For as long as I can remember, I have disliked my body. Specifically: my belly. In fact, the only time in my entire life I can recall not making massive efforts to hide my body was when I was pregnant with S – because I knew my belly was supposed to be big, I wore tight clothing without a care in the world for the first time in my life. At the age of 30.
Just lately, I’ve been working on accepting it, maybe liking it – perhaps even loving it.
The other day this photo appeared in my Timehop. It’s from 2013, when S was around 16 months old. I was 32. I don’t recall why I had my sister take my photo that day – possibly because I was wearing a dress and on my way to an event or something. What I do remember is feeling that I needed to suck my belly in, and to find a pose where I didn’t look too fat. I feigned messing around, pulling funny faces for the camera – but what I was doing was trying to make myself look more acceptable, less ugly.
When I look at this photo now, I just feel sad. I was a 32-year-old single mother struggling to leave an abusive relationship behind me. I was so worried that people would be thinking, Who does she think she is, wearing that dress and looking so fat and ugly – but actually, looking back I think I look good.
When I was 20 I dated a man who told me, When you worry about the spot on the end of your nose, you don’t realise that nobody else notices it because they’re too busy worrying about the spot on the end of their nose. I used to tell myself this all the time, but it has never really sunk in until recently.
It doesn’t matter what you look like.
There are two points to note here. Firstly: who gives a shit what you look like? Your body is not who you are. It’s just a meat suit you need to keep in reasonable condition to transport yourself around in. Secondly: I have come to realise that different people focus on different things – and those that focus on other people’s bodies do so because they dislike their own body. Their judgement says infinitely more about them than it does about the people they judge.
I used to be with a man who actively disliked any person who was overweight; he would call them names (behind their backs), saw himself as above them in every possible way. While I was with him I was terrified of putting on even a couple of pounds in case I came in for some of his vicious criticism. I can only assume that I did – but I don’t mind. I realised later that this man also had an eating disorder and a drinking problem. He disliked himself intensely, and judged himself by how much he weighed, how he looked in the mirror – so of course this is how he would also judge those around him.
Meeting haters with compassion
Often when someone criticises us – or we feel attacked – we become defensive. It would be easy for me to look at my ex partner and think, Yeah, well, you’re just really insecure and can’t deal with your own shit – but really that’s just me judging him, making me no better than him any way. And I’m not any better than him – I just have slightly different issues of slightly different sizes.
I am working instead on meeting judgement – the kind that comes at you face-on when you’re in the online space, but also the kind I assume from others whether they’ve opened their mouths or not – with compassion. This is what I tell S to do when she complains about an argument with a child at school, so it’s about time I follow my own advice!
Defense is the first act of war
Byron Katie says that defense is the first act of war. For me this means that if I harden myself and become defensive, of course the people around me will respond to that in a certain way.
Instead of meeting judgement with defensiveness, I’m working on the principal that everyone is fighting their own internal battle – and just because you can’t immediately see what that is, doesn’t mean it’s not a terrible struggle for them.
Instead of the defensive, Yeah, well, you’re just really insecure I try to think, This person is not feeling good in themselves and even to send them love.
This doesn’t mean you have to just sit and put up with unkind words; you can walk away, end the conversation, ignore it, whatever. But you don’t have to make it a negative thing in your head. As Ram Dass says, use it as grist for the mill – a chance to practice compassion. After all, it’s easy to love someone who is showering you in compliments; the real challenge lies in loving someone who is triggering your insecurities, pushing your buttons and really winding you up.
The compassion I mentioned above also goes for ourselves. Everyone has that voice in their heads that just criticises and judges everything. Sharon Salzberg calls hers Lucy (after the Peanuts character) and suggests just answering, Oh hi Lucy. Acknowledge that the voice is saying something, but don’t actually listen to all that negative unpleasantness.
In his book Insanely Gifted Jamie Catto suggests talking back to this voice as you would a small child: awww, are you unlovable? Poor thing, there there.
For me I’m finding the trick is to aim always to meet the voice in my head with love. Whether it is judging me or someone else, I acknowledge it and remind myself that judgement never serves me well.
If you’re aiming for self love, you won’t get there on the path of self hate – you have to just decide on self love.
What if you dislike yourself so much you can’t even consider self love? Start with just liking yourself. Pick a part of yourself that you think is ok, and remind yourself of that as often as possible. Focus on the positives; don’t worry about the negatives.
Here are my positives:
My body grew a human. It fed that human, carried her around and took care of her. For five and a half years it did this with a diastasis recti and an umbilical hernia. It walked me to and from school twice a day for the school run. For twenty five years it has maintained the muscle memory to be able to play the clarinet, even though I’ve barely touched a clarinet in twenty years. It allows me to hug my child, to comfort her and to feel comfort.
My body has stretch marks, and a scar across my navel from the emergency hernia surgery that saved my life. The fat in my belly is wonky because of that operation. I have bingo wings and more than one chin. I am technically obese. But hating myself and my body won’t change any of these things.
Realistically, nothing gets rid of stretch marks; the creams and potions are mostly gimmicks. So why not just accept that this is how bodies look sometimes? There is probably celulite on my legs; I can’t say I’ve investigated too closely because at this point I don’t care; they still get me to and from where I need to be, so what does it matter?
I have reached a point in my life where I realise that it’s time to appreciate my body for what it can do, rather than hating it for how it doesn’t look. Life is too short. I’ve wasted so much time worrying about what people think, and now I have come to the realisation: if you are someone who will judge me on what my body looks like, you are not a person whose opinion is of concern to me. I wish you well; I send you love. But you are not invited into my life.
If you are struggling with body image issues , BetterHelp therapists can help you deal with these and many other concerns – and you can even speak to someone online, without ever needing to leave your home.