For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about body image lately. Especially how it impacts my daily life. And then I came across this article, arguing that exposing your personal life, your vulnerabilities, can be a feminist act. That there is empowerment to be found when women share their stories.
So here’s the story of how I learned to stop loving my body:
Like any girl, or any person really, I’ve always struggled with loving my body. I’m short, I’m incapable of tanning, my hair never really manages to look good, I have really bad acne, and my thighs are pretty jiggly. Growing up I got teased relentlessly for my complexion, among other things, and like it would any normal person with feelings, it affected me.
But once I got to college, started learning about feminism, and decided to reject stupid beauty standards, I was really feeling okay with myself. At 22, I could walk down the street with my head held high, confident in my self-love and feeling pretty damn hot. And then I met a guy. We’ll call him Drew.
Hold on for a second. I know this probably makes me sound like a silly, irrational little girl. I’m a feminist, I shouldn’t let some guy wreck my self-confidence, right? Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m a regular human being. I’m not immune to the influence of others, and like most straight women, I want to be found attractive by men. Especially those I’m dating.
When I first met Drew, I was so excited. He was nerdy, played D&D, appreciated my interest in politics, and I thought he was pretty hot. When he first started telling me about his interest in fitness I was skeptical. I always found bodybuilders off-putting. I think investing that much time in your body is a little more than vain. Especially considering how it’s just going to deteriorate over time anyway. But I would always listen patiently when he talked about the gym and lifting. He explained to me what a high body fat percentage was, what “skinny fat” meant, etc. All the while assuring me that I had a really good body, but wouldn’t it be so much better if I went to the gym and ate right? Well, that was the first couple weeks anyway.
Slowly and steadily, Drew continued to pressure me to go to the gym. He constantly criticized the food I ate and the attitude I had toward fitness (I have actively avoided the gym since birth). On top of this, he CONSTANTLY told me how hot female bodybuilders were. I was starting to feel horribly inadequate. So he showed me this video of Jamie Eason, a popular fitness blogger and spokesmodel. I decided to follow her fitness & nutrition plan. Looking back, I realized I did this mostly to get him off my back, and because I was starting to feel like a disgusting slob. Because in addition to constantly pestering me, Drew seemed to never want to have sex. Or make out. Or anything.
Let me tell you, there is NOTHING that will make you feel more unattractive and unwanted than being consistently rejected by your boyfriend. He claimed that he just didn’t have a strong sex drive. But he also talked about how he and his ex would constantly have sex, until she got “fat.”
So, I started working out. And drinking protein shakes 3 times a day. And rejecting junk food and sweets (my favorite things in the world). And counting calories like it was a full-time job. I thought for sure if I went along with what Drew wanted, he’d start having sex with me again. But nothing changed. No, that’s a lie. He started criticizing me more and more. The way I was working out was wrong. The way I was eating was STILL wrong. Instead of recognizing all of the progress I had made, all of the effort I had put into working out, he continued to berate me. Physically, he was completely shut off from me.
Meanwhile, I had really absorbed all this talk of body fat percentage and obesity and, worst of all I was obsessed with fitspo. I followed fitspo tumblrs and even started a blog about it. I had so internalized all of this criticism that I had begun taking it out on everyone else. I was convinced that it was all about “health” and not what it really was-just another way for society to tell you that you aren’t good enough just the way you are. Everything I had learned in my women’s studies courses had been pushed out of my mind. I tried so hard to keep this awful person in my life that I completely rejected everything I had been passionate about since I was a kid. Worst of all I allowed myself to hate the way I looked and, in tandem, my whole self.
Thankfully, I left Drew. When a guy starts an online dating account “as a joke” but is messaging people, it’s a pretty clear sign he wasn’t fully invested in the relationship in the first place. And really isn’t worth your time. I tried staying friends with him, but even that got to be too much.
I was so proud of myself for leaving him. He really was a terrible boyfriend. But even though I found the strength to leave him, I still can’t find the strength to reject all of the bullshit he fed me about my body. Academically, I know that I should love myself just the way I am. Feminism tells me to love myself as-is, to celebrate every wobbly-bit and embrace my small breasts. But regaining 22 years of hard work, learning to really love myself again, is no easy task. I still have days where I don’t want to eat, when I look in the mirror and hate what I see. Do I believe that I will one day love myself completely again? Yes. Am I angry with myself that I let someone destroy me emotionally and mentally like that? Absolutely. But I think the first step on the path toward self-love is accepting that I made a very normal, very human mistake.
As women, we’re constantly told that we should be defined by our relationships with men. There are probably thousands of movies that feature heterosexual relationships, in which a woman learns she has to change everything about herself to get a man. Don’t work too much, don’t eat too much, don’t care about important things, BE SOMEONE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT BECAUSE AS IS YOU ARE AWFUL AND WILL DIE ALONE WITH TWENTY CATS. So it’s really no wonder to me that I made this mistake, because as far as society is concerned, this is what I’m supposed to do for love. Even though I’m a feminist, even though I know all about the beauty myth, I fell for it. And now, it’s up to me to use all of my feminist knowledge, to use my resources to learn again, that I am a beautiful, intelligent person worthy of love, especially from myself.