my face. This is my face. And I love my left laugh line because it’s a part of me.” Instead of wishing my stomach were flatter or my thighs were smaller, I practice simply taking myself in as I am. Even if I am working toward particular healthy body goals, my body is the way it is today. I have no choice but to love it the way it is today. The comparison game is what dug me into a hole of self-hate for years. So, instead, I work toward loving myself as I am, not as I could be.
A few months ago, I was inspired by this post from a friend of a friend. (Her blog is incredible, so you should subscribe.) In it, she talks about learning to love her menstrual period as a part of who she is and what her body does. As women, many of us are taught that menstruation is something annoying or gross, something to be complained about, something that gets in the way of living our lives. What if, instead, she proposes, we learned to appreciate our period as something beautiful, sacred, life giving – something that can put us in touch with our womanhood and our emotions. So, I took this concept and slowly applied it to my relationship with my entire body. Instead of viewing my body as a burden, what if I viewed it as entirely sacred? Instead of wishing my body were something else, what if I appreciated the things it can do right now?
This practice is still a work in progress for me. There are still times when I feel guilty about resting instead of running. There are still times when I feel shame for eating certain foods. But, if I can work toward loving everything I see when I look in the mirror, I can also work toward loving others in the best way I can. As cliche as it sounds, I must first love myself well in order to have compassion for anyone else.