The Growing Pains of Unlearning to Hate Your Body

Ioana Andrei

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They say that the way in which the world sees us depends on how we see ourselves.

Surely it can go both ways though?

I remember, up until I was about 11, I had virtually no opinion on how I fared on the beauty scale. I noticed some girls were especially interesting-looking. But I mostly attributed that to pretty dresses and hairstyles, while sulking in the short hair and tomboy wardrobe chosen by my parents.

Once I entered middle school, reviews came soaring in, like I’d just had press night on my newest play. Comments on my face, body, existence were expressed, day after day, by schoolmates, parents, and friends.

I learned that my body was categorized in sections that are meant to look a certain way (yes, even when you’re 11).

  • Teeth should not have gaps.
  • Thighs should not be wide.
  • Waists should not be square.
  • Butts should not be too big or too small.
  • Hair should not be frizzy.
  • Skin should not have scars, stretch marks, or cellulite.
  • Breasts should not be small.
  • Bodies should not be anything but hourglass.

Bodies should not be loved unless they are perfect. Until then, it is socially acceptable for my body to be abused physically, verbally, emotionally, by anyone who feels compelled to do so.

It took me about 10 years to reach the realization that this was something learned, rather than a self-hating curse that I must live with. It then took me another 6 years to begin to unlearn the hate, lesson by lesson, day by day, inch by inch.

*

There is a certain flavor of pain that is specific to realizing you hate yourself.

Even when you hate just a tiny piece, like your armpit hair, you hate your whole being, because you’re not accepting yourself fully. And that is a taught mannerism.

Nowadays I teach my proverbial dog new tricks. There is a way to use the word "No" that can be loving and healing.

I hate my armpit hair. But I use the word "No" to the personal or public figures that taught me to hate it. I use it when the voices in my head echo those learnings.

I use "No" to say:

"I will not alter my body for someone else’s opinion. I will respond to this hateful thought with an act of love."

I can’t remember the last time I didn’t remove my armpit hair for 4 months straight. Thank god for the lockdown making it slightly easier to be kind to my body.

*

Hate is a taught pattern which is bred and incubated.

It spreads. It permeates. Its only goal is to have more of itself. Like a virus.

And like most patterns, it operates in cycles. Habits go from neurological cue to action, to reward, and back again — says Charles Duhigg in his book ‘The Power of Habit’, referring to an MIT experiment.

So, when your brain picks up the cue to objectify a woman’s body (including your own) and proceeds to action it — what exactly is the reward?

Alex Korb — neuroscientist — wrote in his book ‘The Upward Spiral’ that pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar circuits in the brain (apart from the nucleus accumbens!) He suggests that this is why guilt and shame can feel so indulging — because they tickle neural reward centers.

So here’s what I think.

Whether we’re criticizing ourselves or others, we’re getting drunk on poison that has a sweet aftertaste.

When we point at another, we get a kick out of feeling superior, while secretly wishing no one does the same to us.

When we frown in the mirror, we rest on the belief that, by staying small and humble, we will be disliked less than if we were confident.

Of course, in the long-run, we are endlessly running around trying to "fix ourselves" and prove our worth through our appearance.

Ending up a hot depressive mess in the process.

*

I don’t want what’s been done to me to be done unto others.

But standing up for women’s rights and dignity doesn’t always feel great, does it? It can feel like you’re doing something wrong .

Once, I was listening in on two people body-shaming one of my friends. I was lost for words and felt like I shouldn’t interject, but eventually said that their comments are not okay.

They disagreed, arguing they were not hurting her feelings as she was absent, and they were simply observing an objective truth about her appearance.

They weren’t incorrect about either statement, yet one thing went unsaid which didn’t make their exchange blameless. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but now I can.

The effect of systemic misogyny is greater than the sum of its parts.

Talking about a woman’s physical appearance is not a big deal on its own. But it's combined with millions of people doing it day after day, plus 30% of women experiencing sexual violence globally, plus women’s careers being stalled or questioned due to their gender.

This results in much more than a bunch of little deals. It sustains a collective, unconscious bias permeating all areas of life, until we feel entitled to any and every female body, by touch, thought, word, or law.

And, for the record, I believe that appreciative comments on women’s appearance — if used to manipulate or sexualize to the detriment of one’s overall dignity — are part of this bias.

I now feel ashamed for listening to that conversation and not finding the words to explain the damage it contributed to.

I feel ashamed for the myriad of abusive comments I received throughout my journey, and for the abuse I have hailed at my own "imperfections".

I feel ashamed for still being prone to destructive patterns, even as I slowly erode my conditioning.

But all that shame is beauty in disguise.

You see, I am turning into the woman I am meant to be. And I’ve just got to accept that it comes with growing pains.

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My topics of focus include gender equality, mental health and social justice | ioana.a.writes@gmail.com

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