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My friend Hannah and I were sitting at my table, catching up on life one evening, and the conversation turned to our childhoods. “It’s not always easy, being a girl,” I said, unoriginally. I was tired, running out of clever words, getting too earnest. “There’s so much pressure.”
“To look a certain way?” she suggested.
“We all deal with it,” she said. “We get through it. And if it’s not that, it’s something else. Everyone has challenges.”
I felt silly for even bringing it up. For context: Hannah is strikingly beautiful in a way that I am not and won’t ever be. But because I was a little embarrassed, I got defensive and said, “Yeah, but think about how many girls and women starve themselves or hurt themselves in other ways trying to change their bodies. Girls and women actually die of wanting to look different.”
“Sure,” said Hannah, looking like she’d already heard all of that, many times. She was thoughtful for a moment and then said, “But it’s more of the everyday, low-grade wanting to be thinner that’s the bigger problem, don’t you think? That kind of regular misery?”
We looked down at our plates, where dessert lay in waiting, ominously tempting.
Maybe she was right.
For most of my life, my disapproval of my own body has been pretty quiet. There are moments of intense hatred, disgust, the kinds of emotions you don’t admit to in polite company, the kinds of feelings that you frustratedly recognise are stupid, embarrassing, worthless. But most of the time it’s almost casual. I am busy, after all. There isn’t enough time to stand around staring in the mirror and agonizing all day.
I’d guess that for most of us, body angst is a low-grade, background kind of deal. Sometimes it’s so ordinary and easy that we might even think we don’t think about these things. They’re just quick remarks, side comments: You really shouldn’t eat that. You really should work out more. You know you can’t wear something like that, you don’t have the body for it. If you just lost five lbs. If you just lost ten lbs… Most of the time, these are whispers, not shouts. Most of the time they are so utterly normal, they don’t feel worth noticing.
And at the same time, they are destructive.
Like drops of water eroding rock over time, persistent self-disapproval can erode our happiness and our confidence. Maybe the fact that this kind of body dislike is so normal is what makes it so awful. So much of the time, we don’t feel the need to fight back or address it. It becomes habitual, ingrained, even permanent. It sneaks into everything through a crack in the window or a hidden trap door. And then it refuses to ever leave.
I haven’t come nearly as far as I’d like to, in terms of figuring life out, but I do recognize how incredibly important it is to be comfortable with yourself. Because all that casual, constant wishing that you were just a little different, a little thinner, a little bit less you and a little bit more someone else, it only prevents you from appreciating what you actually have and who you actually are. And this is it, guys. This is who we are.
It would be fantastic if no one ever told us that we look bad in any way. Or if they did, it would be great if it didn’t stick. We should learn to laugh off these endless messages about the importance of looking a certain, highly specific, almost impossible way. That would be nice. Most of all, we should get the chance to focus so intently on the other, more meaningful, things in life that negative thoughts about our appearances aren’t even background noise—they are totally silent.
I don’t think any of us should pretend that chronic, gentle body negativity is acceptable.
Remember lead paint? It was poisoning people for a long time before anyone paid enough attention to scrape it off the walls. It was just there, in the background. Just because something has become normal doesn’t mean it can’t harm you.
Which is not to say we need to be paranoid, but we should probably try not to poison ourselves in body or mind. We should probably try to be kind to ourselves whenever possible.
“It’s a subtle oppression,” said Hannah, impressing me again with her poetic wording. “That voice in your head that’s always telling you that you shouldn’t have any, you need to lose some weight.”
“I don’t know what to do about it,” I said. “How do I stop listening?”
We looked at each other and picked up our forks. I told the low-grade voice in my head to shut up.
The cake was delicious.
It’s a very, very long way from a complete answer, but it seemed like a reasonable place to start. Maybe just talking about it is a good place to start, too.