There are not too many of us who can say they love the way they look. If you are one of these people, you can stop reading right now. But if you, like I, have troubles accepting the way you look — perhaps this approach could help you. Perhaps you too will find that trying to love yourself is too much work and often a waste of time, when you could be doing other, beautiful things with your life.
I remember only two moments in my life when I really liked the way I looked. One was back at school somewhere around the time when puberty hit me. I did crunches and situps and ate only sauerkraut and black bread for a month and then I looked at myself in the mirror and I liked what I saw. But maintaining this diet was insane and then I went to the United States anyway and gained 10 kilos. The second time I liked my body was at university, at the time when I was literally running away from depression around Kaiserwald — a recreational area in Lviv — trying to wear my body down. I didn’t eat much either. I weighed 56 kilos which was a record since high school. I looked and felt like a ghost.
But between these two short moments there was only a feeling of misunderstanding between me and my body. I have always thought my broad hips and heavy ass did not properly reflect my fragile and artistic spirit. All my life I craved to be thin and tall but it never happened. I felt similar to that Milan Kundera’s heroine — her spirit was ready to take off but her ass weighed her down to earth.
Thinking about what has led me to having such a negative body-image despite the fact that I wasn’t overweight or ugly, but rather plain, was a number of things. In the US, where I studied a year on an exchange program, only slim pretty girls were the popular ones. Chubby or plain ended up on the periphery of social life. They had cliques and parties of their own, which were much more interesting and intelligent, but they definitely weren’t the ones to be asked out to prom. And for some reason, I desperately wanted to be asked out. When I returned to Ukraine, things were a bit better, but still my ass was too big and my legs too short to allow me to take part in the Miss Ivan Franko University beauty pageant. It was my beautiful university friends who the guys looked at in cafes, long legs, big tits. They got asked out to dance. So in the end it was not that different from school.
Perhaps it was my bad luck or my karma always placing me near the prettiest girls. And the prettiest girls in my life always had the most charisma: tall, long-legged, free-spirited, each a rebel, I envied their spontaneity and their love of life. I chose to attribute it to beauty, because I thought beauty opened doors for them. In some cases, it was true — some professors would start flirting with them in the middle of the exam and they would get their way out of a difficult question. To them it didn’t matter in which way they got a good mark, all was good in matters of love and war (and the exam session). Sometimes, though, their looks would backfire, as some professors would try to humiliate them. Like, if the answer wasn’t too good, they could ask to brush the dust off their jackets. I felt pity, but also triumphed a little because I was never going to have those troubles. I honestly crammed their lectures and read long book lists. After all, my ability to study well have always got me to good places.
After I left university and started working, the crack between what I wanted to look like and my reflection deepened. Don’t rush to blame me that I didn’t do anything about that. Because I did: running, street workouts, gym workouts, swimming, ballet, boogie, yoga. For some time it was all together — ballet, boogie, gym, until I got arthrosis in my foot and stopped dancing. Then I dove into yoga.
The reason I started liking yoga first was the states I experienced during a meditation. I never enjoyed yoga as a set of exercises. I was grateful to my teachers who practised meditation and who were attentive to the theoretical and moral principles of yoga as a system.
After some time, I started to see the change in my attitude to myself. As I started practising the heart-opening asanas and meditations, I started to tolerate myself more. I started to forgive myself more. My self-hate started to wane. I looked at my body puffing in hard asanas and felt a tingle of appreciation.
My outlook changed when I went to Bali to volunteer teaching English. During the weekend trip to Ubud I stayed in a hotel room with Julia, a US volunteer. She was beautiful. She did dancing and her moves were whatever she wanted them to be. Her body was precise and light and flexible when it moved. She sang in an angelic voice — in other words, she was what I had always wanted to be but never had enough motivation or gut to follow through with. She didn’t wear a bra and for a girl like me, raised in a post-soviet country, this looked like an outrageous and rebellious act. So as we were getting ready to go out and I put on my dress, she complimented me on how wonderful I looked in it. To which I replied rather sourly that I never really liked my body so it didn’t really matter how I dressed it. Julia replied wistfully: «This is going to sound bad if we consider people with disabilities. But. I have a friend back at the US. She never liked her body all that much. But she respects it, because it allows her to lead a life that she wants. To walk, to dance, to do yoga». Back at that time these words were just words to me, but they sunk in. Respecting your body doesn’t create the urgency to love it. Even if you don’t love someone, you can respect them. You can respect them for various reasons or simply because you acknowledge them. Respect feels mature.
The approach seems very functional and yet you expect some flaw. I mean, isn’t it one of the aims of life — to love yourself? Isn’t that a message we are bombarded with in all media — love yourself? Love yourself fat, but better start dieting, love yourself thin, but see a doctor about your diet, love yourself and buy the super-beautifying-watercress-slime-extracted-from-snails creme, love yourself and look better in this bag-with-cutouts-dress and so on. Even if someone can explain to us what it means to truly love oneself, they do so to push us into some lopsided version of it in which self-love is just a marketing technique to ensure we buy things which help us love ourselves more.
I’m not sure how it happened that this approach became more conscious. Perhaps it was through yoga and vinyasa and acroyoga. I remember doing the acroyoga class for the first time in my life and being overwhelmed with gratitude to my body. That it can hold another human being in the air, that it can be so strong — I have never even thought it imaginable! Vinyasa taught me a lot about my limitations — in fact, there was not one flow I could do without stopping to catch my breath or falling down. I still can’t do it, but I’m grateful for the chance to try.
These days I don’t have the reasons to hate my body anymore, even though it’s not model-like and never will be. I have come to terms with my ass and my strong legs. They carry me places, they can go kilometres and climb mountains. I respect them for that. My ass is not as useful, but it likes to be smacked. My breasts are still small, but I go braless in summer and feel great about it (yes, thank you Julia, I do that often now!) I still don’t often like how I look without make-up but I don’t get upset about it anymore. We’ve reached a state of partnership with my body, where I take care of it in the way that doesn’t stress me out and it allows me to do things.
I’m not 100% sure I will ever love my body, though I’m not saying it won’t happen either. I’ve started to regard myself as cute more often recently, and it comes from liking myself more, being more content with where I am in life and my state of mind. And I’ve started listening to it more, treating it like a being with its own agenda. How does my body feel when my soul is in angst? What does my body want to do in each particular moment in time? How does it want to sit, to move, to rest? Our bodies are the one thing that connects us with the reality around us. And with the true desires inside us.
Loving yourself isn’t about pampering yourself in cosmetics or Instagram narcissism. It’s hard work which involves getting to know yourself and what you want, what your body and soul want. And right now I am just not up to it.