About a year ago, I woke up one day and realized that I had spent the last few years hating myself. Specifically, I hated my body. I dressed poorly, without any care for my appearance. It was a miracle if I put on anything other than poorly fitting yoga pants unless it was for work. If it was for work, I put in as little effort as I could get away with.
This wasn’t a case of me rebelling against a patriarchal society’s expectations of my appearance or a refusal to give in to the incessant demand of the male gaze. I wish I could say that it was. I wish I could say the whole thing had been an intense intentional act of rebellion towards an objectifying world, or a subconscious need to express that I consistently feel like an outsider, like the way I have worn a pair of doc martens for every single one of my graduations without intentionally every remembering I’d done it before or making a proactive choice to do so.
The truth was that I was revolted…by myself. I hated everything about my appearance – including and especially my size. I had done everything to try to get it under control, to get back to the weight of my early 20s. I’d done weird crash diets and gone through periods of extreme disordered eating, trying to keep my caloric intake under 500 calories a day. I’d done gym memberships and paid hundreds a month for a personal trainer, all for not. I’d tried every type of workout under the sun, from trendy things like yoga to Pilates, to retro things like step aerobics and jazzercise, to fad things like hip-hop abs. When I could no longer face the internalized shame of going to a gym because I was too self-conscious about my size, I bought expensive gym equipment for my house, so that I could hide both my shameful body and my attempts to regain some semblance of control over my fitness.
When I turned twenty-five, everything changed overnight. I started gaining weight at an astonishing rate. I put on fifty, then sixty, then seventy pounds in a year. I had terrible stretch marks, and none of my clothes – which, as a working, full-time student putting myself through school I couldn’t afford to replace – fit me. And the thing was – I hadn’t changed anything. Not the way I ate. Not my level of exercise (which, if anything, increased). In desperation, I went to my doctor and asked her to test my thyroid. Women in my family have struggled with thyroid problems for years, and I strongly suspected I was the latest genetic victim.
My doctor gave me a dim look. “You’re getting older,” she explained with a kind of bored patience, “your body is changing. It happens to women. You have to start watching what you eat and exercising more.”
“Please,” I begged. “Just run the test anyway.”
Turns out, my doctor owed me an apology. My thyroid levels were so low as to be “dangerously low.” The secret to my weight gain, and the decade of self-loathing that followed, was genetic.
Since then, nothing has helped. Through medication I have gotten my weigh to stabilize somewhat, but no amount of effort has helped take it off. Add to that a scary pregnancy-turned-emergency surgery that left me alive but with an ugly scar across the entirety of my abdomen, and I couldn’t stand the way I looked.
I didn’t care if my clothes didn’t fit, as long as they hid my hideous body. I didn’t do much with my hair; I wore no makeup. I didn’t even care all that much if things matched. If I walked past a mirror, I avoided looking at myself, and if someone took a picture, I would go through great pains to avoid being in it.
|Me, as an Angel, at the live performance |
of Welcome to Nightvale, February 2014
Then sometime last year, it occurred to me that most of the disgust I felt was entirely in my head. The specific impetus for that revelation isn’t really relevant. What is relevant is the sudden revelation that the biggest problem with my body was how I saw myself.
Right about that time, I saw an essay from a woman about body image and selfie culture. FN1. Amidst a sea of essays about selfies were absolutely the worst thing to ever happen to women and/or culture, here was a woman talking about how selfies were helping her. She talked about how she hid from photos because she was ashamed of her body until she had a life threatening illness. After she recovered, she realized that there were no photos of her for years prior to her illness, and that had she died, her friends and family – who loved her and had come swiftly to her with support when she became ill – would have had nothing to remember her by. So she decided then to stop hating her body – her plus sized but otherwise healthy body – and accept that she was loved for who she was, a fully-abled, capable, beautiful woman. She even went on to see, in the photos she no longer avoided, things she liked about her appearance.
|At the beach, Christmas 2013|
So I started taking photos…of myself. I no longer took empty landscapes. On my frequent solo road trips, I held out the camera and put myself in the photo. When a friend wanted to take a photo of us together, I leaned in, instead of away. And yes, I succumbed to that self-congratulatory trend of the moment – the selfie. I take selfies all the time now, sometimes several times a week. And I don’t just take them – I post them. I put them on my Instagram and my Facebook page. I make David lean in with me at weddings or on vacation; I take them with my cats when I am happy to be home.
But let’s look at the real meaning of those words. As a woman who does not conform to stereotypical beauty standards, it turns out that celebrating myself, congratulating myself on my own inner and outer beauty, establishing my voice and my style and my self-expression as something I feel comfortable putting out into the world because I can find something everyday – even something small – to love and appreciate about myself? That’s a radical act. That’s an act of rebellion. And, perhaps most importantly, that’s an act of love.
I am not going to spend the rest of my life hating myself because I don’t look the way the world tells women we should look. I am going to take better care of myself – of my body, of my appearance, of my being. Because what my disheveled appearance of my past days was reflecting was an inner feeling that I wasn’t even worth my own time, much less anyone else’s. And I refuse to live like that anymore, to be embarrassed or ashamed or afraid. Because that is not who I am when I am being my best self.
As Ani DiFranco once eloquently wrote: “I wanted to take up lots of room. I wanted to loom.” Women who take up space in the world take a lot of flack for it. We’re culturally trained not to be too loud, too assertive, too physically or spiritually large. Where men are culturally trained to assume that any and all available space is absolutely their purview, women get literally and symbolically squeezed out and shunted to the side. But some of us were not meant to make ourselves smaller. Some of us were just made that to take up space; we talk loud, we laugh loud, we speak up, we challenge authority, we make our own way. We even make love loud.
I am one of those women. I am never going to be smaller than my shadow on the wall. And I don’t want to be.
|El Hubs and I, getting pretty |
for a wedding, August 2013
But It does mean that I will no longer let my exterior define my value. I will no longer neglect myself because I think the world doesn’t value my appearance and I have no right to be seen. And I will no longer kill myself to fit into a box that was never big enough for me anyway.
I am a fully-abled, educated, assertive, smart, attractive woman. And it is about time I started acting like it. And one of the things that made me realize all these things about myself was taking self-portraits. Was forcing myself not to look away. Was confronting who I was, and learning to love it, piece by piece, one dreamily filtered digital Polaroid at a time.
When I leave this world, I will leave behind me a stream of bits and bites that show that I was here, and that reflect who I am: someone who lives big and loves big, who likes good food and good friends and a good show on a Friday night. Someone who enjoys music and art and travel. Someone who was generous and kind and had a full life. Someone who was worth seeing, worth knowing about, worth the space I took up.
|New Orleans for my|
birthday March 2014
As a student of history, this is part of my way of telling others, “I was here.” As a feminist, it’s my way of saying, “I am here, and I am proud, and I don’t care if you don’t like it.” And as someone who loves and is loved by others, it is a way of letting the people who can’t be with me every day see a little bit of my life.
And the craziest thing is that –when I began to allow myself to love and appreciate and even celebrate my appearance a little – how happy it made the people who loved me. How celebrated my confidence was by the people who wanted me to be kinder to myself. How glad they all seemed that finally I could see a little of what they see in me all the time.
I’m not saying that this doesn’t make the beauty industry less opportunistic or exploitative. I’m not saying it alleviates the psychological or emotional perils of the problematized self in a digitally curated age. I’m saying that – as with all things – the answer is often in the implementation. For me, loving myself enough to be willing to face myself, and to let others see me? That’s progress. And I appreciate the selfie as a tool in the ceaseless war of self-doubt.
So here’s three cheers for the selfie, and for the small role it can play in the struggle for self-acceptance in an often critical world that can force one to internalize a lot of unrealistic expectations. I appreciate that, in a year of selfies, I can see that most of what I disliked was all in my head, and I can now focus less on unrealistic and, given my medical restraints, impossible goals about my weight and focus instead on having a healthy, active lifestyle in the body I have, no matter what size it is.
“I remember when I wasn't this big,
and now ya'll wanna act like you helped me get here, yeah.
Oh, now everybody wanna love me?
Try to knock me down but I'm strong,
did all this on my own.
Ain't got no time for no new friends,
so for now just leave me alone.
I don't need y'all anyway…
And if you wasn't here when I was down,
then you won't be here when I'm up.
Now the same one you looked over will be the same one that blew up.
Ain't it funny how this life thing works?
Just when you think it's finished is when it all begins.
Go from doubts to having the thought it might work.
It goes up and down and then it starts again…”
~ “Don’t Need Y’all,” Iggy Azalea
FN1. I tried very hard to find this essay. If anyone sees it or knows the one I’m talking about, please let me know.
FN2. I think Loey’s piece, “Why Men Hate Fat Women”, is particular poignant.
FN3. Not that you will see them, because I filter like a mo fo, and if you don’t like that, well, I don’t give a flip, because this is my corner of the internet, troll.
And for that one special ex who likes to call me names specifically targeted at my size whenever he gets the opportunity, let me tell you something – I may be large, but you’re cruel, and if I had to choose, I’d rather be me any day of the week. So you? You can suck it.