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Self-Celebrations: Body Image

This year, more than almost ever, I have taken to wearing what I want. I’m a 34-year-old woman. In some ways, it’s a huge no-no for us to dress as we please. There’s this unspoken code of shame, which says that women should stop wearing certain fashions after…. well… nobody can precisely define the age anyway, because rules for women (and girls) are pretty arbitrary in the first place. BUT there was a moment this summer when I caught my reflection while slathering on some sunblock, and I realized, “I dress like a teenager.”

And I cannot tell you how thankful I was for how far this meant I had come in my self-acceptance.

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Photo: lalabelle.rose

I’ve had a hefty share of body image issues. In my early-20s, I remember a female friend — very kindly and apropos of nothing — complimenting my legs, and I reacted by scrunching my face in disgust at the thought of my own lower limbs. I’d been spending much of that summer sweltering in full-length jeans, self-conscious. I was shocked that, on one of the rare occasions when my legs were exposed, they’d attracted positive attention. I’d gone through pretty much my entire adolescence — once I was old enough to learn how to hate my body — disliking my legs. And I could elaborate on my relationship with a ton of other physical features I’ve condemned on myself too, at different points in my life: belly, arms, ass, breasts, undereye area, hair, hips, chin, teeth. (It’s a good sign, frankly, that I just started spontaneously laughing now while enumerating my “flaws” — proof that I realize how ridiculous it is for anybody to hate on themselves that much.)

For a variety of lifestyle, financial, and health reasons, I was never able to become a gym rat. I’m not buff, by any stretch. Also being poor for years and moving often, sometimes not even having a room of my own, I rarely ever could acquire many of the accoutrements of conventional femininity that I would have liked to play with, including fashions that might have flattered my body. It’s hard to feel “enough” when you’re not able to access socially or personally valued looks — body-wise OR clothing-wise.

But going deeper into the reasons for my body-image issues, here are a couple important facts:

I’m a survivor of trauma, which instantly tends to make one’s own body feel disgusting, traitorous, and unappealing.

I’m also a survivor of abusive relationships, in one of which I was frequently told how (supposedly) unattractive I was.

Furthermore, physical health issues in my early-20s led me to gain roughly 25% of my initial adult body weight and left me with acne and thinning hair. First, I was told I had PCOS. Then, I was un-diagnosed with PCOS. Bottom line: I’m not sure what did happen with my body back then, but it transformed my appearance dramatically, and it was really hard to accept myself for all those years that I looked into the mirror and simply couldn’t see the person looking back as me. (Not to mention that my trifecta of then-symptoms — weight gain, acne, and hair loss — are all stigmatized in our society.)

Which brings me to an additional self-love hurdle that I haven’t even touched: contemporary beauty standards, of which NO ONE meets all of them. Not even models. It’s impossible to be physically “perfect,” and we are each reminded of that nearly every day.

Well, guess what: “perfect” doesn’t exist. (In that case, every one of us is perfect, frankly.) And what I eventually decided, after many years, was that instead of hiding my body in shame, I wanted to embrace it. For a lot of reasons.

First of all, to live more fully.

Second, as a sacred act of gratitude for the physical vessel that I do have.

Third, as a means of breaking moulds. Social change is often incremental, and each of us can do our part, however small in degree or scope, to expand society’s concept of what is “normal.” My contribution? I have never looked like a Barbie; I can do some part to make non-Barbies look normal.

(Also, not to mention that I live in Berlin — which believes not in air conditioning — and Berlin had the hottest freaking summer of my entire life thus far. If I wasn’t going to wear teeny-tiny shorts, spaghetti straps, and crop tops now in 2018, well, I was going to melt. And that was going to suck.)

So, for the first time since college, I bought crop tops… and, yes, dared to wear them. I began going braless REALLY often — even though I’m a D/DD and that’s supposedly a scandalous size to unharness. But aside from the occasional twinge of, “Oops, turns out my boobs are too pre-menstrually swollen to walk so vigorously without a bra today!”; the occasional “My, it seems this crop top highlights today’s post-lunch bloat nicely!” or “Wow, my cellulite is in rare form today in these shorts!”; and the occasional yuck-factor at feeling my bare legs on sweat-slick subway seating…

I’m not immune to self-consciousness; I’m human. I know full well that, years ago, when I was less healthy and looked different, I was more self-conscious of my body and more inclined to cover it up. I recognize that the increased level of ease I’ve found with my appearance in the past year or so might not have been as easy for me to access if I had a serious, chronic illness; or were differently abled; or had some particularly salient, socially-stigmatized feature. I even went so far as to have surgery in my early-20s for features that had made me feel extremely insecure, and the choice to do so, frankly, was an amazingly healing experience with respect to my relationship not just with my body, but with my whole self. I’m not here to condemn anyone’s insecurities or conservative clothing choices. I know that body confidence, to some extent, is easier to enjoy when you have certain privileges, from age to race to health to, heck, even location. (Location? For example, I’m sure it helps me to be living in Berlin — where NO clothing choice is particularly shocking. Unicorn costumes for daily wear included.)

At the same time, EVERYONE, to varying degrees, suffers reminders of “your features aren’t good enough” — reminders both direct and indirect — from advertisements, TV and movies, social media feeds (which now also include TV and movies), asshole-strangers (usually the sexually frustrated ones whose catcall just failed — funny how that works), abusive partners or parents, and even non-abusive people who just happen to say something innocuous that triggers your insecurities without having intended to at all.

Still, the choice is up to us: how much will we let all of that dim our shine? How much will we let all that bullshit rob us of the joy of our own physical selves?

I’m happy that I let myself drop some of that bullshit in 2018.

This post is part of a larger series on the ways in which I’m taking stock of my own growth in 2018. The series is introduced here:

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Love, sex, dreams, soul, adventure, healing, feeling. I kinda experience life as magical. Memoir is my jam.

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