*Trigger Warning: This article talks about body image, both negative and positive, which could be triggering to some.
I have struggled with body image my entire life. Unfortunately, in our society, that is not an uncommon statement. In fact, we tend to find it unusual when someone says, “I love my body, I always have.” However, my body image went beyond the social acceptable stereotype of the woman who perpetually wants to lose 15 lbs.
I didn’t just have poor body image, I had body loathing. I spent the better part of my life feeling like I was a hideous monster that no one could possibly ever love. I remember standing in the kitchen at age 12 grabbing, pinching, and tugging on the unacceptable parts of my body, wishing that I could hack them off with a kitchen knife. Maybe then I’d be worthy of love.
My negative image of myself was reinforced by those around me, which only made my self-loathing seem more appropriate. Everyone fawns over the slender beautiful girl who says she’s hideous, but when a chubby awkward girl says it, there’s usually a painful silence followed by: “have you tired dieting,” “at least you have a pretty face,” or “you’re pretty, just in a weird way.” Self-hatred is expected if you don’t fit into the societal image of an acceptable body.
Nowadays, body image is a popular topic. We talk fat shaming and unrealistic body expectations. It’s still not enough though, not yet at least. I’ve seen people defending body shaming because “being overweight is unhealthy and we shouldn’t let people think that it’s ok.” Yes, it’s true that being overweight can cause a lot of health problems, but that’s not what body positivity is about.
It’s about not hating yourself because of the girth of your waist. It’s about knowing that there is so much more to you than your pant size. And, most importantly, it’s about understanding that your value as a human being does not stem from the numbers on a scale.
It’s really easy for me to say all of that because, well, because I’ve told myself those same exact thing thousands of times. It’s much harder to actually believe them. We should love our bodies, I truly believe that. But, it’s difficult to do that when you don’t look like the models in magazines or the actors on tv. It’s even harder when your body seems to be actively working against you every single day, like when you have a chronic illness.
Before I talk about body image with chronic illnesses, let me tell you about the one really amazing year where I loved my body and all that it could do:
It started when I left my ex-husband and the marriage that seemed to be devouring me little by little until I couldn’t recognize the person in the mirror anymore. I had spent the year leading up to our separation trying to find myself again, to figure out where I’d hidden the real me away and if she still had any life in her. That journey continued after I left. I felt like Kimmy Schmidt emerging from her the Reverend’s bunker: free and seeing the world all over again with brand new eyes.
I began an intense yoga regimen. I did yoga as much as I could wherever I could. I ate as clean as possible. I meditated daily. And, because of all of that, I suddenly felt at one with my body. My dualistic view of “me” vs “my body” melted away and my body and I fused together. I was my body and it was me. We were no longer enemies working against each other.
I have never in my life felt so free and connected. Strength radiated from my pores. I didn’t care about clothing size, weight, or how I looked. I felt comfortable in my own skin, a feeling I was in no way used to or prepared for. While I now know that I still had undiagnosed Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, the exercises helped tame the symptoms. I had fewer injuries, less joint pain, and slept deeper than ever before.
But, then, POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) hit and rendered me disabled. I could no longer do my yoga because the positional changes caused me to pass out. I tried doing simple floor exercises but my heart rate would shoot up dangerously high with the smallest amount of activity. My energy stores were limited anyway and I chose to use what energy I had on my job and family rather than using it all up for yoga. I tried various other exercises with similar results, but nothing helped. Every time I would get into an exercise routine and start building my strength again, a new symptom or injury would emerge, knocking me back down again.
My body had betrayed me. I had spent a year treating it like a temple and now it had given out on me. It was no longer part of me but, rather, an enemy trying to steal away every ounce of who I was.
In the past 1.5 years, I’ve gained roughly 35 lbs. I’ve watched my lean muscles turn soft and begin to sag. I have a closet full of clothes I can no longer wear and a stack of expensive compression leggings that went from difficult to put on to impossible. I am once again struggling with body image and the fear that, as everything else I’ve known has been slipping away, my own body is slipping away from me as well.
How am I supposed to love a body that is actively working against itself to destroy me? How can I take care of a body that behaves like an abusive spouse?
Perhaps the answer lies in how I view my illnesses as well as my body. I tend to think of my illnesses as being part of my body. They are part of my genetic make-up, after all. But, what if I thought about my illnesses as something separate from my body? As invaders who forced their way in and now are refusing to leave? Maybe, instead of my body and I being enemies, we’re allies, fighting the damage of the intruders together.
I don’t know if this is the answer, but I know that I can’t continue to hate my body. It’s like living in an inescapable prison, with no option of parole. I hope to get to where I can exercise regularly again, and I’d love to see my lean muscles come back, but I know that I can’t depend on those things for loving my body. I have to stop hating it now. I have to, or it’s going to tear me apart.
So, that is my mission and it’s nowhere close to complete. I plan on sharing with you all how it goes along the way. I also invite you to join me on this mission. We can’t escape our bodies. We have to learn to love them, no matter what they look like or how they function. Hopefully, we can work together and support each other through this journey of acceptance.
Do you have any tips on how you keep a positive body image? Or do you have your own story of your struggle for body acceptance? I’d love to hear from you! Leave me a comment or connect with me via social media.
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