By the Numbers: My Body Image Struggle

*trigger warning* however briefly and generally, this article touches on a history with disordered eating and self-harm.

Like most reasonable people, I loathe going to the doctor. The inconvenience, the sterile atmosphere, the various pokes and prods—none of it is fun. However, the worst offender for me is always the scale. I’ve lived without a scale since I left for college and it’s almost like this distant forgotten bully in the back of my mind—until I step into the doctor’s office. Every time I step on, I’m back in my 16 year old mind, tearing myself apart for every pound gained or feeling smug for any opposite fluctuation.

And I hate myself for this.

When I was in high school, I always felt at odds with my body. I covered it up in baggy men’s clothing two sizes too big, refusing to even look at it. I never ate in front of my peers, but instead did so in the safety of my home, where I would often binge until I was overwhelmed with guilt and would purge. I carried razor blades in my pockets everywhere I went, including to school, and would slice any time I looked at myself in the mirror because I just couldn’t stand the distorted image I saw. Sadly, I was what has become to be known as your stereotypical teenage girl.

And every time I stood on that scale, every piece of self-judgment washed over me. It was all in the numbers—I couldn’t get past it. In fact, anytime I was faced with any quantitative body review I would be overwhelmed. I remember doing a BMI test in high school biology class and being absolutely mortified by my BMI percentage—despite the fact that I was completely within the normal range. It was still too high.

For years, I was unable to look in the mirror without focusing in on every minor or imagined imperfection. As a result, I was unable to have any degree of healthy physical intimacy with anyone, or otherwise respond to my body’s needs.

That’s my own personal story, but we are all fed this numerically focused self-criticism from so many angles: calorie-and-carb-counting-promoting advertisements that attempt to sell “low-fat” or similar products, the female subject of many commercials and TV shows that constantly tries to fit into the perfect “size 2” dress, the ever-mystifying and fluctuating vanity sizing of the clothing industry, dieting programs that involve point values, and so on.

This leads so many us to a place of constant self-competition–we’re always trying to outdo ourselves by eating x fewer calories than the week before or dropping another dress size or assigning point values to various foods we eat so we can show how well we’re doing at managing ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with a push toward self betterment–but when it’s obsessive, endless, and it leads you into an unhealthy lifestyle and/or relationship with yourself, there’s a problem.

Because of this obsession, for years I could not actually see myself. It was always the idea of how I came up short of some arbitrary ideal based on numbers.

Over the last few years, I have slowly clawed my way out of this cycle with the aid of my creative outlets. Through burlesque and sewing, I was able to stand back and not be so arbitrarily obsessive about size and numbers. Creating context was the key for me.

Through burlesque performance, I  was able to stand back and let my body be a performative object. When I shed my clothes in public, I also shed my hang-ups and silenced the nagging voices of imperfection. I was making my exposed body a focal point of performance, one in which confidence and bodily connection were crucial, and thus it became harder to fall into the black hole of nit-picky self-criticism. I had to look at myself holistically and show off every cellulite pucker and self-inflicted scar without a wince. Even when I didn’t feel confident about my body, I had to perform confidence. Over time, this led to a gestalt shift in self-perception. I was no longer a collection of a few too many pounds, but a whole body with curves and form. It was shape and movement and a tool of individual expression. I was also surrounded by gorgeous women (and men) of all shapes and sizes that flaunted each of their beautiful, unique bodies. Not only was this empowering and inspiring, but it normalized my body in my mind.

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Around the same time, I began sewing my own clothes. As I became a more experienced home-sewer, I had to take a much more detailed look at my body. In order to sew clothes that fit you well, you’ve got to know your measurements and be honest with yourself about them. If you aren’t, the clothes you make won’t fit and will look horrible (Gertie wrote an excellent piece on this a couple years ago). While this could potentially add to the pathology, my self-image was so grossly disproportionate to the reality of my actual body shape that measuring it out and looking at details such as the slope of my shoulders and the length of my torso actually let me see my body in a less emotionally-charged way without any attached judgment. Soon, I was really looking at my body, my actual body and not the distorted and emotionally-fueled portrait in my head. And it felt great.

Despite all of the progress I have made over the years however, the thing is, as soon as I face that scale, it all comes rushing back. These days, as the adult me, I consider myself a body-positive and sex-positive feminist, so on some level I feel on some level I should be “over” all my self criticism. However, when I’m being honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that I will never completely be over my body issues or the numerical triggers that set me off. We all rarely fully overcome our insecurities, and maybe we need to cut ourselves some slack from time to time. I wish I could say that I had “fully recovered” from my body hate, but it’s just not true. I don’t keep a scale in my home and keep a willful ignorance of my weight as much as possible. It’s a compromise I’ve made to keep me safe from myself.

I talk the talk a lot about empowerment and overcoming self esteem and body issues, but the truth of the matter is my history of body image distortion and judgment is still part of my identity–how I relate to myself and the world around me. I just try my best to mitigate the damage and balance out the criticism with other perspectives I’ve gained. I think that’s realistically as close as some of us can get to full self-love and acceptance.

Just gotta remember to give yourself a break now and again.

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