As a body-acceptance activist on Instagram, I get lots of messages from women asking for support. Oftentimes, they need a quick pep talk about their postpartum bodies or want my advice on how to deal with fatphobic comments. But the one that makes my heart break is when someone reaches out begging for me to teach them how to love themselves. They’ve been deeply inspired by my posts and videos, and yet they cannot for the life of them figure out how to turn that admiration inward.
I wish I could say that I rarely get this kind of communication, but the truth is I’ve been known to receive up to a dozen of these messages a day. Since I’m by no means “Insta-famous,” the sheer number of these vulnerable correspondences show me that women everywhere are jonesing for some major healing that they can’t easily access themselves.
The number one piece of feedback I’ve been recently doling out on this topic is a tad bit unconventional. But damn it feels good to say out loud, especially after spending years as a people-pleasing perfectionist who only knew how to think in the language of shame.
The journey to self-love starts with allowing yourself to get pissed as hell.
From a very young age, we’ve been conditioned by society to believe that our worth exists outside of us. Whether it’s who we grew up with, the people we encountered during our youth, various media outlets, or our society at large, the message has been made quite clear. We need to hustle, conform, improve, achieve, and be universally liked before we can ever feel deserving of our own love.
I was eight years old when I saw my first weight loss ad on the television. I was 10 years old when my parents confronted me about overeating. I was 12 years old when I started my first diet. And I was 15 years old when I began throwing up my food, severely restricting my eating, and taking the weight loss pills I would become addicted to for four years of my life.
As if that weren’t enough for my already broken self-esteem, I also experienced verbal and physical abuse at home, felt ongoing pressure to get straight A’s in school, and received constant criticism about my appearance throughout childhood and for all of my teenage years. I learned quickly and at a young age that the only way I’d be truly loved in this world was if I became a version of myself that the world approved of.
Instead of getting angry at those around me for the trauma they inflicted, I convinced myself that I was solely to blame for it. As a woman in her mid-30s, I now realize that this biological response is one that many children experience if they grow up in abusive homes. It’s so easy to turn toward self-loathing when the parents we are hardwired to depend on aren’t being loving toward to us. It’s nearly impossible for a developing young mind to turn that anger outward and realize that we did nothing to deserve trauma.
You’d think that justifying abuse as a kid would have little to do with justifying the lies we’ve been taught by the institutions profiting off of our self-doubt. But I have come to understand that they are one and the same. When you are raised in a society that pressures you to seek external validation as a means to feel worthy, it is inevitable that you will feel unworthy at some point for not meeting our culture’s impossible standards. This uphill climb will only intensify with age, as more unattainable and unsustainable ideals are thrust our way.
For instance, many of us have been conditioned during our childhoods to believe that something as superficial as weight loss can be the key to ultimate health, happiness, and lovability. As a direct result, our impressionable brains are left with two main choices. Lose weight and be deserving of all the good stuff. Or gain weight and be doomed to live a less than appealing life.
As a prepubescent teen who had already transformed my appearance and personality to seem likable to my peers, you can imagine which side of the weight loss coin I landed on. I desperately wish someone would have explained me that on average, preteen girls naturally gain between 40 and 50 pounds, while preteen boys can gain up to 60 pounds. But somehow, that information was conveniently left out of my middle school health classes.
The more I tried to lose weight, the more angry I got at myself for being unable to do it fast enough. The self-hate didn’t end there either. When my younger siblings’ grades were negatively compared to my glowing report card, I got mad at myself for being two percent away from getting an A+ in my math class. When I was raged at, physically violated, or shamed for making mistakes and taking risks, I reached a breaking point and literally started harming myself. And when I was torn down during my college years for questioning my sexual identity, I aggressively shut down the most authentic parts of me that made who I was seemingly undesirable.
As I embarked on adulthood, I did so safely as the most societally acceptable version of myself that I could muster. Yet all the while, inner ridicule and self-reproach had a monopoly on my thoughts.
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You don’t need anyone’s permission in order to feel fabulous, intelligent, sexy, beautiful, strong, amazing, adorable, kind, awesome, powerful, funny, successful, brave, or lovable. All you have to do is decide that you are those things & practice wearing them like a really cute outfit from time to time and see how they make you feel long-term. You deserve as much as anyone else in this world to feel these things about yourself without the need to receive that validation from others. And you most definitely deserve to give YOURSELF permission first to try each of them on. By having a body and a heart that beats inside of it, you automatically get to enjoy all that this life has to offer. Bottom line. End of story. If you can get on board with this one simple thing or at the very least, entertain the possibility that there is deep truth in my words, it has the potential to ultimately set you totally free. Because you will have begun to realize that no one – not a single damn person in this world – gets to determine your worth outside of YOU. And (hint hint) your worth is immeasurable, so there’s not a single damn thing that you need to determine in the first place. Just take a lil deep dive into the potential to realize your inherent worth, cultivate a relationship with it ON YOUR TERMS, and see what happens next. It may be end up being a path that you’ve never known before and wish you could have found years ago. And it may end up becoming the path you decide that you want to go down for the rest of your incredible life. 💖🦋 #effyourbeautystandards #selfworth #shameresilience
Fast forward to this year, and it’s a much different situation. I’m now a plus-sized, unshaven, potty-mouthed, PTSD-recovering, openly bisexual mother of two sharing with the world the most vulnerable parts of my journey. I’m empowering women daily with body-positivity, tearing down the stigma around mental health challenges, and living my life on my own terms. And I am currently loving my body – and self – more than Leo ever loved Kate in “Titanic.”
I’ve gotten to this point because I allowed myself to get fucking pissed at the individuals and industries that have incorrectly been teaching me about my inherent worth and value as a human being. It’s important to note that I’m not using this anger to hurt others or pass shame down to anyone else. It also doesn’t mean I’ve avoided the path to compassion or understanding. I liken this type of anger to adding some impassioned fuel to the previously extinguished fire inside of me. I have patiently worked through all of my feelings with the aid of several trusted counselors. And it has been a game changer for my self-love journey.
By no longer placing the blame on me and me alone, I’ve been able to create the necessary space to change my inner dialogue. As I’ve begun to really listen to my thoughts, I’ve discovered that virtually all of the shame-inducing ones are not messages I initially put there. Someone or something else stuck those self-hating ideas deep inside of me. Now, it is up to me to decide whether I want to keep them there or send them packing.
I’ve been on the self-love train for over two years now, and I can honestly say that I have successfully healed my relationship with the extraordinary body that has kept me alive until now. I no longer tear her down, try to make her smaller, or bash her for taking up space. As for the rest of my story, I consider myself to be a lovable work in progress. The traumas that left me ashamed and afraid have had a vice grip on me for many years, and I expect it to take a while before I’ve completely recovered from them. And that is totally okay with me.
I am so damn grateful for the anger that managed to save my life. This fierce emotion has taught me that it’s okay to consider myself both a blameless victim of trauma and an empowered survivor of it. It has helped me realize that I am a valuable and vital part of this world, no matter where I am in my healing. It has woken me up to the internal worth I infinitely possess, no matter how much I weigh, achieve, or accomplish. And it has led me to a love that has existed inside of me since birth and will last for the rest of my days.