The other day I tweeted about something intensely personal: the feelings of body dysmorphia I’ve been struggling with over the last year or so. For me what this means is that frequently if I catch a glance at my body in the mirror while getting dressed (I generally try not to look), or if my hand brushes my body the wrong way, I feel a deep sense of revulsion. I even feel momentarily nauseous. And frequently I feel surprised by my body, as if it isn’t really mine. It feels alien, separate, wrong.
I’m a 48-year-old woman who has developed a pretty strong sense of self as a result of intense therapy through my 20s, and as a result of strong friendships, solid intimate relationships, and generally increasing confidence, success and security through my 30s and 40s. I’ve never thought of myself as beautiful, but I’ve rarely been bothered by my appearance. Generally, I’ve been satisfied enough that I haven’t done much to try to alter it except color my hair. I don’t even wear makeup.
So why this, and why now? There are two main reasons, I think, and while one is pretty predictable, other might surprise you.
First the predictable: I’m approaching 50 and over the last two years I’ve gained about 15 pounds that I’ve had a hard time getting rid of it because I don’t want to change my lifestyle very much and I’m incredibly busy.
I take a brisk 3-mile walk a few times a week, but not as often as I used to. I eat a relatively healthy diet, but indulge in wine and chocolate, and don’t pay attention to calories. I sit more than I should because of commuting between two cities, and because a majority of my work is computer work. None of these things are things I feel invested in changing.
And yet. And yet there are those 15 pounds. Those 15 pounds don’t look like a lot to the people around me, but somewhere around 5 or 6 pounds ago I crossed a line beyond which my body no longer felt like mine. The weight makes me feel out of control, and to make it worse, it’s kicked off a vicious cycle: I no longer want to do yoga – my exercise of choice aside from walking – because instead of making me feel good, it presents countless opportunities for my body to feel in the way and to create sensations of revulsion and anxiety instead of the positive sensations of acceptance and calm that I’ve always experienced with yoga before.
So, that’s all the predictable stuff. Nothing I wrote in those paragraphs above should surprise anyone who has at least a passing acquaintance with women and our relationships to our bodies.
Ready for the surprising part? Here’s the thing I never would have imagined could contribute to feelings of body hatred: I published a book. How could such a huge accomplishment be a contributor to body dysmorphia? So many reasons I never would have predicted.
- It’s been much harder than I imagined, taking this deeply personal story, one that I felt compelled to write and share, and seeing it suddenly manifest in a physical way as a book that other people will touch, read, and have feelings about. I feel self-conscious for it, and worried about whether people will like it, much the way I worried about whether people would like me when I was in middle school (they didn’t) and those feelings wash back over me like a wave refracting off the side of a pool.
- I’m thinking much more about public appearance: speaking engagements, photos, and all that stuff. These kinds of things have always been likely to make me feel a little self-conscious (photos, especially!) and now there are so many more opportunities for that anxiety to be triggered.
- The publishing journey has been fraught with unfamiliar situations and hard-to-navigate decisions. From negotiations over the title and cover to questions about how many books to print and how to market them, this has been a process full of uncertainty and anxiety. Anxiety is a deeply embodied emotion. For me, it ofte means retreating into my head and neglecting my body or feeling unable to attend to it.
I don’t need to love my body. Like Jessica Knoll in this New York Times op-ed, I think that the deeply ingrained pressure many of us feel to love our bodies is the product of a commercially-driven effort to distract us from focusing on the other things – work, family, friends, play – that make us feel happy. But I do need to accept my body, and I’d like to feel comfortable in it again. It is, after all, the home for my mind and my heart. I’d like us all to be friends.
So, what am I doing to get to that point?
- Reading: I can’t tell you how important Jessica Knoll’s article, and others like it have been. It’s not just the reminder that I’m not alone in this. It’s the practical strategies and the cultural criticism that help me see a way through this that doesn’t involve tying myself into knots.
- Relying on friends and partners for perspective: It’s easy for me to disregard affirming statements from people that care about me, but then I remember: These are people I trust; people I know have my best interests at heart and who I’d turn to for honest advice about all kinds of other things. There’s no reason they’d lie to me about this, and discounting their statements is tantamount to either questioning their integrity or their intelligence. So I listen, and I listen some more, and it becomes possible in some moments to see myself through their eyes instead of through my own.
- Writing: This is the strategy I hadn’t considered before. It seemed too personal. (Says the woman who is about to publish a memoir about taking care of her kinky mother.) It may seem odd that, as a writer, writing wasn’t the first tool I grabbed, but then go back and re-read the surprising part above. Writing is part of how I got here. I just didn’t realize that it might be part of how I get out.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? How have you dealt with your own feelings of body shame, hatred, or dysmorphia? Let me know in the comments. We’ll do better together!