It’s okay for a teenage girl to hate their body. Well, it’s not okay but it’s so common that it’s usually considered normal. (If you stop and think about that, it shouldn’t be.) But it’s just vanity and self-indulgence for a woman in her forties to still hate her body. Surely you should be over that by now? Don’t you know that no one cares what such an old body looks like anyway? Haven’t you built enough of a life where such trivialities don’t matter anymore?
Nope to all three. I made a lot of progress in my late twenties and early thirties with accepting my body as I was part of what was known then as the fatosphere which was a network of blogs and forums about fat acceptance. My weight then would have been classified as obese or morbidly obese so I felt like I fitted in. The arguments for fat acceptance made a lot of sense to me with their logic and their compassion. But while I fully supported the idea that fat people should be treated with dignity and respect and without discrimination, I couldn’t fully apply the ideas to my own body.
When I am manic, I have great body image. I look in the mirror and think I look fucking amazing and any woman or man would be lucky to have sex with me and that people glancing at me will think I look good. When my mood is normal, all I can see in the mirror are unacceptable flaws that make me look terrible and will make people looking at me dislike me. At its worst, I look in the mirror and feel deformed and like I want to harm my body to punish it for being so bad.
The part of my body that it bothering me the most right now is the roll of fat and protuberance of my upper abdomen. I hate it. Everyone seems to hate any kind of bulge in that area too. I never see that area celebrated. The only time it is mentioned is in terms of how risky storing ‘excess’ fat there is for cardiovascular health. My clothes are definitely tighter there since I started intuitive eating and I have had to let my belt out a notch. I am hyperaware of how that area feels against my clothes and that triggers self-critical and negative thoughts about eating, my weight and my body.
I try and be objective and think this is just adipocytes gathering fuel, like they are supposed to. It is just molecules of lipids bundled up in cells. It is just human tissue the same way there is connective tissue on the sole of my foot. But this particular fat means something to me. It means I am out of control and unruly (a word I will always now associate with Roxanne Gay) and that people will judge me harshly and I am not safe. That’s a lot for a small group of cells to carry. It feels very dangerous to risk going against the expectation that I should follow the convention of how to look there. I don’t want to be different. I am desperate to fit in and be normal but I can’t be normal in many areas of my life because of my mental illnesses and past experiences. But maybe I can change this. Maybe I can control this.
I try and be objective again and think that people judging me is just thoughts in their brains. Just biochemistry. But sometimes those thoughts affect real life and real concrete things happen to me because of those judgements. Unlikely to be a problem solely because my upper abdomen is a big bigger but these little judgements mount up and can be devastating.
One of the techniques therapists use to help you re-balance your body image is to list out the things you like about your body. When I was asked to do this, over a decade ago, I couldn’t do it. Not only could I genuinely not find anything positive to say about my body but I also had this overwhelming feeling that I would be doing something wrong to say positive things about it. The first positive thing I ever said to myself when I looked in the mirror was, “my lips are a nice colour”. I astonished myself as it was a spontaneous thought. I still remember the feeling. It was late at night, in the bathroom, and I still have the dressing gown that I was wearing. Another technique (which I always thought sounded like bullshit but it seemed harmless enough) is to smile at yourself in the mirror every time you go to the bathroom. I still do this now and I finally think I have a nice smile. I have also got habituated to my crooked face and can recognise myself in photos.
I looked in the full length mirror while naked yesterday and managed okay. Didn’t have overwhelming self-hatred. Didn’t gaze in disgust at my loose, wrinkled skin from my weight loss. Thought, “yes, my lips are still a nice colour”. Tried to be realistic that this is just a body and it doesn’t have to mean anything. I remembered another therapy technique: think if you were on a planet with everything you need but no other humans; would you be so desperate to change your body, and all that that costs, if no one else saw it? I have gone far enough with body acceptance now to say that if I was alone then I would be fine with my body. I am actually pretty lucky with all that it can do, other than my fucking brain. If I was alone, I don’t think I would give a second thought to how my body looked. It wouldn’t occur to me. So my problem is not my body: my problem is other people’s reactions to my body.
Maybe the technique I should be learning is how to tell other people to get to fuck.