As a female yoga teacher, body image comes up for me.
It is a tiny hole the size of a Cheerio.
When I peer in, there is black night which is scary but if I look closer there are also stars that shine down and luminous planets. Body image is my uncertain path to self-acceptance. I did not pick this path. It found me.
When I was in seventh grade, a folded piece of lined paper was tossed onto my desk and landed with a plunk. I never saw who threw it. I remember hoping it was a note from a boy telling me I was cute or from a girl asking to be my friend. I had yet to make friends in my new school. Maybe this note was my opening.
I fingered the note contemplating whether to open it. I glanced around at the twenty or so other kids but no one looked my way. The school bell rang, signaling the end of the day and movement broke out like drunk men fighting. Chairs scraped, kids shouted, and sneakers squeaked. The sounds blended, deafened and made it hard to think.
I decided to open the note while walking to my locker.
I can still see myself, that unsuspecting girl, hoping for love and acceptance in the form of an ink scribbled message. Her head glancing down as she carefully opened the folded note.
“ANNE IS A FAT COW!” the blue ink headlined.
Underneath was a crudely drawn female figure that was supposed to represent me. Different spider-like and bubble-like handwriting contributed phrases like “STINKY BREATH, GREASY HAIR, SMELLY ARMPITS, HAIRY LEGS, ZIT FACE, etc.”
Clearly I was a freak.
My knees felt temporarily broken and a surge of acid coated the back of my throat. It was all I could do to refrain from puking. I thought about killing myself. Instead I ripped the note into a million pieces. I walked the familiar route back to my house and pushed the bits down the metal grates of a sewer. The note vanished into the dark underground and, for a little while, so did I.
I recovered. My strategy was to act like it never happened. I told no one. Not my parents or the few friends I did have.
I put myself on a one-thousand calories per day diet and the next morning went back to school in a carefully chosen outfit of Calvin Klein jeans which, in my opinion, made my butt look small and a gauze Indian print shirt, which was just the right touch of beauty and bohemian. My medium length hair was blown dry until it shined and curled back like Farrah Fawcett. I applied black Maybelline mascara from a hot pink tube and raspberry flavored lip gloss that came in a metal tin the size of a postage stamp. When I walked into that classroom, I held my head up high.
It began to take me a full hour to primp each morning. The other five people in my family, who also needed to get ready, complained I was hogging the only bathroom. In an attempt to move me along, my younger sister tried to unplug my curling iron. I hit her over the head with it. The effort that went into being beautiful did little to make me self-aware, compassionate or nice. Plus I was hungry.
The plan to pretend there was never a note that said I was a fat ugly loser worked. Nothing cruel bounced on my desk again. I made friends with most of the kids in my class even though some of them had taken part in the note writing. In my seventh grade mind, the important thing was being seen as beautiful. Then I would be safe from rejection and cruelty.
I would not have used the word beautiful to describe myself. That’s over the top for most females to apply to themselves although we freely offer it to others. But I would have said I wanted to be pretty. Pretty meant acceptance. Acceptance meant power. Other aspects of myself got buried under pretty.
I longed to be pretty. On good days, I thought I was. The problem was there were more bad days. I tried hard to be beautiful but in the mirrors of my mind, I didn’t cut it. I obsessed. Dieting, starving, binging, purging, exercising, over and over, until everything else felt false. My mind would not shut up:
You are not good enough. You are not good enough. You are not good enough.
My chant went on far into adulthood until one day, in what felt like an unmerciful long holding of bridge pose, it stopped. My self hate got completely silent. There was a long pause devoid of Anne bashing that I had not experienced in a long time. Then I heard another voice, “You are beautiful.” A whisper.
Think of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and the word “terrific,” lovingly weaved by Charlotte, the kind-hearted and murderous spider, in an effort to save her dear friend Wilbur from being slaughtered. One morning, all the animals and farmers woke up, and saw the word: “Terrific.” The word seemed to appear out of nowhere. Nobody previously thought of Wilbur, a farm pig, as terrific. But now they did. Of course he was.
My word was “Beautiful.” It was an invisible web spun across my whole body. Like Wilbur, I was always terrific. I was always beautiful. I just forgot.
In a long holding of bridge, I heard for the first time, “Stop,” and “You have always been.” In the burning of my thighs and the rise and fall of my breath, I got it. I didn’t need to try anymore. I was always beautiful. I was always enough.
It was only a moment, but it changed me.
There would still be body image and self-esteem issues, but I never went into yoga the same way again. My practice transformed into surrender and compassion instead of self flogging. No matter what showed its face- hatred, vulnerability, disgust, apathy, etc. I breathed through it and saw that every aspect of me had ugliness and beauty.
There were times when I temporarily lapsed back to my old ways, but in my yoga practice, the spider web would eventually appear in the middle of the night and show me the way back.
I sometimes still long for beauty. But now, beauty means something else. After my bridge experience, I was able to re-emerge as Anne again, the one who could be comfortable with imperfection.
Call me names. As a business owner unable to make everyone happy, some people do. I don’t like it, but the hurtful comments that come my way no longer wield power.
As yoga teachers, the eyes of the class are upon us. We are in a unique position to teach authenticity. My own teachers have been role models. Early in my yoga career, I studied with Ana Forrest and can still see her long dark braid fall down her back and the cat like way she looked at me while I held lunge pose, ready to collapse.
As she assisted, her animal spirit would get so close to mine, I could taste it.
Once she said, “I wish you could see what I see when I look at you.”
I remember looking into my car’s rear view mirror after that conversation. I wanted to see what she saw. As I adjusted the tilt of the mirror, it revealed a woman with messy hair, makeup completely washed away, and soft brown eyes the color of pennies. The woman in the mirror radiated beauty and she was not a stranger. She was me.
I would like grown woman to teach younger girls about real beauty, the kind that comes from within and doesn’t fit in any mold, and ideally before adolescence when the stakes to be externally validated become high.
Society’s messages of beauty and femininity start early. I have a five-year-old daughter and when I walk the toy aisle for girls, the standards for what is feminine are clear. Every toy is pink, polished, accessorized, or glitters. If the girl toys are not a version of pop-princess, they are a variant of care-giving; baby dolls and furry animals needing to be fed, bathed or bandaged.
Let’s teach our girls (and boys) that everything we need is already inside—courage, strength, knowing and beauty. It’s already there. Yoga is perfect for this because its an internal practice. The poses and meditation bring up disturbances within. Some with intensity and others with gentleness. In the midst of friction, we learn to hold our own. One breath at a time and with compassion. When the tools of yoga—breath, sensation and self-observation without judgment come together, which they do, now and then, we get a glimpse of what is real. Our own truth.
Right now. Right here. I have always been. Beautiful.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta