How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
I have a confession to make: I’m not really loving my body right now.
I know, this is shocking, given that I have basically made a career out of talking about everybody accepting and appreciating our bodies. But right at this minute, I don’t love my body at all. The reason why? It fucking hurts.
I have terrible periods. Lots of women do, so this isn’t me trying to start a round of who-has-it-worse menstrual Olympics. I’ll just tell you about mine. My periods hurt a lot. Every month, I am privy to continuous waves of concentration-shattering cramps, which interrupt my sleep and pretty much anything else I’m trying to do. And then there is the blood, which issues forth at a rate requiring I change an overnight-strength pad at least every two hours. Tampons? HAHAHAHA. I scoff at tampons; I imagine them firing from my lady parts like a cork from a bottle of viscous red champagne.
I really am trying not to get TMI here; I’m using a lot of restraint.
Regardless, during these days of blood, I don’t really love my body all that much, because the things that it’s doing -- and there’s nothing wrong in there, experts have investigated, this is just how my periods go -- negatively impact my ability to do the things I want to do, like exist more than 20 feet from a bathroom, or, uh, walk anywhere. The best I can say of my body and me is that we devise a sort of uneasy truce during this time of the month, in which I allow it to have its brutal little 72-hour menstrual fit in exchange for a relationship that is pretty chill the rest of the time.
As a great big fat person, I know people sometimes want to hear that I have days where I actively hate my body. I know because they tell me this alllll the time. Often they try to forcibly make me hate my body with unwelcome commentary. Because hating your body is incredibly common, common enough that it almost seems natural, even.
Talking about hating your body is also common, as common as never talking about hating your body at all.
But weirdly I don't have those body-hating days anymore. Oh, people will look at me and boggle at how that's possible: I am really quite far outside the realm of what is considered acceptable to most, appearance-wise. I weigh something like 300 pounds. That’s a number that causes brows to furrow, lips to press together in a small frown, the rise of internal debate about whether I need to be told how very dangerous that particular number is. Again.
But while I don’t hate my body anymore, I can’t say I’m actively loving it all the time either. That wouldn’t be accurate. Not-hating one's body and loving one's body are two very different concepts. My relationship with my body is rooted in the most basic idea of acceptance.
Sometimes I will look at my naked self in the mirror prior to showering in the morning and see things that are aesthetically incongruous -- ugly, for the straight-talkers. Fatty bulges under my arms. A lack of defined waistline. Liberally dimpled upper thighs.
I don't look at these things and recoil in disgust, or feel overwhelmed by despair. I don't necessarily look at them with explosive magical loving joyfulness in their existence, either. I’m rarely all “WOO, YOU SEXY UNDERARM PUDGE!” or “ROCK ON, BEAUTIFUL BACK FAT!” These things just are. I accept that they exist. Besides, there is so much more to me than a curiously placed pocket of arm flab, or butt-skin that fails to be uniformly taut and smooth. It seems absurd to let these small physical characteristics prevent me from going about my life, right now.
I wrote a book that was published earlier this year, the subtitle to which was “How to Stop Dieting and Learn to Love Your Body.” I’ve had a lot of curious inquiries about this subtitle, because it’s not really an accurate rendering of the book’s content.
It was my editor’s idea, and as I adore her and trust her judgment implicitly, I let it stick. (At this point, settling on a title was already proving a chore; I had initially wanted to call the book “Fat and Fuck You,” but decided it was a hair too aggressive. Then I wanted to call it “Gigantic,” mostly because of the Pixies song, and if I’d done that I could put it next to Hanne Blank’s “Big Big Love” and have a chorus. This didn’t pan out either.)
I initially resisted the subtitle because it’s not a fair assessment, not of the content of the book, but neither of my actual work and body philosophy. I am not interested in telling anyone to love their bodies. There's a school of thought that argues that teaching people to love their bodies is dangerous and irresponsible because it might "enable" people to not live in a constant state of anxiety over their body size, shape, and "health." I think THAT is a load of crap. But I do think preaching unconditional body love is just another impossible standard.
Honestly, I’m not much good for telling people how to quit dieting either. There's no magic universal formula for that (although I bet if I could make one up I'd probably sell way more books). What I do is talk about my own experiences, and criticize the culture of body loathing in which most of us live, and how difficult it can be to fight against it.
How you use this information is up to you; the most important thing I can do for you is to trust you with your body, and to encourage you to trust yourself. This is not a popular notion. Women aren’t very often trusted with their own bodies. From abortion to appearance to sexual attraction, we’re usually being told by some self-styled authority why everything we’re doing is wrong, why we can’t make these decisions independently, why we must rely on transmitted wisdom about what a uterus is REALLY for or how a woman should REALLY look or what is REALLY normal and healthy to find sexually appealing. It’s because we can’t be trusted to do it right; if left to care for our bodies on our own, we’ll mess them up. Because women don’t know any better, because what we want and what is good for us are always two very different things.
I won’t say that hating our bodies is a universal experience, because I know that it’s not, but it is a pretty common one. The problem with a lot of the rhetoric around the whole “love and accept yourself unconditionally” ideology -- popular and awesome-feeling though the words may sound -- is that it doesn’t leave much space for individual realities, complicated as they are. There are many reasons why loving your body may occasionally be impossible. It happens.
Allowing yourself to then feel like crap about your apparent lack of perfect loving joyfulness in your every molecule is self-defeating. I prefer to advocate for acceptance, because acceptance doesn’t place a value -- positive or negative -- on our bodies, or our bodily parts. Love can be fickle, but acceptance is not. Your body, and all its little idiosyncrasies and annoyances, exists. You cannot blink the frustrating parts away, and you cannot wish them into oblivion. If you are able to change them, it will probably take time. So you may as well accept them, as they are, right now.
You can do this with your swingy upper arms or your dimpled thighs or your flat butt even if you still harbor hopes of making these parts be different someday. Acceptance doesn’t mean “I will never change,” it means, “I will roll with whatever changes come,” because bodily changes are inevitable, no matter what you do. Although, I am bound to warn you that if you get comfortable with self-acceptance, "fixing" your flabby bits may become less of a priority in your life, because you’re no longer relying on their renovation to someday make you a new, better person, one who is confident and happy.
When I was a teenager, I got into the habit of putting everything off until some magical day when I would, finally, become thin. When I was thin I’d learn to play guitar, I’d try out for the lead in the school play, I’d wear jeans that fit, I’d actually return the attentions of would-be paramours instead of running away in horror, because what kind of dangerous monster would be attracted to a gross fatty like me? Eventually I realized I was wasting so much energy and effort on ideas and emotional spirals that were making me feel worse, not better. And then I began to stop.
My experience is not your experience; I am not equipped to rattle off all the reasons why you might hate your body and mark each of them as acceptable or unacceptable, and therefore all of them are acceptable. It’s OK that you hate your body sometimes, or all of the time. I’m not going to tell you that you must stop, because I am not the boss of you.
But you’ll probably feel better if you do.
I know I feel better, which is why I talk about the power of acceptance so much. You know how when you discover something -- be it exercise or therapy or acupuncture or saying the word "no" -- you want to get a little evangelical about it, because it feels sooooo much better. It's not about telling people how they should feel or what they should do, it's about wanting to share your happiness with other people, it's about wanting to get the word out that -- as I often say, broken-record-like -- HAPPINESS IS POSSIBLE, even in the circumstances you think are least likely to cultivate it. Sometimes all it takes is a change of venue, or a change of mind.
I talk about my own complicated messy and often unpredictable brand of body politics because I don't see anyone else doing so -- because most of the mainstream narratives I read all sound the same. I do it because I want to give voice to a different way of living, so that others who can benefit from it -- and not everyone can -- might be able to do so.
I’m fat, and most of the time I love my body. When I don’t, I accept it, and I steadfastly refuse to hate it, because there is no point to hating the awesome vehicle that allows me to interact with and participate in the world. It’s the only one I get. Sure, 24-hour self-love may be the ideal, and we can keep striving for it, but first we must forgive our bodies for not being perfect, and forgive ourselves for any anger or despair we may feel in wanting this to be so. We would do well to remember that in some relationships, forgiveness can be far more powerful than unconditional love. This is true for our bodies too.