Belonging in our Bodies: Image, Self Worth, and the Cruel Ways We Treat Our Flesh
On Thursday morning, I woke up, and before I’d even finished dressing, I made myself cry.
You’re fat. You’re ugly. Your jeans do not fit, and that tee-shirt was made for a smaller woman. Everyone will see this.
I caught my reflection in the mirror while I was dressing, and without a hint of hesitation, I gave myself this articulate dose of abuse before I’d even brushed my hair.
Hot, shamed tears came spilling down my face as if I’d been insulted by someone outside of my own mind, and for the next thirty minutes, I fussed with my appearance, trying to make style my reflection into something that voice in my head wouldn’t insult. I repeated these words to myself, you really do look like a potato, maybe if you curl your hair, people won’t notice it. No? Try tucking the shirt in. It still won’t look good on you, but you’ll have at least done what you can.
My worth is tangled up with my pant size, my beauty thrown in with my weight. I’ve had these all confused for years now, since early in my girlhood, really, but I’m in an especially cruel cycle of self-loathing right now. I stand in front of the mirror, and I pull at my flesh, tally it as evidence that I am notskinny, and because I am notskinny, I am less. I see the way that my body continually changes, shifts, morphs, and I hurl abuse and obscenities at it. I tether myself to the tyranny of something — the scale, the pant size, the softness of my flesh — and in doing so, I tear myself to pieces. I break myself down in tiny, compromising ways until my heart starts to look like what I’m chasing for my body — Less.
I was far, far too young when I decided that my body was, if not an outright enemy, a thing to be feared and controlled.
For reference, I’m a conventionally small woman. I’ve been roughly the same size since I was 10 years old: 5 feet, 4 inches, somewhere between 120 and 140 pounds, long legs, short torso, a soft layer on top of developed (read: big) muscles. As a child, I was massive, but as an adult, I’m shockingly average.
As a young girl, I was was tall. This is one of my earliest perceptions of my body. Tall. And being tall meant something good, something exciting. I saw my height as a gift, specifically given by the women in my dad’s family. They too were tall. My aunt, my girl cousins. Together we were tall, and when I made school-house friends with two other tall girls, I was proud of my tribe. Tall girls. We could see farther and reach higher. We took up more space than our peers, and when you’re little, being big makes you feel strong.
For a long time, I liked my body. Or not such much liked it as didn’t notice it. My mom rocked body positivity (although I don’t think we called it that in the ‘90s), and when I heard my elementary-age peers mimic their own mothers and complain about wide hips or milk with fat in it, I told them they were stupid. In third grade, I watched a friend throw away three of her five chicken nuggets, because she was “dieting” to stay “right at fifty.” The next day, I loaned her my girl power/changing body book, and told her to read the chapter about anorexia and bulimia. In my head, she was stupid, and I was strong, and even though I wasn’t allowed to eat school hot lunches (waste.of.money, my mom reminded me), I knew that no person should ever diet, especially not an eight year old girl who weighed as much as I’d weighed as a healthy toddler.
My body was my tool, my toy, my vehicle. It was my mountain hiker, my tree climber, my soccer player. In my body, I camped, and I climbed, I read and I wrote. It housed all my excitement, all my wonder, all my fears, and all my dreams. It was me, and I had no concept of war with myself. How could I split Torrie from Torrie’s body, they were one in the same. One whole piece.
I hurts me, now, to think about how soon after the chicken nugget episode that I began to turn on my own body. That summer, I was harassed by boys for the first time — teenagers from down the road yelled something lewd and indistinguishable to me while I played in my driveway. When I heard them yell, and realized it was at me, I ran scared into my garage, confused and overwhelmed. I attended a birthday party that involved swimming, and for the first time, I realize that my body was somehow different than my peers. I saw them, with their straight, flat planes of girlhood, and compared it with my own topography of soft swells and ripples. This was the first time I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, and I remember trying to use the water to hide my grown-up form.
In increments, I learned to regard my body with increasing shame and suspicion. I stopped being proud of my height, and began to understand myself as burly. Hulking. I learned how to do that thing that every girl at one point learns — where you stack your arms, one on top of the other, and wrap your arms around your stomach, hands curling over you waist and hips — to hide a stomach that had taken on a soft layer years before my peers. The visceral memory I have is of a girl trying to retreat, trying to pull back into her small. While my female peers began blossoming, each at their own rate, I continued to see other girls through a lens of envy and shame. I became used to, but not comfortable with, being the tallest, thickest girl in the room, and if other girls my age struggled with their own bodies, I never knew, so buried underneath my own nascent insecurities.
At the same time, I was also diving into words. I read with a new kind of voraciousness, sought out learning wherever I could. I begin writing the way I imagined adult writers wrote, and, once summer, I even wrote a 300 + page behemoth of a first “novel.” I didn’t have many friends, and the ones I did have didn’t often call. I kept myself from lonely by building words inside my own head. As I grew confident and proud of my brain, of how I could think and communicate and create, I, I wish I could have understood that those were all functions of the same body I was disassociating from, all part of the same team.
My parents, in a move that was ultimately loving and, surprisingly, not shaming, encouraged me to begin exercising. I spent the summer before high school learning about how protein fills you up, and cardio strengthens your heart. I didn’t track my weight or my calories or my measurements, but I began to regain some of the joy I once felt about my body. I became stronger, more confident, and mid-way through high school, I ended my fatwa on sports, and joined the Track and Field team. I was a sprinter (who ran exceedingly slowly), and while I added nothing quantifiable to the team, I learned about how much my body could do. How strong it could be. Some of the softness I’d accumulated melted away, and while I didn’t realize this until the mother of a friend complimented me on “my new hard body,” I did like that I became less aware of my body. It felt like a miracle, a few months later, when I saw myself in the mirror with two other girlfriends that we all looked remarkably the same.
I continued to be active, joining the Cross Country team and proving to myself that I could run an entire mile without dying. Not just that, but I could run two, three, four, seven miles without dying. (I didn’t push myself any farther. I still believe that running a full eight miles without stopping would kill if not my body, definitely my soul).
I was confident, yes, more comfortable, yes, proud, again, of my body and it’s abilities, but I never fully became unified with it. I never learned to love it. I continued to have flesh ripple out where I didn’t want, and continued to pluck at skin and call it excess. I amassed an arsenal of mean girl tricks I could play on myself: comparison and jealousy and magazine cover envy. Every few months, I discovered a new part of my body that could be wrong, and developed corresponding anxieties. After school sports were replaced by an after-school job (one that boasted a perk of constant bread and butter, if I wanted it). High school ended, and I slipped deeper into the anxious depression that would cripple me in the spring of my freshmen year of college. I was increasingly less active, increasingly more sedentary. My emotions flared uneven, and I isolated myself. My body continued to shift and change, and while I remained objectively slim, every few months, I added a couple more pounds onto my frame.
My body remained a thing of discomfort. It betrayed me in dressing rooms when the clothing designed for teenagers and young women couldn’t accommodate my body, and the clothing designed for adult women made me look ten, fifteen times older than I was. It shamed me when strange men used it as an opening to yell filth and degradation from sidewalks. It remained a symbol of my non-belonging, so whenever I was in social setting that made me uncomfortable or anxious, I would slip back into the same confused shame that I associate with being the only twelve year old that needed to wear a real bra. I learn how to manage my mental health, got married, and graduated, and got a real job, and learn how to be a writer. I now lose and gain the same five to ten pounds, and although my clothing hangs when I’m on one end of the spectrum and strains when I’m on the other, I look essentially the same.
I have entrenched myself into a sick, repeating cycle of love and hatred that feeds on the fit of my jeans and the number on a scale, and what is maybe the worst part, is that I am not alone. I’ve just told the world’s most boring story: Twenty-first century woman is uncomfortable with her body. I am violent and abusive with myself. I let my own brain produce chatter that would turn me apocalyptic and vengeful if someone else said it to me out loud. My worth is dictated by the level of disgust I feel at my own form, even though I know the body science of water retention and food digestion and general, basic, healthy fluctuations. I eat chocolate, then condemn myself. Pull fistfuls of flesh away from my bones, and offer them up as fat. I do what I did on Thursday morning, and whip myself vicious over a body that is healthy and happy, if maybe a few pounds in excess. I have not an ounce of kindness on days that I’m feeling “fat,” and when I feel pretty, confident, at peace or even happy with my body, I allow myself only the slightest nod of approval.
I break myself to pieces, and it hurts. It hurts every time I tell myself I can never eat sugar again, because there’s an inch or two of grabbable flesh around my middle. I scrawl vitriol across my body — too thick, too wide, not flat, too much giggle, not enough definition — and whenever I hear someone try to care for me in the way that I’m not letting myself, I brush them off, tune them out, give them reasons why they’re wrong.
My husband and I had been married less than a year when he pulled my face away from the mirror, and told me that if only I could see myself with his eyes, I’d never have another harsh word for myself. I flooded with tears, because I cannot fathom the beauty he sees in me, and my battle-weary heart needs to be able to.
This body is a home. I’m realizing this slowly, and only in pieces. I live inside this flesh, and each cruel word I attach to it is a scar. It’s a mark of ugly anger, of rejection and hatred. I am tired of rejecting myself.
Three times, I’ve let needles scar ink into my skin. My foot, my wrist, and my shoulder. Together, they are strength, brokenness, wonder, and home. Each it’s own direction, it’s own invective. I have them all purposefully, permanently in my skin, because I want my body to be a record. I want it to be a testament of strength, a capsule of celebration, a record of beauty. A home that holds the wear and care and deep, deliberate embrace of a rich, undulating life.
This body cannot bear the weight of my own cruelty. Not if I also want to embrace the overwhelming fullness of this life
You are within yourself one person, and I want you to be whole. I want you to be whole no matter how you thicken and swell, droop and fade, as you invariably will. I want your body to be a place of strength, and of peace.
A place where you belong.
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Originally published at torriejayw.wordpress.com on January 30, 2016.