Here’s another old piece of writing from me. This was originally shared on my personal mailing list under the title “No. 4: The Physical, the Conceptual, the Tattooed Body” in July 2015, but after a long, dark winter, I needed to revisit it. If you’re in a similar place, I hope this helps. The original content warning still applies: body image issues can be triggering for many people, so please give this a pass if you’re not in a good place to consider that sort of subject matter.
It’s a funny thing, being hit by a car. One moment, you’re cycling along on your way home from work—blissfully, blithely pedaling as fast as you can, enjoying the feel of your bicycle’s tires gliding over the smooth road, delighting in your own strength and grace as your thighs rhythmically pump like powerful pistons. The next moment, you’re lying face-up in the middle of the road, eyes rapidly darting around as you try to make sense of your situation without moving a muscle, because moving hurts.
It’s been one month to the day since I found myself suddenly unable to walk without excruciating pain. As someone who cycles everywhere and spends eight solid hours standing and walking at work, to say this was an inconvenience would be a tremendous understatement. When faced with a body that just wouldn’t do what I needed it to do, I found myself thinking a lot about that.
Also, I gained weight rapidly. Just when I’d been getting to a point where I was nearly content with my body, I felt betrayed by it yet again.
If you’re a person who exists in a body, odds are good that you have at some point had some angst about that body. Maybe you look in the mirror and poke at your cellulite-marred thighs, pitting yourself against the airbrushed perfection of a magazine image. Maybe you sat on a couch in your living room as a teenager, and tried to explain to your 14-year-old boyfriend that no, he’s wrong, he’s dating a girl who is secretly fat, you are fat because just look at these rolls of fat that appear when you sit down. (Years later, you’d see a non-airbrushed photo of a skinny model sitting down and realize that she has the exact same rolls at her mid-section. In an instant, your self-image is turned on its head, but it’s far too late. The seeds of insecurity have long since taken root.) Maybe you’ve looked at photos and seen yourself laughing and having fun, but been unable to observe your own delight because all you can think is, “Do I really look like that?” Or maybe you suffer from a GI illness or eating disorder and get comments from strangers telling you to eat a damn sandwich—you’d love to, thanks, but it would make you feel terrible.
Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, for all kinds of reasons. Hormonal imbalances, disordered eating, digestive illnesses, genetic predispositions: The struggle is real. It’s hard enough to exist in a body, any body, without being constantly assaulted by other people’s opinions on your body, or their own body, or the media’s representation of physical ideals. How can anyone cope with it? How are we not all just crushed under the weight of that stress? How can we strive for body positivity, fat acceptance, support our friends with eating disorders when we can’t stop judging ourselves and second-guessing our choices?
That was me, sitting on that couch as a too-cool tween, talking to my boyfriend about how fat I (thought I) was. I read Seventeen magazine religiously. I was a straight-A student, but too young and dumb to piece together the obvious connection between those images and my own insecurities. I didn’t realize whose ideas those were, how that kind of self-scrutiny and hyper-awareness was detracting from a healthy ability to live my life, to cultivate a sense of self not tied to a “flawed” physical appearance.
Undermining of female confidence starts early and never lets up.
Worse still, it’s a waterfall of scrutiny and judgment. I felt so bad about myself that I made other people feel bad, in a vain attempt to make myself feel better. I tormented my little sister ruthlessly for years, calling her fat on a daily basis. I bullied other, less popular kids as a coping mechanism to deal with my own trauma inflicted by bigger bullies. Puberty hits everyone hard, right? Self-awareness is hard to construct as a teenager, and it doesn’t get any easier until you start pushing the world’s opinions away and learn to focus on your own desires.
At what point did I become aware of my body as a problem? At what point did I first feel proud of my body for the right reasons? (There’s a lot here to unpack about premature sexualization of the female body, but that’s a topic for another day.)
At some point, I finally learned to accept other people’s bodies. I learned to be supportive. I learned to cast aside judgment, not just by saying the right things and playing a role of support and acceptance, but by actually internalizing it. All bodies are beautiful. I know this to be true; I genuinely feel it in my heart. My fat friends and family are gorgeous and living their best life. My flat-chested ladies, former lovers with tiny dicks, stretch marks and cellulite, self-harm scars and tits of two different sizes—you’re all perfect. Why, then, do I still stand in front of a mirror and poke at my belly pudge, my inner monologue directing rage and shame at that mirror image? Why do I make hollow promises to skip lunch, to eat less, to look “better”?
I know why I do it, and it’s your fault. It’s not your fault. (Unless it is.) It’s my fault. It’s your fault, when you walk down the street next to me and talk incessantly about how many calories you want to burn, need to burn. It’s your fault when you post half-naked Facebook photos, then post judgmental screeds espousing your own pride and vanity and detailing your diet and the determination you have to look this good. It’s your fault for fixating on the post-baby weight, for not shutting up about your Cross-Fit addiction. I’m so proud of you for your hard work, but I want to bang your thick skull against a wall for not pausing to consider how your words affect other people who aren’t in the same place that you’re in. Stop and think: You have body image issues? Someone else does to, and your words are a trigger for them. I’m guilty of it, too. I let my own shame and self-loathing blurt out of my mouth on occasion, and even if I instantly regret it when I see the hurt in your eyes, I can never take the words back once they’ve been said. I’m 20 pounds lighter than you and I hate the way my body looks. How could you believe me when I tell you the truth, that I still think you’re perfect just as you are?
At some point, I realized my self-image was problematic. I never looked in photos the way I imagined myself to be. My posture is bad, my chin is weak, my butt is flat—that’s not how I see myself, but when I’d look through someone else’s eyes, that’s what I’d see. Body dysmorphia plays havoc on emotions and self-image, and when I look in the mirror I can never tell what I really look like to anyone else. Because women’s bodies are so often viewed as public property, though, I could always rest assured that someone would tell me what I really look like, to them, at some point during the day. Under the looming spectre of street harassment, constant scrutiny and appreciative appraisals are always waiting just around the corner.
This newsletter was rolling around in my head for a week when I came across a tweet from my friend Cupcake, who said:
I’m less into “fashion” and more into “the ability to think of my body as a concept instead of a physical mass of fat and self-loathing”
This idea of “body as a concept” resonates so strongly with me. To divorce my body from that deep-seated self-loathing and move it into the conceptual realm is the crux of what I’ve been trying to do for decades. I eventually touched upon a strategy that works for me, but I didn’t make the connection between the things I was doing and the reason I was doing them until I read that tweet.
The common (if problematically ableist) advice is to embrace the things your body can do and learn to love it for the tool it is, rather than the idealized aesthetic perfection it isn’t. My body has proven completely amazing in this regard. Even less than a month after being hit by a car, I’ve cycled 25 miles in a day up the California coast. I’ve hiked and walked 10 miles through redwood forests. I did a 2000-foot ascent in an hour. I’ve spent three days enjoying an outdoor music festival, and another two days not enjoying one very much. A few hours after being released from the hospital the night of my accident, I was washing down handfuls of painkillers with delicious dunkels in a Munich beer garden, my mulish stubbornness pushing me to grit my teeth and not allow a damaged body to hold me back and change my plans. If you know me, like, at all, you know that I exercise my body regularly in a variety of ways so that it can keep shooting arrows straight, carrying heavy packs up mountains, and lifting giant dogs into my arms.
No one has ever asked me why I have tattoos. I think if they had, I wouldn’t have had an answer beyond, “I like them.” It wasn’t something I was prepared to analyze, but this month, an epiphany hit me full-force—much like that goddamn Ford Fiesta. When I look at photos of myself now—versus photos of myself ten years ago—I recognize myself by my tattoos. I don’t think, “Look at that flat butt, that weak chin.” I think, “Ah, that’s beautiful,” and then, “Ah, that’s me.” My tattottoos. I don’t think, “Look my sense of self in spite of body dysmorphia issues and self-loathing. They provide me with a consistent identity, a way to accept this body as my body and to take ownership of it. Tattoos provide me with an opportunity to frame the interaction of street harassment and public scrutiny on my own terms, and a mechanism by which my body becomes fully conceptual—as well as a literal work of art.
My body is beautiful, just as yours is. It was probably always beautiful, but now it’s a beauty of my own making. If I never got to the point where I could accept my innate beauty as it was, that’s okay. I can climb to the top of a mountain, dirty and sore and aching body and soul, and look down at my arms and think to myself, “Oh, that’s me.” And then I can look out over a majestic tree-lined vista and think, “I’m here.” And really, that’s all I need.