#14: But what if I hate my body?
a temple of another religion
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I can't remember a holiday season that I didn't think about food. The holiday season is a food season. The air gets colder, and as the temperature drops, we warm collectively by the fire with foods that heat us from the inside out and hold us over for the long months ahead. When November comes to an end, Thanksgiving brings with it three full days of gorging–at least in my family. Then there's a brief pause, stuck between Thanksgiving and Christmas, what we're currently in, when I mentally prepare for more. I wait in anticipation of the meat raviolis my family and I have every year and the cookies my best friend makes. I don't stop myself from eating and I never cut myself short, but there's always the odorless scent of reminder in the air, whispering all the questions I wish I wouldn't ask myself as I shove stuffing down my gullet. To eat or not to eat? To feel bad or not to feel bad? To enjoy or not? To make some comment about dieting afterward or not? To make an unrealistic New Year's Resolution resolving never to eat sugar or carbs again or not?
This year, it was a few days before Thanksgiving, and my inbox was flooding (as usual) with newsletters all writing in high anticipation of the impending foody holidays. They're each encouraging, helpful, well-intended, and yet unnecessary reminders that the holidays shouldn't be wasted worrying about your body or calories. I think to myself, I know, I know. Don't we all know? Everywhere I look was a mirage of newsletters and Instagram stories with graphics all about the same topic–to love your body, not to talk about food, not to think about calories, not to feel shame–they're incessant and they change nothing. Your newsletter doesn't fix my feelings, I think to myself. Telling me to love my body and enjoy my heap of stuffing doesn't change the fact that when the stuffing is digested and I get dressed in my Christmas finest, I'll hate the way I look. It doesn't solve that sinking feeling when the company leaves, I go upstairs to look in the mirror, and inevitably hate what I see.
Somewhere between chatting with family and cramming in work preparing for the long weekend of Thanksgiving, Anne Helen Peterson's newsletter was sitting in my inbox. The title had been glaring at me for a few days: "There Is No Earning a Holiday Meal." I revolted.
I recommend reading the piece for yourself and paying attention to how it makes you feel. I think it's okay if the title bothers you and if you hate reading about the subject of food or body value in general. I do, too. I feel rejected by most pieces about bodies. I feel attacked by them. They always tell me how to feel, how to think, how to love, and I can never seem to do what they ask. It's like I'm constantly failing at the inevitable test called "self-love." The reality is that I have very little love for this body that is meant to be my home, that Peterson calls a temple, and that I've never been able to control how I feel about it.
This past summer, I quit my job and went on vacation. In anticipation of traveling in warm weather, going to nice restaurants, sitting at my favorite river spot, taking pictures, and the usual antics of summer vacation, I packed. It had been a while since I'd felt good in my skin. Covid brought with it a wave of uncertainty, one that made gripping onto a routine or otherwise moving my body so untenable and seemingly so unnecessary. I sometimes willed myself to move, to achieve endorphin release, but it was a failed process marked by an emotional rollercoaster that my physical body couldn't challenge. Some things felt more real, perhaps, than what my body could achieve at that time, like my job and my angry boss. My body fell to the waist side. My body, the one that I had previously worked out every day, felt strong in, could dress confidently, stopped being important in the grand scheme of things.
In preparation for packing, I went through my closet and categorized my clothes into mental sections based on how the clothes made me feel about my body. Most of the tight clothes I wore the summer before and used to love didn't fit anymore, so they were relegated to the "maybe someday" category. A lot of the pieces I hadn't put on in so long. They were gathering dust in my closet and my body was shedding confidence. Outside of the few pieces that were oversized enough to pass my test, everything else I had to buy. I scrambled in stores to pick out things made of fabrics that were tight enough to suck in certain parts of my stomach, hide certain areas of my arms, flatter without being too tight or too loose. I gravitated towards large, grandmother-like dresses that covered me from head to toe. Previously, I would've worn dresses like these in the comfort of my friends and casual circumstances, but never so much as to fill my wardrobe for an entire vacation. The fact is that everything else made me feel awful about myself. I'd put on a dress that was too snug and stare at my stomach, my lack of a waist, the diameter of my arms. I'd obsess over how much I had to suck in to feel comfortable then remember that I'd pass out if I kept up that level of inhalation over exhalation for even one hour.
When we arrived in Italy, the weather was amazing. It was warm and sunny and perfect. And everything I brought was wrong. I felt ugly every day. My friend would say, "Don't let it bother you so much." And she was right, it shouldn't have bothered me so much, but it did. It kept me from smiling at the dinner table or talking at drinks because my brain was spitting shame at me with unrelenting steadiness. There was no time for conversation! No amount of chit-chat could overpower my internal rant. My shame had a megaphone. Not only that, but I assumed that people didn't want to speak to me because of how hideous I thought I looked. They wanted to talk to pretty women, not me, I thought. Looking back, they probably didn't want to talk to me because I looked miserable–not because of my arms.
I consider myself very lucky that, despite my bodily self-loathing being the worst it had ever been in those moments, I never stopped eating. I ate every meal on that vacation. I didn't hesitate. I didn't overeat or undereat. I didn't deprive myself. But I felt every bite. I watched myself eat. I calculated how much I was taking in, even if I didn't stop. I let it consume my thoughts. To laugh, smile, conversate, take it all in, it was so utterly impossible with my mind shouting at me through every bite. The only conversation I could hold was with my body.
Peterson's essay brought up a lot of usual feelings for me, ones that make me feel rejected and alone. Like I'm the only person left willing to say that I hate my body. Like I'm the only one who's not afraid to admit that self-love feels like an impossible dream. The only thing she said that prompted this entire rant (essay lol) is that it is so exhausting to hate your body; that hating your body is the most time-consuming activity you can do. I felt that. That how our bodies look is even a conversation, that body size is even a topic generally, Peterson is right, is worth questioning. That, moreover, at the heart of her essay and at the heart of the concept of body size itself, is the amount of time spent thinking about it is crushing and wholly pulls us away.
I think that's the only thing I've ever been able to resonate with and that I've continued to hold with me since reading her words. Not that I should love my body, that I should think of it as my home, some temple. My body has never felt like a temple. Even at my happiest, my body has been a temple of a different religion. It never felt like my own. It feels often like a corpus that doesn’t represent me, but rather represents some version of me, completely exterior to my experience, one that I have to fill the gaps of with personality and wit, distract from with white teeth and bright eyes. I can only concede that hating my body, indeed, has taken a lot of my time.
It's taken my time, stolen moments, ruined days, vacations, weekends, dates. It's taken many otherwise happy experiences and soiled them, forcing my mind to consider my body, forcing me inward instead of outward. In experiences that demanded my attention, I could only give it to this body. I could only shame it, then feel bad for that shame. Thus begins the circularity of self-hatred. We know we should love our bodies, and yet when we don't, we hate ourselves even more. I wish people talked about this. I wish that some of us could say aloud, without feeling so bad for it, that we hate our bodies, but that self-love often feels like the refusal to give hate any more of our time. Is it possible that self-love is simply refusing to bend to our shame? And is it possible that self-love is refusing to concede our time? Perhaps self-love is a just room with no clock.
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