Without fail, it seems like every January ushers in a fresh obsession with the latest fad diets, a more accentuated cultural pressure for women to take up less space in the world, and an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction with the extra cellulite deposited over the course of holiday merriment with loved ones. Maybe I am just more aware of it because of what I am reading and who I am surrounding myself with (check out Hillary McBride’s book Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image), but it seems like every ad that meets my eyes these days has to do with weight loss or some other form of body “improvement.”
My relationship with my body is a complex one. She and I have been on quite a journey together, one that I suspect will continue until the day I cease to exist within her. I am just as vulnerable to the screaming messages of culture as the next woman, but I also find myself surrounded by women who are constantly teaching me to search for truth, to embrace my flaws and learn from them, and to stand up with confidence and invest in loving people rather than striving to impress the masses.
I write about mountains to be conquered, but today I want to stand up and say that my body is not one of those. And neither is yours.
I wrote the following letter over a year ago. It feels vulnerable to share these words with you here, but I have also found that sometimes the most important and valuable words I can offer you are the ones I am afraid to say. Because chances are, if I’m afraid to say them, maybe someone else is too…and maybe by grabbing the mic first, I will give someone else the courage to say what she needs to say. So here I am, saying what feels vulnerable and scary but also honest and real.
I think I have forgotten, ignored you.
I have treated you as Intruder, as a problem to be solved rather than Giver of Life, a strong solution to a world of problems.
I remember so clearly the day I thought you were wrong. I was a little girl, sitting in a bath with a friend, when she pointed out that my belly was bigger than hers. She probably did not cast judgment in that statement, but I felt in that moment like you were wrong. I was different, and this body of mine was abnormal.
I remember overhearing a man from church say that his wife “could certainly keep up her figure better,” but then excuse this apparently vile flaw by saying, “but she has so many other good qualities, like how she serves others.” So if my body cannot be desirable to a man, I have to make up for that with service?
My period came, and I was embarrassed. I did not feel like I could tell my mom what I needed, how my body was changing and rebelling, so I hid the blood. I couldn’t ask for feminine products. I couldn’t ask for anything I needed.
I remember when I started forcing my body to fit the mold others made for it. The calorie counting, feeling so proud when I could restrict myself until my stomach ached with hunger. My mind would scream, “I will beat you into submission, Body!” and I would eat salad and sugar free popsicles. I was 13 years old.
Then I discovered a new form of tortuous delight…running. For the first time, I was watching the cellulite disappear and others began to comment on the rightness of my body. “Wow! You look good! You are so skinny!” So apparently it was true…I WAS wrong before. I was broken, and now I was skinny and right. My feet would obsessively pound the pavement. Thanksgiving dinner? Had to run five miles first. Weekend trip with a girlfriend? Six miles. I felt strong, in control. Beating my body to be what I and others desired made me feel so powerful. “Maybe now they will approve of you, Body” I thought.
I stopped starving myself. The pounds crept back on. Slowly, because I was still running. But then even that went away. A knife cut into my body and removed a diseased organ, but then I couldn’t run. Until I just didn’t. I started compensating. Maybe remembering the words of that man about his wife, I started finding ways to make myself invaluable to other people by serving and helping and doing whatever they wanted me to do. The ultimate pleaser. I kept exercising because they said I should, but I hated every minute of it.
There were the youth group conversations, the group discussions where the boys told us they imagined us naked when we wore wrong things and that was shameful. Yikes, so now my body was dangerous too. Cover it up! Then there were the private conversations, men who told me my shirt was too low-cut (my developing breasts were wrong too) or that my body odor was abhorrent (great, even my sweat is disgusting!).
I always noticed the girls who had boys chasing after them. “What do I have to do to my body to earn the desire of a guy?” I would think. After all, we do treat that as the pinnacle of womanhood…being desired by a man.
Body, I have pretended you did not exist. I have misused you, spoken poorly about you, and sought to disown you. All the while, you have carried me, holding moments of joy and sorrow that no one else has known. You have held hands and hugged dear ones and walked miles and scooped up crying babes.
YOU are strong. You have sat at the bedside of the dying and wiped away your father’s tears as he passed into the next life.
You have carried the burdens of others and stored away secrets for friends.
You have held the stress and tension my mind did not know how to process. YOU are not wrong, you are actually ME.
You are powerful and full of dreams and desires that can change lives and pathways and worlds. You are beautiful, the embodiment of ME: Comforter, friend, joy-bearer, life-speaker, team-builder. Your legs can climb mountains, your arms hoist giggling children up into the air. The cellulite you have tried so desperately at times to purge bears the energy required to be a creator of life. YOU are Woman. Beautiful, strong, ENOUGH.
Hello, Body. I embrace you as you are, no longer despise you or your needs. You are MINE. Not someone else’s to control or mold into a caricature, but MINE. There are desires and needs to be uncovered in you and cradled so gently, not ignored or begrudgingly met in order to be pushed away.
And Woman…Yes, you who sit next to me and beside me and on the other side of this screen…Let’s make peace with our bodies, ok? Let’s celebrate all they are and all they have carried. Let’s discover what they need and crave, and gently tend to those desires. Let’s enter what you might even find to be uncharted waters, a space where we can declare to the world, “I am not wrong, I am everything right and good and powerful! I. Am. Woman.” Let’s do this together, okay? For ourselves, for the women who came before us and the girls who will come after us. Let’s make a new way.
Abigail…ALL of me.