As a woman, my body has been many things to many people, myself included. Unfortunately, not all them good. For in culture that is drunk on sex, power and success, where is the sensual, earthy, fertility of of a woman supposed to fit? We don’t see her in the industry of porn, lingerie or bikini competitions. We don’t see her in the boardrooms, sky rises or concrete jungles. We don’t find her in homes that suppress and shame feelings of sadness and pleasure. We don’t see her in the supermarket isles full of artificial food-like items and cheap plastic toys that speak to the superficiality of our times. No, in this modern era of ours, the real bodies of women don’t fit because they threaten the very paradigm of consumerism, patriarchy and suppression our ‘wonderful’ world of the West is built on.
After all, how can they sell us products we don’t need unless we hate ourselves enough to buy them? And, if those products don’t work to make us feel better … hell, let’s just sell the woman herself. For everyone knows a beautiful woman soothes our anxieties, strokes our egos and gives us a distraction to drool over when we need to escape our companion feelings of shame, pain and loneliness.
Yes, you heard me correctly. That innocent game of beauty, “health” and hyper-sexualization we all play isn’t so innocent. But even us women (the ones who lose the most when we play) consent when we trade on our bodies for love, attention and value.
When we are young, we know the truth about our bodies: That they are a home for us to live in. For us to experience the world in. For us to play in, dance in, run in, climb in, jump in, twirl in. For us to drip peach juice down and squish mud between and get running so fast we think we might fly in. But the older we get and the more times we’re told to look pretty (both explicitly and implicitly), the more we cover our home with boards and shades and let the dusty cobwebs take up residence in the corners of our bones. We stop moving, we stop playing and we stop dancing and, eventually, most of us stop eating. In an attempt to emulate our predecessors, and do what we’ve seen generations upon generations of women do before us, we self-abandon and disconnect – for decades.
But what does this feel like? How would we know if we’ve been disconnected from our bodies since the culture of fixating on and maintaining an acceptable body image feels almost inherent at this point in history? And to question further, what if we feel relatively good about our body and have fun showing it off in short shorts, skimpy bikinis and tight fitting jeans? Are we still disconnected then, even when we have the body that meets societies standards for perfection and we enjoy the attention we get from it? Are we disconnected if we are able to eat whatever we want, workout as much as we’d like and walk away feeling lean, muscular and sexy?
The answer? Most likely.
Because for most of us, whether the fixation is on obtaining what we don’t have or maintaining what we do, it’s the intellectual obsession with our body coupled with our inability to feel it – really feel it – that is the root of the problem.
A body at war with itself has many faces, but we know it most intimately through the sensations we experience in it on an everyday basis. But what does it feel like when we’re disconnected and at war?
It feels like numbness. It feels like heaviness. It feels like comparison. It feels like stolen joy and anxiety about wearing a swim suit, even in front of people who love you. It feels like wondering who’s looking at you and what they’re thinking in response. It feels like no matter how many diets you try, calories you purge or stairs you run, you’re left with a perpetual feeling of deficiency. It feels like lackluster sex and an inability to orgasm. It feels like needing a vibrator to climax, porn to get turned on and increasing amounts of hyper-stimulation to feel anything at all. It feels like a body that hurts and creaks and aches and needs ever-increasing amounts of pain-killers to function well. It feels like exercising to sculpt your body, not move it. It feels like a vague sense of satisfaction and safety when you’re the most attractive person in the room. And, checking to see whether you are or aren’t at every function you attend. It feels like fear of eating dessert, having sex with the lights on and wearing waist trainers under your dress. It feels like winning gold stars for your glute muscles and being devastated when the girl next you to ‘did it better’ with perfect genes. It feels like needing ever increasing amounts of caffeine to stay alert and falling asleep the second you sit down to read. It feels like a perpetually bloated belly and starving yourself before big events to avoid seeing your pooch. But mostly, in the simplest way I can tell it… it feels like thinking about your body, not living it in.
And yet, while it might seem like a choice – it’s not. Because when the impetus for a sick society morphs into a self-propelling feedback loop, making the choice to do something different feels near impossible – and in some cases, is; we have the stats to prove it. Today, some 50% of girls under the age of 17 are unhappy with their body and 45% of teenage girls have considered plastic surgery “correction.” To top it off, between 78-90% of women say they are dissatisfied with their bodies, including size, shape, weight and facial features. In other words, women of the world are unhappy, and the cultural motto of ‘thin is beautiful’ lives on.
But why? Where did our obsession with big breasts, small waists, perfect noses, long hair and a round ass come from? When did how pleasing a woman is to look at become more important than how she felt about her existence? When did we start poking, prodding, cinching, starving, sucking, vomiting, purging and beating our bodies into submission as a means to feel accepted, validated and whole in this world? When did we become so concerned about the ‘competition’ that we started dressing and acting like the women we see in porn films to keep our husbands, boyfriends and partners interested in sleeping with us? When did we decide to enhance our natural beauty with fake hair, lashes, nails and lips? When did we decide that in order to feel and look sexy, we had to have an abundance of male eyes trailing after our every move, visibly affirming our worth? And, for those of us who don’t have such coveted attention, when did we decide we weren’t okay without it?
I understand that words and ideas and thoughts like these can be confronting. After all, how many of want to admit that we’ve either been too naïve to see our own abandonment or, perhaps worse, that we’ve seen it all along and decided to keep playing anyway… But, given the fact that our entire structure of consumerism – one based on the idea that sex sells - hinges on our willingness to engage with it… maybe it’s time to stand up, give the finger to the myopic culture of “hotness” and reclaim our fucking birthright – the right to feel at home in our bodies.
When we’re entrenched in a collective belief system that mandates and demands our adherence to it, how do we take a shaky, but brave step toward a more liberated and authentic existence? How do we remove the bonds that keep us tethered so tightly to a rigid standard of valuation when it’s all we’ve ever known? How do we move left when everyone around us, including those whose opinions and love we cherish, are moving right? Yes, I’ll always point to awareness first, but as someone who’s deep in the throes of her own embodied journey, I don’t have a one-size fits all approach to offer you when it comes to your extrication. I can, however, say, with absolute certainty, that all change begins with our ability to first see a space where it could take place. Not to necessarily determine whether it should or should not, but that it could or could not. This sense of open-mindedness and curiosity is what allows the gates of expansion, growth, courage and bravery to fling wide open and to pave the way for paths unknown to unfold.
To begin, simply start by asking some questions about your own experience:
Do I like the way I feel about my body?
Do I like the way I feel about having to live up to specific standards?
Do I feel like I have to meet certain expectations?
What happens if I don’t?
What happens if I do?
What are the times I feel most alive in my body?
What are the times I feel most afraid or anxious in my body?
When or where do I compare myself the most?
When and where do I feel the least good about myself and my body?
What are activities that enrich my sensory experience?
What are activities that dampen my connection myself and my body?
When am I most present to my body?
Do I enjoy sex?
Do I feel present during sex?
Do I need fantasy or hyper-stimulating objects to intensify my experience during sex?
How do I feel about attention on my body?
Is there anything about my experience that I’d like to change?
Do I feel free?
Do I feel home?
Do I like living in my body?
Once you’ve done a thorough job of exploring yourself and your current paradigm, the next step is to familiarize yourself with your body in a more open, constructive way. In other words, get to know your body in the way you might get to know a new partner. Spend time with it. Nurture it. Play with it. Caress it. Move it. Sit with it. Talk to it. Feed it. Stretch it. And when you do these things, notice what types of feedback it’s giving you. When you sit with it, does it speak? When you stretch it, does it melt? When you stroke it, does it perk up? When you feed it, does it relax? When we talk about being present in our bodies this is what we mean. To feel the sensations, emotions and physical feelings that arise in any given moment of our day and respond to them accordingly.
Most of our low worth, shame and self-esteem issues around our bodies do not stem from an embodied space, but an intellectual, conceptual one. In other words, what we think about our bodies is the problem, not how we feel in them. Humans are magnificent beings with an almost infinite possibility to feel, enjoy and immerse ourselves in our sensory experience, but, in a world of stimulation, noise, chaos and demands for our attention, we have to do it purposefully.
To distance ourselves from a culture that says we’re not enough and we need to do more, we need to create space in our bodies where the measure of our joy is how we feel, not how we look. One of the best ways I know how to do this is through mindful, embodied movement that gets us back in touch with our physicality, moving slowly, deliberately and in tandem with our breath so as to forget the external world around us and tune into the one within us.
Examples include yoga, dance, stretching, tai chi, climbing or simply closing your eyes and moving your body slowly through space in any way that feels good – stretching, holding poses, making big circles, rolling your neck, swaying your hips etc. The key here is that none of it – I mean NONE of it – needs to look pretty. The entire goal of the movement is to switch out of a self-conscious mode and into a self-aware one, where feeling becomes the goal, not thinking. With that in mind, as thoughts of judgment arise (because they will), similar to a formal meditation, notice them and let them go. Or, if that doesn’t work as well as you’d like, you can nudge yourself back to feeling by focusing back on your breath, letting the thought naturally be replaced by a different attention.
For those of us with deep scars and wounds around our bodies and body image, it may take some time to let go enough to be able to feel. There’s nothing wrong with this. The more you practice staying with the feelings and sensations arising, the easier it becomes to access them regularly. We call it a practice for a reason – because that’s what it takes. Learning to feel your body again means unlearning all the dogma, beliefs and thoughts that hindered your relationship to it in the first place, and this takes time, patience, consistency and desire. If you find emotions that accompany the sensations this is also welcome and even something to celebrate. If you notice ones you don’t enjoy, or feel frightened by what’s coming, you can always stop what you’re doing and take a breather. There’s nothing heroic about staying with the discomfort longer than you can tolerate at first.
I don’t have all the answers to the pain, shame and heartbreak surrounding our bodies – I too am, and have been, a woman at war with herself. I too have, and continue to, feel the sharp pangs of loneliness, unworthiness and comparison that cut deep into the heart of my fears as the feeling “she’s better than you” brings me to my proverbial knees. I have avoided swim parties or “forgotten” my swim suits many times. I have taken ‘sexy’ pictures for my partners and needed a vibrator for years to get turned on. I’ve shown off my body and I’ve hid it. I’ve looked at other women after my partner sexually betrayed me and sobbed with unworthiness I’ve put scantily clad pictures up on social media because it “made me feel pretty” and sat around nervously wondering how many people would approve of me with their likes. I’ve desired male attention and been angry and resentful when I got it. I’ve pandered to the ‘thin is beautiful’ motto during my years as a personal trainer, and I’ve fought against it in the years since. I’ve starved, poked, pinched, prodded and beat my body into losing weight and I’ve overfed it in the name of recovery as well. I’ve figured out how to beat my body’s need for calories by consuming large amounts of caffeine and a tiny bit of sugar every few hours to stave off the starvation pains, and I’ve sobbed with guilt years later as I apologized to myself for withholding such sustenance. I’ve gotten a breast augmentation to “feel more like a woman,” only to realize later that my boobs have nothing to do with my divinity. I’ve opened my legs to many boys and men in the name of validation, and I’ve sworn off sex for a year to heal the damage those times had on my sense of self-worth. I’ve been numb, disconnected and unable to name the feelings living inside me and sat in front of my mirror, admiring my soft belly, thanking it for getting me this far in life. There’s much, much more I could continue to tell you, but what I want to leave you with is this:
As a woman who’s been to the moon and back and explored every crevice of body worth, body shame, body hatred and body love, what I know is this…no amount of self-talk, self-love, mirror work, exercise, dieting, therapy or mindset work has ever come close to the feeling of acceptance, admiration and deep fucking gratitude I feel for my body as when I’m actually living in it.
Women of the world: We need not trade on our bodies to confirm they have value. Next time you feel the urge to prove your worth by either showcasing or hiding your body, ask yourself: If I was grateful to have a body, what would I do with it right now?
I’m wiling to surmise you wouldn’t waste time and energy showing it off or lose out on fun experiences keeping it hidden. I’m betting that you, like me, would simply want to LIVE in it. Free, liberated and grateful to be alive.