Everyone has a primary assessment about themselves; that one-liner that sits right beneath the surface and seems to explain everything about their experience on the planet. For some, it’s “I suck at relationships.” For others, it may be, “everyone I trust leaves.” Mine, which could double as my Six-Word Memoir is, “I have always struggled with weight.”
With therapy and age, I have come to recognize that this identity and personal narrative has been passed down from generation to generation, both genetically and energetically. My mother took me to Weight Watchers with her at age 10. My parents enrolled me in a nutrition and exercise program for adolescents when I was in 8th grade so that I could be more confident in my appearance by the time I started high school. A number of years ago, my grandmother — who was in her mid-80s at the time — fainted because she didn’t want to eat anything before getting on the scale for her weekly check-in at her weight loss accountability group. Let’s just say I come by it honestly.
It’s not a stretch to see how these actions and other messages, both implicit and explicit, set me up for a very complicated, confusing, and layered relationship with food, exercise, and self-acceptance that has spanned more than 30 years. It is truly all I have ever known. I’m not totally convinced that there is even any other way.
A few years ago, as my classmates and I were getting to know one another in a professional development program, we were asked to share something of note about our childhood. I found myself starting to share this well-rehearsed story, this oral history which has become somewhat rote and mechanical in its telling by now. But, instead, I paused. I started crying. I noticed that even as the words were forming in my mouth that I didn’t want them anymore. I didn’t want to be defined that way. I didn’t want that to be my story. There was more to me, more dimensions, more angles that were more true and accurate.
It felt empowering to notice that that had been my story, but it didn’t have to always be forevermore. It felt as though I was shedding a second skin; something that once encapsulated me and served a valuable purpose, but was no longer necessary. In fact, it now felt restraining and limiting. It was suffocating and holding me back from allowing my true self to emerge. I had been sitting cloaked in that extra layer for a long time because it felt familiar, but now it was just weighing me down.
One of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle, writes about the holy trinity of women where the mind and spirit are intact, but we voted our bodies off of the island at some point. Somewhere along the way, we absorbed the message from society that our bodies don’t belong to us, that our bodies are meant to please and appease others.
That idea resonated so deeply. It has often felt as though my body is a separate entity from me, an outsider, an unwelcome guest who had long overstayed her welcome. In Sonya Renee Taylor’s book, “The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love”, she shares that Eve Ensler had a similar feeling of out-of-body-ness until she was diagnosed with cancer. It was only then when she began to accept the fact that “it’s not my body that has cancer…I have cancer.”
I was on a beach vacation recently and spent time really noticing people’s bodies. Not in the way I normally do where I’m envious of this thing, jealous of that (or those), and feel bad about my own. Not even in the judgemental way I might look at a person to size them up against some imaginary measuring stick in order to mentally take them down a notch, resulting in a quick hit of faux superiority in return. For the first time, I just took it all in and appreciated the huge range of shades, widths, heights, shapes, contours, and textures.
I found myself feeling genuinely curious about what people might be thinking about their own bodies: too much here, not enough there, too bumpy, too flat, too crooked, too wrinkled. I noticed how we pump, plump, stretch, tuck, cover, lift, squeeze, and smooth to fit ourselves into this uncomfortable, unattainable box.
When I dialed in on their body language (pun intended), I noticed that just about everyone seemed to walk around in a haze of self-consciousness, acutely cognizant of where they fell in the body hierarchy. Everyone, that is, except for the folks aged 75+ who I assume have run out of Fs to give.
I noticed that the anointed few — who, on the surface, seemed to check many of the socially-valued boxes — appeared desperate to soak up the external validation by posturing and snapping selfies, aware that the feeling would be fleeting.
I noticed I felt something different wash over me: empathy.
I felt empathy for how we have all been conditioned to feel ashamed and less than for not meeting an arbitrary and unrealistic Barbie and Ken doll-type metric of success. I felt empathy that our value as people often gets conflated and confused with how close or how far we are from that narrow definition of beauty which is rooted in white supremacy and toxic masculinity. I felt empathy for the children who are growing up feeling disconnected because they are being raised in a society that makes them feel as though their bodies must look a certain way for the benefit of others. Most noticeably, I felt empathy for myself and the collateral damage I had endured for decades by believing all of it was true.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of the word “incorporate,” with the root of the word being “core” or “corporal”. Instead of losing weight or exercising more, my new goal is to feel more embodied. It doesn’t happen overnight, but I am working hard to redefine, rewire, and reprogram in order to reunite my mind, body, and spirit. The amazing part is that as I shed the shame, resentment, and judgment that have taken up so much energy, bandwidth, and real estate over the years, I am beginning to feel more integrated. More whole. More connected. More in my own body.
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