It’s that time again! Love Your Body Day is here! (And in its 15th year, no less.) And what a be-you-tiful day that is.
The Feminist Campus team wanted to share their own stories about self-love and body image with y’all to celebrate, and we also brought a card. You know. Because we love you. Join our celebration and commemoration by sharing your own stories with us in the comments, and printing out this card for some body you love (and hopefully to put in your own mirror).
I never tried to love my body on purpose. I grew up like most of us will: completely brainwashed into hating myself. I was one of those kids who wanted badly to grow up and be done with the whole “childhood” thing as soon as possible, which meant I picked up on messages about what womanhood looked like and executed them as best as an eight-year-old can: I wore dresses, fancy shoes, and purses; I carried fake credit cards and fake children; I went on diets.
Dieting, to me, was the epitome of womanhood. All adult women were doing it: my mother and her friends, celebrities, my teachers, cartoon characters. Women on magazine covers, even in all of their “perfection,” wanted to lose five pounds. It seemed like the defining experience of adulthood: being dissatisfied with your body. And so, I followed suit: I started talking about losing weight and dieting before I knew what those things meant, or had ever stepped on a scale. As I got older, I got bigger, and I approached an unhealthy weight and had to face my doctor and that clanky scale a couple of times a year, each time mortified by the number. In middle school, I started feeling out-of-place in gym class and in my everyday clothes; I was bigger than my predominately white classmates and had an entirely different body structure. I didn’t recognize that, however, and chalked it up to my own damn fatness. I started cutting calories. I started skipping meals. I was sent to the nurse for passing out three times that year before someone realized I had stopped eating breakfast and lunch entirely. (At the end of the day, I’d go home and eat salad.) In high school, my weight fluctuated as my vegetarian lifestyle began and I got braces, but even the lost weight didn’t make me feel better. I still felt ugly, and I spent hours every morning “fixing” my hair, my face, my clothes. I learned to “suck it in.” I learned to disguise my body with specific cuts of clothing. But I still felt like plain, ugly old me.
In college, the problem came to a height. I went back to calorie counting in a journal, which almost nobody knew the full extent of. I started eating snacks for meals. Eventually, I started skipping meals, picking instead at apples in the library. I dropped an immense amount of weight this was. I was absent socially and emotionally and my ability to focus was slipping. Eventually, my friends found out what I was doing and sat me down, three times a day, to eat. They fed me snacks and asked me if I was hungry more than I needed to be asked. Eventually, my natural love of food won out, and something clicked. I woke up one day with an empty stomach and it didn’t make me feel attractive or accomplished; instead, it made me hungry. I started eating because I liked the way my body felt when it was fed; I started savoring each bite I took and going back for more when I wanted to. I accepted that my body was a size, whether it was an “ideal” size or not. In doing so, I scrapped the idea that an “ideal” body existed at all. I threw my arms up and accepted that “losing five pounds” was futile because there would always be five more left. I gave up on hating myself and succumbed instead to loving myself.
That switch was monumental: in giving up on weight loss, I found that my weight eventually evened out, and the more I forced myself not to think about the scale the less I stood on it. I started eating what made my body feel good, and not what numbers and figures told me equated to the least amount of calories, or fat, or sodium. I bought new clothes that made me feel good, not look good, and eventually those two things became the same thing. I went natural and stopped straightening my hair in order to remind myself of how beautiful I could be if I just let myself be me. And before I knew it, I was out, and the queer community was so diverse in body sizes and shapes and attitudes that the entirety of my tortured, calorie-counting past was simply alien to me.
I’m 23 now, and I haven’t cried in a dressing room in five years. I haven’t sighed looking through magazines in about four. I can’t remember the last time I compared my body to someone else’s. All I know is, I wake up every morning and I greet the day with an open heart: for my body, and for myself.
I’ve never felt like I had control over my body. After I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 3, owning my body didn’t feel like an option. There has always been more to loving my body than liking the way it looks or being attractive to other people. Since I was a child, doctors, pharmacists, family members and complete strangers have always told me that they know what’s best for my life and my body. (Yes, if you’re wondering – I was an angsty teenager)
Growing up, I had a very stable sense of physical self-esteem and I’ve never had an issue with my body “image.” It didn’t matter to me, but that doesn’t mean I’ve always loved my body. I have issues with my body. Not because I’m afraid other people will judge me for my weight or my looks but because I know my body is a reflection of its failures. It’s a struggle to have control over a body that works against you. Yet, for someone like me, loving my body is about understanding that it can’t always work they way it’s expected to. But I am alive and I must take care of myself enough to thrive. My body’s function is to survive and I think that’s beautiful. I am living; I am breathing; therefore I am beautiful.
One way that I’ve found empowerment is storytelling through my tattoos. Having tattoos is a huge symbolic and deliberate way that I took control of my body. They are a way for me to tell a story that my body was never able to tell. Physical pain becomes the norm when you have a chronic illness. I know that I will never live my life without it. So when I’m asked, “Did your tattoo hurt?” I simply respond and say, “Of course!” and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I inject myself with needles every day, why not use that pain to create something beautiful to celebrate my body’s resiliency?
Love Your Body Day is empowerment. While many people do not have a grasp on knowing exactly how to love their bodies, it’s so important that we make every step and effort to fight the societal norms that tell us to hate our bodies. It is so much more than just a way to spread awareness about cosmetics and weight. Although these things are an important factor in understanding how society profits off low self-esteem, Love Your Body Day is (for me) about taking control of the way we perceive ourselves. It’s about the way we must consider our physical and mental complexities as normal in order to accept that we are beautiful and adequate.
It started in 6th grade when one of my classmates Andrew told me that I had a unibrow. When I tried to act tough in response to his comment he told me that I looked “like a man” and should shave it. Even though I was only 11, I knew then that this was not just silly teasing or a failed attempt at flirting. Andrew and I had been competitive for years, in sports, in academic achievement, and now he had found a way to shame me into stepping out of his way.
When I got home from school I begged my mother to take me to get my eyebrows waxed but she insisted that I was too young and didn’t want me to feel pressure to take part in “beauty rituals” like that. After some insistent nagging she met me halfway with Nair. I should have recognized that this was a bad idea from the smell of burnt rubber and the feeling that my skin was slowly melting off. In an attempt to make myself desirable and acceptable to others, I burnt all of the skin around my eyebrow region and had to go to school with red, irritated skin, rather than a few little hairs.
These rituals increased as I entered adolescence. First I started shaving my legs, then my arms, then my stomach, then by the time I was 14 I was shaving my ENTIRE BODY on a bi-weekly basis. The combination of portrayals of women’s bodies in the media with the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) I was diagnosed with when I was 13 had spiraled into an unhealthy obsession. If anyone ever made a comment about my body hair whether it was “Do you shave your arms? They’re so smooth!” or “Wow, I just noticed you have peach fuzz on your back”, I would instantly shrink away and turn to thoughts of body hatred and shame. I felt proud of my character, my intellect, and even my figure but I couldn’t stop thinking about my body as an object that was being depreciated by every hair that grew.
Every time I tried to ignore these insecurities I would see an image in a magazine, or a movie, or on TV of bikini clad models and actresses who were apparently 21st century hybrids between women and naked mole rats. I kept feeling “less than”, undesirable, and ashamed about my body hair. To the outside world I seemed confident, and I often was, keeping this insecurity, this obsession, my own secret. After all this was a war between me and my body.
This all culminated about 3 months ago when my two best friends and I moved into a new house in DC together. We were having a house warming party and I had picked out a backless leotard and jeans for our big night. When I put the outfit on and looked in the mirror my heart instantly sank…I saw traces of hair on my back and knew that with every conversation, every motion my thoughts would be on the hair, not on the party. I went upstairs and begged my roommate Courtney to shave my back, she was looked at me shocked but agreed to do it for me after realizing how genuinely concerned I was.
I insisted that we go into my bathroom, lock the door, and turn on loud music so that no one would know what we were doing (there were friends in the house). At first we began the endeavor seriously, and then we looked in the mirror and made eye contact. We saw ourselves, a 22 year old woman, butt naked, making her roommate wearing pearls and heels shave her back in a cramped bathroom with music blaring. And for who? A room full of people I didn’t know? My friends from high school who were visiting and had known me for 8 years? Myself? The male gaze?
We started giggling, then cracking up, then even taking pictures of the act while making absurd faces to document how ridiculous it all was. Learning to laugh at my insecurity, at this obsession, helped me to finally see that this wasn’t just some silly habit I had; this had gone too far. This was a manifestation of self-objectification, body-hate, and the strategic and harmful media portrayal of women and their bodies.
I am happy to say that since this incident I am on the road to a more positive self-image and have begun addressing my unhealthy views and habits surrounding body hair. As my mother says “You’re a mammal. You’re supposed to have hair” and I’m learning to love my body again one mammalian hair at a time.
As a faculty member, I frequently hear colleagues say they don’t go to the campus gym or rec center because they’re not comfortable being in a space where they are undressed or under-dressed in front of students. It’s true that the gym– showers, pool, weight room, classrooms– is a place for body policing and surveillance. It’s been my experience that women students are much more open and critical when they look at the bodies of an older woman than male students are. I can see why some faculty members, feminist or otherwise, would be uncomfortable in that space. I don’t have a problem there. I’m almost fifty; I’m not an athlete. And my body looks like it. I’ll leave you to imagine what “it” looks like, and just say that I’m fine with how it looks. I’ve never dieted, never obsessed about it, never really cared about it that much. I’ve been able to do this in part because I am lucky enough to have a genetic makeup that puts me naturally within the range of “normal” female body types, and in part because I was raised by a feminist mother who taught me early on to distrust dominant culture messages about beauty– that’s way luckier. As I’ve gotten older and become subject to messages about how I really need to work harder than ever in order to retain whatever declining beauty capital I have, I’ve had to think about how easy it’s been for me to ignore that crap for all these years. So when I go to the gym and feel the young hotties looking at me askance, I think of it as feminist work. Watch and learn: here’s what an unproblematized woman’s body looks like. Maybe if you were used to seeing them you’d want to have one too.