I was running one morning earlier this week when I noticed something strange. I noticed that I like my body.
This realization came to me not without a strange feeling of imprudence — no, there was plenty of that. I felt guilty and embarrassed that I, an averagely-sized and averagely-shapen young woman, would have such a profane and irreverant thought. It was an uncomfortable moment.
My body has been undergoing major changes lately. A couple of months ago, I wrote about some relatively minor weight gain, which I resolved not by dieting or by hitting the gym like a fiend, but by purchasing a larger pair of pants. Things were going okay for a while, until I injured myself running, and was off the training grid for almost a month and a half. Those weeks just so happened to coincide with the holiday season, and its deluge of eats, treats, and I-don’t-care-at-alls. I was eating like a person who is used to burning off 50 or 60 miles worth of calories per week, and I was doing it in a very chocolate-laced and bacon-heavy YOLO kind of way. Then came the snow. Then came the polar vortex. I was Charlize Theron, prepping for her role in Monster. In short, I put on more weight.
Ours is a culture in which, if you are a woman — young, old, married, single, any kind of woman — it’s not okay to like the way you look. In fact, it’s not okay to like anything about yourself — confidence is a masculine trait, right? Despite our obsession with our physical selves, and despite all of the mighty measures we undertake to improve them, women are not supposed to accept themselves. Because self acceptance is a No Man’s Land for women. We don’t exist there — it is forbidden, there is no map. At least that’s how the story goes.
And so, as woman, we get very good at reciting these litanies of self-hatred. We get down on ourselves because our thighs happen to rub together. We skip breakfast because skinny women skip breakfast. We go to the gym and lift weights because we want the arms of some fitness model we’ve seen on Pinterest — a woman whose face has been cropped out of the picture as if she never even had one at all. We spend entire evenings on ellipticals and stairclimbers and treadmills because we want Beyonce’s butt, Jennifer Aniston’s legs, Jessica Alba’s abs… And the list goes on.
But there’s more. We give unwanted bulges cute names, like “love handle” and “muffin top,” so that we can more effectively make fun of ourselves. And that’s just part of how we strategize how we can be the very most self-deprecating that we can possibly be, so that when somebody compliments us on our legs or butt or smile, we have a collection of self-abusive rejoinders we can hurdle right on back to them to prove to them that they are wrong, so wrong: My arms are flabby! Have you seen my cellulite? My skin is so broken out right now.
I recently watched this video from Dove. In some ways, I appreciate these ad pieces from Dove — they are, after all, eye opening. But I don’t like how they encourage us to love the way we look while, in the very same breath, attempt to sell us beauty products to amend or revise or enhance those looks. It’s confusing to me, and I think it’s confusing for other women too.
But when I watched this video, I realized that I do this. I mean, of course I do. Because we all do this. Ask me what I like about myself, and I won’t have an answer for you. Ask me again and I might tell you that my hair is going to look so good once it’s all grown out. Or I’ll say something about the weight I’m going to lose, or my new skincare product that hasn’t quite started working yet. What’s worse is that, not only do I respond to others in this way, but I take it upon myself to initiate the conversation — as if to say to the person who is looking at me: “Don’t worry, I’m under no delusion that I am, in any way, beautiful.” I make fun of myself. I talk about my Mrs. Claus body type, my rounded thighs, the way in which my butt has become, by my very own description, “juicy.” I do it all the time, and I do it completely unprovoked. “Let’s talk about my body,” I seem to say. I want to draw your attention to how very much I disapprove of it, before you have any time to make evaluations for yourself. I’m so scared that you’ll criticize me that I make you laugh at me instead.
But then I was running and I saw myself in the reflection of a shop window. I saw the wide width of my hips and the emphatic curving of my thighs. I saw my not-thin arms, bundled up in a running jacket, my not-toned stomach, swaddled in microfleece. There was a hat on my head and no makeup on my face. I had seen this woman — this very same woman — in the mirror of my apartment before I had left the house. I had not thought much about her at the time, but, upon catching this momentary glimpse of her in the shop window, I suddenly felt an immense capacity for self-acceptance. I wasn’t just okay with what I saw, I actively and affirmatively liked it. I liked my body. And, yes, as I admit, my gut reaction to this new-found capability was to feel indolent and cocky. To shame myself into feeling differently. Because I’m not a supermodel. Because I’m not perfect. Because my thighs now touch each other too. Because I am woman, and women are rough drafts, are revisable, are never quite ready to print.
I do like my body. And what’s more is that I now like liking it. I wonder how much time I have wasted these past 28 years — disliking how I looked because I assumed that was the only option available to me. Maybe if I had known it was allowed, I would have liked it all along. Maybe I would laughed more, or gotten more sleep, or had more fun. And maybe I would’ve eaten more cake, too.