“You are not a mistake. You are not a problem to be solved. But you won’t discover this until you are willing to stop banging your head against the wall of shaming and caging and fearing yourself.”Geneen Roth
I used to think that I hated my body, and maybe I did. I remember a time when I would look in a mirror and not find one thing I liked about what I saw in my reflection, but could easily see 50 imperfections. I also remember the first time I had a negative thought about my body … I was five years old.
It started with my Nona. She was one of my favorite people in the world and I recall my time spent with her as some of the safest and most loving times of my life. She passed away several years ago and it sort of pushed the family apart. She was like the sun in our solar system. In recent years some of us have been finding our way back to each other, but she was the proverbial glue that held us together.
I remember when I was very little my Nona was helping to get me changed. I was old enough to do this by myself at that age, but any time I got to spend with my Nona was special and so I liked that she helped me. I remember sitting on the bed while she handed me a pair of shorts to put on for our walk down to the lake. We lived about a quarter of a mile from the shore of Lake Ontario and we were not allowed at that age to go that far on our own. As I was putting my little five year old legs into my shorts my Nona pointed to this tiny little roll on my belly and said, “you need to be careful that little roll doesn’t become a big one or boys won’t like you.”
Now this was back in 1978 so I believe this kind of talk was likely seen as “helpful hints” by Nonas everywhere. What she did not realize she was doing was allowing me to become aware of my body for the very first time, and it was in a negative sense of my body’s ability to make people not like me. Think about that for a moment. I do not believe for a second that if my Nona knew she was setting me up for a lifetime of self loathing she would have ever uttered those words to me. But it was the 70’s and this is what moms and grandmothers said to their little girls.
I come from an Italian family whose idea of celebrating involves piles of food for all occasions. It certainly did not help that my family on both of my parents’ sides had a genetic disposition to obesity. It also added a layer of complexity that my father was one of those parents that firmly believed we were supposed to finish everything on our plates. I remember quite a few meals when I was little being the only one left at the table and being so tired that I would just fall asleep sitting there. The picture you may start to see is that of a little girl constantly bombarded with mixed messages that started to weave an incredibly complex relationship between love, happiness, food and self image.
Self image is something, developmentally, we starting forming at a young age, and mine was already being built on a foundation of shame and confusion. I was about 8 years old the first time I looked down and saw my thighs and said to my stepmother, “look at how fat my legs look.” She was horrified that I said it but really, I was simply repeating what she and all the women I had been exposed to in my life had said about themselves. Maybe they didn’t think I was paying attention when they talked about themselves, when they looked in the mirrors and discussed the diets they were going on. They were teaching me a language I would carry well in to my adulthood and, in fact, still carry to this day. This need to self criticize is incredibly destructive to our psyches, but even worse we are teaching our children that not liking what we see when we look in the mirror is normal behavior. When I made the comment about my legs I remember being aware that if I was not seated my legs would look normal. I was simply repeating what I had heard other women say and I wanted to be all grown up like them.
As I got older and started to mature, my body sort of took on a mind of it’s own. I had large breasts and hips at a young age and was getting uncomfortable amounts of attention from older boys. And for this reason many girls my age were unkind to me and called me names, further adding to the confusion that somehow my body was betraying me. Between the scorn of my peers and the childhood trauma I had experienced, I remember getting to a point where when the world got to be too much for me, I would close my eyes and imagine a light switch and my hand would reach out to it and click it to the off position. Nobody could hurt me when the switch was off. I had learned to disconnect from my body. Of course the downside of that is I have very few clear memories of my younger years, but we do what we must to survive. All of this input my mind was receiving from the world was that my body was bad in so many ways on so many levels. I kept that perception with me for a very long time and let it grow with each passing year.
As I got older and started having serious boyfriends, the pain and betrayal of words would continue and feed my feelings of shame for my body. I dated a guy for years – my first “true love” – who told me I was fat and lazy and if I didn’t stay fit his friends would make fun of him and we would have to break up. I dated another guy who told me he wouldn’t go on vacation with me until I lost 10lbs. I know what you are thinking: I really know how to pick them. Except what they said to me seemed normal, even understandable. I was somehow wrong; my body was wrong. They had every right to expect more from me, didn’t they? At that time I started trying every diet known to woman: Atkins, cabbage soup, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and even dabbled in the wonderful world of laxatives and emetics (that did not last long). They would work for a bit but I would relapse back into bad habits and self defeating talk and find myself back in the same place I was before, if not an even worse place.
When I began my career as a nurse I was given some relief in the self image department. The constant caretaking of others gave me an excuse to not take care of myself, but I felt better because I had something besides my body to offer the world. That was what I believed for awhile at least. I may have stopped hearing horrible things from other people about my body, but my internal voice of disgust and self loathing took the quiet as a cue to crank it up to eleven. There isn’t a woman alive that doesn’t understand how loud the hateful voice in your head can get. The body shaming we do to ourselves rivals anything someone else can say to us.
For the past 21 years I have gained weight and lost weight then regained more so many times now. I lost so many battles it feels like I have lost the whole war at this point. So here I am, 46 years old, wondering “how did I get here and how does this end?” When does the shame stop? Does it ever really stop? For so long I have looked at my body as the source of betrayal but the real story here, the real truth, is that it is my mind that betrays me. I don’t know if it is trying to keep me safe from abuse, stopping me from putting myself out there or stopping me from stepping in to my own power because that is too scary. I do know it is my mind that is out of control and sends me down into a shame spiral so deep that at times I feel it is drowning me.
Every single day I ask myself how did I get here. How can someone be so successful at so many things in her life and be such a complete and utter failure at this? The answer is simply this: it is all I have ever known. It is how I learned to speak to myself from a very young age. If I did not have a constant war waging in my head I do not know who I would be. Without my shame I am naked and I will not belong. To love and cherish my body for all it has done for me over the years, how it has kept me healthy and safe, how it has danced and moved me would be heresy to my mind. But it is time I become the heretic. That is why I am sharing this with you. I will not allow the shame to live in me, hiding itself just waiting to sabotage my next attempt at self love and self care. I am done fighting the war. It is time to not only start truly acknowledging the miracle that is my body, it is also time to forgive my mind for all the unkind thoughts it has slung at me all these years. Echoes of words from a world that teaches us we will never be good enough.
I am working to bridge the gap between my body and mind using love because that is truly the only way I see forward. I don’t know how this shift, this change of beliefs will ripple out in to my life. At this point I don’t even know if I care. All I know is it is time to be at peace with myself, with who I am just as I am. It is time to end this war.
“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do.”Brene Brown
Sending you all love and light!