This time of year I think about (read obsess over) my body and its “flaws” as told to me by others. My body is in pain – joints, muscle, skin, sinuses, bone, etc. – and prevents me from enjoying the fresh air that comes with warmer weather. March and April are months when people first noticed my body start changing with puberty 20 plus years ago. It is when the body shaming started. And the body violence increased.
Between 7-15, the perpetrators who liked to use me sexually started being physically violent too. The violence got worse as my body matured and clients needed to find other ways to “get it up” or “get in the mood” depending on gender. With the sex and violence came shaming phrases: you want (fill in) because of the way you look; you’re asking for (fill in) with your body language and clothes; I wouldn’t have to (fill in) if you looked like you did before (child body); you are a slut; if you stopped fighting, I wouldn’t have to hurt you so bad…
Epithets like: thunder thighs, big butt, fat belly, flat as a board, big boobs/small boobs, bad skin/nails, hairy legs, vain child, arrogant, self-centered and so on dogged me as I tried to understand the changes happening inside me. Comparisons to my female cousins made me feel small and worthless and nerdy – invisible and shamed for taking attention away from them – when compared to their popularity and style and social skills.
Being told I was dumber, uglier, quieter, and less adept at anything than my parents and brother with words and actions by everyone reinforced my body and self shame. In every possible way, I was taught that my body was inferior, unhealthy, ugly, worthless, and not mine. Basically, I should be dead. I don’t deserve a healthy, slim body with womanly curves when the rest of my more worthy female relatives are less blessed in those areas.
The Meat of It
I spent high school and college avoiding relationships as often as possible and hiding my body with clothes that did not flatter or suit me. I spent time around people who hated and made fun of me under the guise of being friends. I wore hand-me downs and clothes that were decades out of fashion (given to me by my aunts and mother). Any clothes I bought for myself had to be approved by my parents – I couldn’t shop alone for fear of what I might by. Grooming wasn’t allowed; not the way most teenagers are allowed to experiment and spend hours in the bathroom or alone in the bedroom trying out makeup and hygiene products.
And I was always on a diet. Because my parents thought I was fat. I wasn’t fat – in fact I was dangerously underweight at less than or equal 90 lbs. for most of high school – but I had curves that both my parents hated and wanted to not see. Basically, they tried to stop me from going through puberty. It didn’t work though. I eventually made 100 lbs and stayed close to that the last two years of college unless I was in a downward spiral. In college, I gained the freshman 15. That summer, I dropped down to less than 90 lbs. again.
Senior year in college, many concerned people (none who were friends, just good people who cared enough to help out troubled peers) stepped in and convinced me I needed help. Free counseling got me through graduation, but didn’t prevent the weight loss or attempted suicide. Professional counseling after graduation started me on the path to be kinder to myself by getting healthy and rebuilding my sense of self to start.
Being skinny and weak kept me safe. Being strong and healthy made me a target. Looking like a woman made me less valuable to the cult (only wanted and paid for child-like bodies) and worthless to my parents. My father hated my body and made me cover up all the time. My mother was jealous of my body and liked to criticize my body for her own amusement. She also liked to hurt me under the guise of “checking for wounds” or “helping me clean hard to reach areas”.
My only thoughts from that time until about 12 years ago were to hurt, punish, hide, destroy my body and feminine parts.
Then I decided that I wanted to stop feeling ashamed of my body. And I wanted to be healthy. Every time I tried to do something positive, family stepped in with the shaming. Then the voices in my head triggered shaming thoughts and compulsions driven by an obsession to look a certain way or not look a certain way. In all honesty, I thought I was 170 lbs with rolls of fat hanging down everywhere and that I had secretly had breast augmentation surgery because how else could I have large breasts when everyone else had small ones unless they were overweight/obese?
And even some overweight family members (mother included) still didn’t have large breasts to go with the extra weight. And that was extra shame. Because I never, ever wanted to have that kind of surgery. An overtly feminine body would get me unwanted attention and keep me from being invisible. But every year, I’d be obsessed with thoughts of breast implants, butt implants, feminine curves, padding, etc. and compelled to find information about it. And I’d look down at my body or in a mirror and see rolls of fat, jiggly body parts, and stretch marks. Then I’d feel shame and hate.
Until one of my early therapists started questioning me about my thoughts and compulsions. Together we reality tested each of my beliefs. Not really assumptions because these were my “set in stone truths” as taught by life. Little by little, she forced me to look at each body part and decide how much “fat” really existed.
Then came nutrition therapy and the concept of loving kindness towards myself.
And every time I heard a “body shaming” thought, I had to stop and rephrase that thought to something “body neutral”. Then rephrase the thought to “body positive” after a time.
And every time I felt the urge to hurt my body, I taught myself to stop and understand where the compulsion came from. Then remind myself that I like/love my body and don’t want to hurt it. Hurting my body hurts me too.
Eventually, I started reminding myself that it’s ok to make mistakes and relapse sometimes. That’s my mind telling me some part is in trouble; time to step back and think before moving on.
These days, being kind to myself means the following:
- Stop criticizing myself when I experience backlash and shame for using “last resort coping strategies”
- Remind myself that I am doing the best that I can; it’s ok to give in to the compulsions and obsessions sometimes
- To feel gratitude that I am coping with the shame and making positive changes to my body image
- To remind myself of the positive steps I am taking to be body positive – and how much fun it is
- Making sure I take care of myself no matter how crazy work gets or how depressed I feel when the pain and memories overwhelm me.
- And to not feel bad when I have to post before or after Wednesday and Sunday because of work and personal deadlines.
Thanks for reading.