For at least 30 years, I have been at war with my body. This body that has birthed two children and survived years and years of self-destructive behavior has stalwartly endured my attempts to kill it off, my disdain, and my attempts to dissociate from it.
When did it start? This deep disdain? I vividly remember seeing a picture of my brother and me taken when I was in my early teens. I thought I looked horrible. Within a few years, my war started in earnest with starvation and, eventually, bulimia. I was a shy, awkward, smart teen who never had a boyfriend or a girlfriend -- never asked on a date, never asked to a dance. I thought that there was something deeply flawed about who I was. Somehow I bought into the societal ideals that said that I was nothing without a romantic relationship -- that there was something very wrong with me.
At 16, my depression grew deeper with trauma in my life and I almost completely stopped eating. This led to an obsession with food and my body that lasted several years and almost ended in death. As I grew thinner, I remember several people commenting on how good I looked. In my sick mind, I assumed that meant the thinner I was, the better I was. Soon, the thinness was not very attractive; I was skeletal. At my lowest point I was 5 feet 5 inches, 78 pounds and probably close to death. It took years to recover. Somehow a yearning to live kicked in and my obsession with food and my body gave way to a grudging acceptance that I needed to eat -- but very little acceptance of my body.
As I recovered from my eating disorder, I experienced rape and later, domestic violence all in a period of about one year. During the rape, I remember that a large part of it was spent completely dissociated and outside of my body. When I experienced violence against me, I experienced a similar dissociation. The year I was pregnant, I remember walking around in a fog, completely numb to the pain I was in. This period started a lifelong struggle with cutting. I did not know how to express my feelings or ask for help, so turned against my body, yet again, by cutting it. In some ways, it grounded me back in my body by allowing me to experience my deep pain in a physical way. Perhaps it was a way to return to my body, a way that no one understood and many were completely baffled and disgusted by. I did not have the tools to cope with my pain at being violated sexually and physically, so I reverted to self destruction.
The external violence against my body amplified my self destruction and detachment, but the deep dislike of my body started well before the violence. I can't help but wonder how this body hatred settled into my bones, my life, so very easily. My mom recently told me that one of my grandmas would not go to her church because she was ashamed of her ankles. I know my mom and my other grandma were no fans of their bodies either. As women, maybe we were taught in subtle and not so subtle ways, that we were our bodies and when our bodies did not fit with societal ideals, we turned against them rendering ourselves disconnected from them. In some ways, perhaps, disconnection was almost a form of rebellion; taking our much maligned and sometimes desired bodies out of the equation taught us to build up other parts of ourselves, beyond our bodies. If we felt we could not own and love our own bodies, we could at least cultivate and love our minds, hearts, and souls. Sadly, this rebellion kept us from having a full human experience.
Reconnecting with swimming that past year has helped me reconnect with and love my body, at least a little bit. The water is one place I can feel calm and strong inside my body beyond the limitations of daily chronic pain. My youngest feels this body connection and calm while dancing. But if we did not have our physical capacity to do those things we love, I would hope that connection and peace would remain beyond what our bodies could "do" and stay with us, deep in our bones no matter what our limitations. Our bodies are part of our expression of our life here on earth and good or bad, disconnection from them seems both sad and painful. If I could teach my girls one thing, it would be this: We need to ignore the messages we have learned and embrace this human experience in our body with all of its limitations and imperfections.
As I age, I still feel the inward judgment that comes from societal ideals of beauty and attractiveness. In the past 10 years, I have become a larger person, weighing twice as much as I did when I was 16. I still don't like to look at myself in a mirror, especially naked. I have never felt attractive and still sometimes treat my body like an unwelcome stranger. My war with my body continues at times, and it is difficult to avoid detachment and be "in" my body with all its messy feelings and imperfections.
As I enter "middle age" and the second half of my life, I no longer want to be at war with my body. I want to love it, in all its imperfections and limitations appreciating what it has done for me and its amazing capacity to survive in spite of my attempts to harm it and kill it. I want to embrace all the sensations that come with being in a human body, the pleasure and the pain. Finally, I want to nourish this body, learning to take care of and be "in" it, instead of constantly warring against it. I want these things for my girls and for all who are at war with their bodies, may we find peace and finally love these bodies we were born with, beyond societal messages and beyond the pain that others have inflicted on them. May we end the war and truly experience all of who we are.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-DONTCUT for the S.A.F.E. Alternatives hotline.