If you have ever hated your body, you might recognize this voice.
It sounds like this, when I am on a run, feeling tired and a little dizzy: Keep running, it burns more calories. You’re flabby. What are we going to eat for lunch? You should just eat mostly vegetables. Remember how skinny you got when you were on that elimination diet after your son was born? Ugh, she has big boobs. Why are my boobs the first place I lose weight and the last place I gain? I really need to lose about seven pounds. My ass is giving itself whiplash.
It still pipes up at mealtime sometimes.
At the gym, it hollers.
When the voice hisses, I miss so much. I miss the crunch of leaves beneath my feet and the bare tree limbs stretching toward the sun. I miss the taste of warm, sweet coffee swirling in my mouth. One day, the voice appeared when I was weighing myself at my parents’ house, and for a moment, in humid anticipation of what the scale would say, I forgot about my infant daughter, sitting at my feet on the bathroom floor.
To look at me, you might not know I have this voice. I am not overweight, nor am I rail thin. But the disease that encompasses self-loathing, food addiction and obsession, and body and weight obsession doesn’t always show up on our bodies. It largely exists somewhere you can’t see, in our minds.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot circulating on the internet about women and body image. From the Maria Kang “What’s Your Excuse?” controversy to Lily Myer’s stunning poetry, from Glennon Melton Doyle’s honest, lovely words to Brittney Gibbons’ excellent TED talk. From the stories and from the reactions to them, I think it’s safe to say that far, far too many of us live with this voice.
For me, the voice was born a long time ago. When I was in fourth grade and the nurse sent home an alarmed note because I’d gained nine pounds during the school year. It was handed down through generations of mothers and daughters in my family, a dark spiral of DNA. It grew when a babysitter told me not to drink too much milk because milk makes you fat. When I lost a bit of weight in fifth grade and a friend’s mom told me how great I looked. In sixth grade when I got hips but not boobs. When I learned to overeat to snuff out the swirling panic in my head. It blossomed every time I heard a woman say she needed to lose a few pounds or exercise more or not eat fat or carbs or fruit or sweets. When stupid boys made stupid comments about my body. When I saw every glossy, skinny magazine girl who seemed to blare: I am so happy because I am thin and beautiful! If you were thin and beautiful, you’d be so happy, too!
At times, the voice was so loud that I heard almost nothing else.
I am almost 40 now. The voice is quieter, but it still lurks. I have used therapy and EMDR and twelve-step programs to fight it. My body has made two gorgeous, healthy babies and birthed and fed them, and that helps. Yoga and running usually help. Sometimes, telling the voice to shut the holy eff up helps.
I don’t let the voice speak through my mouth like it used to. No words slip out when I look in the full-length mirror and am unhappy; the thoughts just roll around in my head for a few minutes like spilled marbles before settling. We don’t have a scale at home; I got tired of it telling me how to feel.
These things help deflate the voice.
But it’s still there. It still takes up too much energy. Energy that I could use to write and love and soften.
The voice almost always distances me from other people, especially other women. It makes my heart shrivel and my thoughts turn catty. The voice slices and dices, segmenting body parts like cuts of juicy meat. The voice objectifies and minimizes. It dehumanizes.
Why is it so hard to fight this voice? To eradicate it completely?
Is it because it started when I was so young? Because every magazine or advertisement or television show I see feeds it?
I think so. But I think it’s also because the voice is fear.
It sounds like a critic, a strong, OZ-like presence, the voice of a director or a stern parent.
But when I peer underneath, it is pure fear. Vaporous, chameleon fear.
Fear that I am wrong and unworthy. Fear of being present and soaking up all the loss and light of being human. Fear of my own sheen, my capabilities, my possibilities. And maybe, maybe beneath all that, the fear believes—in a childlike way, because it was born in a child—that if I just looked a certain way, if I just weighed a certain number, I would always be loved and never sad and I would never, ever die.
We use our phones and toys, booze and cake, telveisions and computers, and our critical voices to wrestle out of the present. From being openhearted and brokenhearted to the world, to each other, to our mortality.
Part of the antidote to the voice, for me, is to remember what my body has done—loved and laughed, birthed and breastfed.
And to remember what it will do—get older.
When I remember that, I soften. I cry, which lets some of the fear seep out, pooling and flattening.
I don’t want to die. I don’t want my body to not be here. But no matter whether I can feel my flesh creasing my jeans or not, no matter how many wrinkles I do or don’t get, whether I can sense the gaze of men upon me as they walk past or not—I will die. Whether my soul lifts out of my body like a balloon rising into the sky, morphing and surviving—or not— my body will die.
When I remember this, it is impossible not to melt with gratitude. For my legs that can still walk and my fingers that can still touch my babies’ cheeks. For my eyes that can watch sunlight stride across the earth. For my crazy, anxious brain that takes it all in, making me human.
When I remember this, I want to use this body all up. This perfectly imperfect skin and heart and bones. I want to run and roll in leaves and do all the things women do in feminine hygiene commercials. Maybe more than anything, I want to be present to watch my kids become people out in the world, loving themselves and their bodies and others. I want to watch them working and wondering and becoming who they were born to be while I become who I was born to be.
When I blanket the fear with gratitude, I can see how very, very small it is. When I remember that the voice is a fearful child, I begin to learn to cradle it, to talk softly to it. To tell it, like I tell my son, that yes, we die, and it’s frightening.
But first? We get to live this fierce, wide, wrenching life. In these scarred, scared, shining bodies. These skin and stardust, temporary bodies.
If you have ever hated your body, and if you still hear this voice sometimes like I do, or all the time like I used to, this is what I hope for us:
That the voice shrinks and shrinks, until we find ourselves holding it in our palms like a husk, like a whisper. That our critic’s eyes soften and our hearts widen and we understand more and more how little this all matters: the numbers on the scale, the way the landscape of our skin curves beneath our clothing, the fleeting, narrow flash of beauty in the magazines.
That gratitude sprouts green like grass as everything blends and blurs together, until there is nothing left but love.
How we can take care of ourselves:
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Ed: Bryonie Wise