It is a falsehood that body hatred is the realm of the obese, the overweight, or the ugly. I am none of those things. I’m a pretty woman. I’m a size 8.
And yet I’ve hated my body for most of my life. Even as a little girl, I felt the first inklings of body shame, feeling self-conscious about my glasses, a bad perm; having the wrong clothes.
That shame has kept me trapped. It has kept me from living a full life, from using my passions, pursuing my goals; from believing in my abilities and myself. Because I hated my body, I spent my college years throwing up in toilets, instead of connecting with those around me. For years I avoided the beach – a place that restores my soul – because it required a bathing suit. I nearly passed up a free trip to Florida because I was ten pounds heavier than I wanted to be. I’ve stayed away from fancy parties, from going out with a group of girlfriends, from taking a yoga class or dance lessons or going to a ball, because I felt intimidated by other women.
I was, in a word, stuck.
Here’s what no one talks about when they bemoan the fact that women are so hard on their bodies: if you hate your body, you are drowning in shame. Deep down, you feel shallow, vain, and petty for thinking so much about something that doesn’t matter that much. After all, we’re not talking about eradicating cancer or world hunger. And if you happen to be a pretty woman, or you have a body that isn’t “that fat?” You feel extra guilty.
And yet, how can you be free and clear to devote your time and energy to curing cancer, to ending world hunger, to stopping violence against women, if, every day you’re suffering because you can’t stand the woman who looks back at you from the mirror? How can you love yourself if you hate your body?
I went on my first diet at 17. Since that time, I’ve been underweight, a normal weight, and overweight. I’ve been a chronic dieter, an undereater, a binge eater, a sugar addict, and a bulimic. I’ve been a size 2, a size 12, and every size in between. No matter the number on the scale, the constant has been an aching pull, a feeling that my body could never be good enough. I would reach one goal, only to be pulled into another self-improvement project. There was always something to fix; to improve; to esteem.
Throughout my 20s, I thought the problem was my body hatred. And yet, I didn’t really want to love my body. I wanted to be skinny – to recapture the size 2 body I had at 19, a body I had attained only through rigorous dieting and bulimia – and then, of course I’d love my body.
Life had other plans. I gave birth to three children. Like many of the mothers I knew, I simply assumed that I would despise my flabby mother’s body for the rest of my life, would always be at war with an extra 15 pounds. I adopted the mantle of motherhood, schlepping about in my sweats and workout clothes, my hair tucked into a baseball hat, my face, make-up free. I joined my girlfriends’ body bashing sessions, joking about my stretch marks, mushy belly, and flabby butt. I abhorred bathing suits, so I never took my children swimming. I hated dressing rooms, or trying on clothing, so I avoided shopping. I threw away my fashion magazines – this coming from a woman who longed to be a fashion designer as a girl – because they made me insanely jealous.
I tried to act like I didn’t care that I disliked my body. I figured the only one I was hurting was myself.
But self-hatred and self-love make very uncomfortable bedfellows. Is it a coincidence, during this time, that I was chronically depressed? Uncomfortable with my sexuality? Rushing around trying to be super Mom, taking care of everyone else, ignoring my needs; refusing to set boundaries?
My turning point was my 30th birthday, when I realized that I had been on the same perpetual diet for over a decade, continually gaining and losing the same 15 pounds. I remember looking in the mirror with a mixture of regret and sorrow: How had I morphed into such a bitter, depressed, food-obsessed woman?
Sometimes we have to be at rock bottom before we’re willing to change; before we’re willing to surrender, and stop our war.
What did I need to surrender? My high expectations. My perfectionism. My belief that I wasn’t beautiful unless I was a size 2. My belief that I would morph into obesity if I stopped dieting. My belief that I was unfixable; too screwed up to change.
As long as I was mired in body hatred, I was unable to be the wife, mother, daughter, friend – woman – that I wished to be. As long as I waited for the “someday” when I would finally love my body, my life was on continual hold.
“Please God,” I prayed. “Take away my desire to be skinny.”
It was a start.
I found a counselor. I began the process of examining my relationship with my body, with food, and with myself. I climbed out of my depression, one difficult lesson at a time. I faced my sugar addiction, giving up sugar for good. When I was surprised with a fourth pregnancy at 32, I used it as an opportunity to love and accept my body in all its incarnations – even at its roundest, heaviest state. And I found great love for my full, ripe body, and, for the first time in 13 years, I had peace.
During this time, I began to imagine how I could use this giant wound for greater good; how I could share my story in order to help other women. How could I offer women a message of hope? How could I help women love and accept their bodies, and themselves?
I conceived an organization, First Ourselves, to do just that. And yet, I refused to act on it for nearly two years. Why? Because I was afraid. I was afraid to bare my soul and share the depth of my pain. As I dealt with a fussy newborn, and a mushy, flabby postpartum body, I was surprised to discover that I still harbored remnants of the old body loathing. How could I help other women as long as I was still imperfect? How could I tell women to love and accept their bodies, when I had days when I didn’t love my body?
And yet, it is precisely because I’m imperfect, because I’m traveling the same journey, because I have days when I feel smashing and fabulous and frumpy and flabby and dumpy and divine and all things in between that I can relate to every woman who has ever hated her body, or herself.
So what have I learned?
I’ve learned that self-hatred is a sneaky foe. (As Sally Kempton observed, “It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”) Unless it’s rooted out at the source, it simply moves from one arena to the other with adept swiftness, catching you off guard when it reappears. It keeps you restless, constantly striving for self-improvement, as it moves the battle from your body to money, from money to your parenting, from your parenting to your very self-loathing.
I’ve learned that the body is not the real issue, but how we feel about ourselves. For years, I thought my body wasn’t good enough. The real problem is that I didn’t believe that I was good enough. I didn’t hate my body; I hated myself.
I’ve learned that the body can be a conduit for spiritual growth. We all have stuff: pain, sore spots, issues that need healing. It’s why we’re here. Some of my stuff is my body hatred. I can fight it, resist it, hide it, ignore it, wish for different stuff, envy someone else’s stuff, or I can embrace it. I can use it as an opportunity to grow.
I’ve learned that my body has its own wisdom, that I can trust myself to make good choices, that if I honor my intuition, and listen to its still, small voice, it will show me how to care for myself.
I’ve learned that loving my body means treating it well, giving it proper nourishment, rest, exercise, and self-care.
I’ve learned that I can celebrate my body’s beauty – even those things that in my ignorance I’ve called “ugly.” There is beauty in dimples and age spots and wrinkles and stretch marks and rolls and grey hair and the whole gamut of precious, human “imperfection.”
I’ve learned that I can celebrate other women’s beauty – even beauty that feels “more” than mine.
I am learning, I am slowly learning, to see my body – to see every human body – through the eyes of love.
Many days, as I’m going about my errands, I’ll cross paths with a friend, a neighbor, or acquaintance. No matter the woman, I’m struck by a similar epiphany: the experience of being bowled over by their beauty. I tell these women how beautiful they are, but, much of the time, I’m uncertain whether they accept my sincerity. And yet, I know what I see.
I’m seeing them with right vision. I’m seeing them as God sees them, and let me tell you: it’s breathtaking.
Up until now, I’d never experienced this for myself. But a few months ago, as I was leaving a bathroom stall at a restaurant, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Who is that stunning woman? I thought to myself. I gasped, as I realized: I was looking at myself.