It was day three of the music festival, and I had enough. Don’t get me wrong. I adore music festivals. They’re my safe space, my outlet and something I look forward to every single year.
But I was beat. I’d been worn down by a busy schedule in the months leading up to this festival, and my chronic pain condition was chipping away at my energy and general comfort. And this was a pretty low-key music festival, compared to some others I’d been to. But regardless, I wanted nothing more to go home and curl up with my dog on the couch.
Instead of packing up the car early and calling it a weekend, I chose to soldier on. There were a few bands and singers I desperately wanted to see, including Grimes, who was basically the main reason I was in Cincinnati to begin with.
So while I counted down the hours until I’d be able to leave, I did what I usually do when I’m out of my routine, exhausted and generally uncomfortable — I started picking at myself.
In our hotel room, I stood in front of a full-length mirror and pulled at the fat on my sides. I studied my stomach’s flatness, or what I perceived to be a lack thereof, and frowned at the flabby triceps under my arms.
“Would you quit it?” my husband chided. “You look beautiful.”
I ignored his compliment and continued to pull in my waist. I hadn’t been at the gym in days, was eating most of my meals out of food trucks and knew that my body was bloated from endometriosis. This wasn’t the look I wanted at a music festival where everyone is pretty and showing off their cute crop tops and short shorts. I wanted to believe that I was beautiful.
Nearly every photo taken of me that weekend I deleted. The ones I kept, I zoomed in on in between sets and studied my curves and imperfections. If my husband caught me, he’d repeat his earlier praise and try to get me to put my phone away. I would and then sneak another look when he wasn’t paying attention. I needed to prove to myself that I was pretty, but the harder I looked, the less I believed it.
After a few hours of silently hating myself, my husband and I crossed to the other side of the park to finally see Grimes. Up until then, I’d only really considered myself a casual fan of her music. I knew her most popular songs, but I hadn’t ever seen her live or delved into her lesser known music. But even still, I know she’d put on a killer show, and I wanted to see it, no matter how terrible I felt.
The pre-show music cut out, and the crowd around me erupted as a trio of dancers came out on stage to synthesizers and strings. I felt genuinely excited for the first time that day and craned my neck to see any sign of Grimes. Minutes later, she pranced out with a huge smile and a sprite-like energy that immediately captured her audience and set their feet to dancing.
I was never much of a dancer at college parties or any time before then. I grew up in a religious environment that shunned dancing or showing off your skin, and the two tended to intermingle on my campus. So much to my current sadness, my religious guilt meant I could only count on one hand when I threw caution to the wind and released my pent up stress on a frat house’s dance floor. But at shows, I make up for lost time.
As I was showing off my sweet-ass dance moves — and as the people around me generously gave me some room to not punch them in the face — I thought again about my body image issues. I can blame my childhood church for a chunk of why I never learned to appreciate my body. I wasn’t really supposed to. Female bodies were something to cover and hide away from anyone’s view, even my own.
I remember being at church camp once when I was around 10 years old. It was mandated that we wear one-piece swimsuits to the lake, and I had mine hidden under some shorts and a t-shirt. While I was walking past the boys’ cabin, I started to get hot, and without thinking about the consequences, I pulled off my over-sized t-shirt.
I barely had it over my shoulders before I heard my name being yelled. A female camp counselor came marching up toward me, shrieking about how I couldn’t show off my body where boys could see me. My body — a.k.a. a pair of shoulders and a glimpse of my collarbone.
It was the millionth time I’d heard that my body was sinful, imperfect and inappropriate. I hadn’t even hit puberty yet, and I was embarrassed to be seen.
But I can’t put all the onus on a church I haven’t regularly attended in five years. It’s my own fault, too. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect, and that includes my body.
Despite having a chronic illness with painful and frustrating symptoms that always fight my best intentions, I push my body to conform to my high standards. For a while, I forced myself to go to the gym five times a week, regardless of how awful I felt or how much pain I was in. I’m all for fitness, and exercising does immensely improve my symptoms. But I was practically abusing myself.
I spend a lot of time scrolling through Instagram and comparing my stomach and muscle tone to others’. Despite knowing in my head that I’m thin and that my body is in good shape, I can’t help but say to myself every time I see someone stronger and thinner than me, “Look at that person. If she can do that, so can you.”
But looking up at Grimes, I felt something different. Grimes couldn’t possibly care less about what you thought of her appearance. She was clearly wearing an outfit she thought was fun and fabulous, even though I’d never find it on Pinterest. She wasn’t wearing makeup, while I put on a full face that would only melt under the sun. She grinned and glittered with every button she hit, even though she apologized several times over for hitting the wrong one with the lights hard to see under the bright sky. But she never seemed to falter. She flowed.
Or as my husband put it, “I feel like she wouldn’t give a shit if no one was here. She’d keep doing what she’s doing. She’s doing this for her.”
I wanted that. So I took off my tanktop and showed off my purple bralette, my stomach and everything in between.
The thing that makes Grimes so beautiful and so compelling, I realized, is her vulnerability — from her persona to her music.
My favorite song by her, “Oblivion,” confronts her sexual assault under the veil of a poppy melody and upbeat rhythm. But its danceability isn’t meant to hide the song’s meaning. It’s meant to reclaim that moment. I get chills every time the lyrics shift from being too afraid to take walks after dark to the chorus, “See you on a dark night.”
That vulnerability is what resonates with me as a listener. It’s what kept me at that music festival after enduring pouring rain and a sore body. It’s what makes me adore Grimes.
As I, once again, showed off my sick dance moves to the chorus’ repeating line — and as close to naked as I’d ever been in public — a line of women about my age pushed their way out of the crowd. One of them suddenly grabbed my arm, and I bent my head down to hear her. “You look so cute.”
Flustered and mildly embarrassed, I stuttered a thank you without returning the compliment. All my life, I’d fought my body and hid certain parts of myself to respect beliefs that did nothing but hold me down. But in my moment of Grimes-inspired vulnerability, no one shamed me. No one screeched at me to put my shirt back on. No one mocked my dancing. In fact, it was celebrated.
Grimes’ show ended a few minutes after it was supposed to, but I wanted more. I wanted to stay in that state of vulnerability and acceptance and actually loving my body for what it was. But I decided it didn’t have to end after the last song or the last day of a music festival. I wanted to take it home with me.
I’ll always struggle with accepting my body. Now well into my 20’s, it’s ingrained in me. But it doesn’t have to be my resting place anymore. I can remember the way I felt watching Grimes, awestruck and inspired by her I-couldn’t-give-two-shits music and persona. That’s something worth wanting to emulate — not some touched-up abs on Instagram.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself. But there is something wrong with wanting to be something that isn’t yourself. Today, I choose vulnerability. Today, I choose me.