BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Do we ever actually forgive ourselves, our bodies? When people, like our partners, mothers, and friends, tell us to love our bodies, do we ever really believe it's possible? It's hard to believe in loving your body when you constantly wish your thighs were smaller and your face was less weird, isn't it? Or to finally shake that unsettling feeling if you looked just a little different—smaller waist, maybe—your life just would be a little better (AKA: people would like you)?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think about my body. Bodies are weird. They are grotesque as much as they are beautiful (sex, for instance, is pretty gross when you think about it—all those sounds). Bodies are programmed to deteriorate. Bodies are exactly like glass-blown jars: They are numerous in shape, impossible to replicate, and contain endless possibilities. But that also means it's easy to want what you don't have, to scroll through Facebook and Instagram, and see everything you aren't. It's easy to believe in the Fakebooking, all the perfect angles and curves and blemishless faces.
I was born into a family that loves food—all of our holidays, birthdays, and celebrations revolved around food, like many families. I was born to love cooking, to see the necessity in how a dish can bring an entire family together. Cooking was in my blood. It's just what both the men and women did to foster a sense of love and community. I can't remember the countless Sunday morning pancakes, the big family dinner—but I can remember some of them. What I can remember most is how they made me feel; how the smells permeated the house, made me feel safe. Made me feel like I belonged somewhere.
For most of my early childhood, I wasn’t critical of my body. I was lucky, it seemed, to be born with a fast metabolism. I never seemed to gain weight. However, I wasn't oblivious to the scrutiny of the women around me—most notably, my mother. She was often berated by my father and her in-laws for being "too heavy" or fat. What she ate was criticized by her mother, publicly shamed for her appearance as though it was the only thing that mattered. For many of these people, it was fact, common-place. My father's mother even bullied my sister as she was transitioning into early womanhood.
As a child, I took note.
There were the years during elementary school where I was teased for my big nose (hey, I'm Greek and Italian), the way I dressed (didn’t we all go through an ‘80s goth phase?); what music I listened to, the fact that I wrote poetry, that I was shy. Self-confidence did not come easily to me—I often held these cruel comments in the back of my mind, even though they either weren’t true or weren’t actually bad either. But I believed them, like most kids bullied took to heart.
The one thing that stayed with me the longest—and struck me sometimes the hardest—was one comment. Everyone said it, and it was supposed to be a compliment: "You're so skinny." Sometimes, that phrase was followed by something like: "But how do you do it? Do you not eat?"
As I got older, though, I used these phrases to check myself.
Was I skinny enough?
What is enough?
A woman once told me as I tried on dresses, "You could never be too skinny." I was twelve. While I thought she was ridiculous at the time, I internalized it. I believed her.
By the end of high school, my body was on my mind at all times. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I desperately wanted to exist outside of my body to truly believe it didn’t matter, aspiring to be as beautiful no matter the shape of my body. I wanted to love it. While I rationally understood weight didn't matter, I couldn't stop obsessing over what I ate, the amount of calories in something as simple as a smoothie. I am 5’1” and have never weighed more than 112 pounds. At my lowest (and scariest), I weight between 93-95 pounds. I was proud of this at the time—for being able to do this. I don't say this to brag or shame anyone; I say this because it's just a fact, and it's a fact that allows me to realize how irrational body dysmorphia is. I never realized what others saw.
I could never shake my imperfections.
I learned to stand in front of mirrors, obsessing over each parts of my body could be skinnier—because I could control what I ate—change the way my body looked. Eating felt like one of the few things I could control. The most ironic part of all of this is that I loved to cook, and would cook for others; I was thrilled to make others happy, to feel special enough to have a meal made for them. It's not that I wouldn't eat, but I couldn't eat without feeling guilty.
I couldn't be happy.
I couldn't love me.
It was hard to break away from these overly critical, obsessive thoughts. For example, compliments about being so thin sometimes had the opposite effect. They fueled my desire to be smaller, to feel different, to feel a certain emptiness. The emptiness came from not eating enough, made me feel like I could sacrifice enough, that I was strong, that I could be in control.
This was especially ironic after my assault.
At night, I would lie awake and wonder if I could find my body and start existing again. I often cried in fear of hating my body forever, of suffering instead of loving, of being alone. While I've been gradually able to foster a healthier relationship between myself and eating over the past few years, it's not as though the image I have of my body in my head has completely changed. Going to the doctor and weighing myself still causes anxiety.
I purposely don't have a scale in my home because I'm afraid I would become obsessed with a ridiculous number.
This is exactly what recovery is: Learning how to overcome insecurities, to cope with what life throws at us. Recovery is seldom about getting over something without first understanding what was lost. It is about learning what is a trigger, how to avoid those triggers, and how to soften them. In this case, do I need to look at celebrity magazines all the time and read Vogue's fashion section? I don't. Do I need to own a scale? No.
There is no one to blame for my body dysmorphia.
Yes, there is how the media portrays women, the strange and ever-changing standards we try to emulate (Kate Moss, Marilyn Monroe, and all the countless women magazines have idolized), and yes that changes how people (like the woman in the dress shop when I was 12) think.
Yes, their ideas are wrong, but it's all conditioning. It's part of their own body insecurities. It's no one singular person, it's part of our societal psyche. I don't blame the people who told me I was skinny, that I was lucky to be thin. These people were simply trying to be nice, even kindhearted. Is this an excuse? No, it's not, because we all need to change.
I need to change, too.
Of course, eating is still not so simple.
It's a process every day. Sometimes, I fail. Sometimes I don't. I wish I could say I'm completely fixed, that I'm over my body dysmorphia, but no one ever truly "gets over" their traumas, their insecurities, their fears. Really, it's all about our coping mechanisms.
Right now, mine is eating frozen yogurt as I write this, trying not to feel guilty.
Somehow, I don't. And honestly, I don't exactly know why I don't, and maybe that's OK.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications) & Xenos (forthcoming 2017, Agape Editions). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of her writing has appeared in Prelude, The Atlas Review, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She has lead workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente