I’ve learned to love my body, slowly, over several decades, part by part. Pregnancy and motherhood were the catalysts for the final shift, from conditional love, to unconditional love of my physical self. This is how it happened.
Hatred, like racism, can be so deeply internalized that it is hard for the hater to see it. I was fond of saying, “I hate my thighs” or “I can’t stand my behind” but I didn’t ever think of myself as self-loathing. But when I looked in the mirror, I silently whispered rebukes: This part is too large, this one too small, this other one completely misshapen. In a typical face-to-face confrontation with a full-sized mirror, I found more to dislike than like. And so although I didn’t actually say the words, “I hate my body,” the feelings of disgust and disappointment were always there.
After twenty years of being overweight—I usually weighed between ten and thirty extra pounds more than I should have—I traveled abroad for a year and half and managed to shed most of it. The last remaining pounds disappeared after I contracted dysentery in India and literally couldn’t eat a full meal for two weeks. By the time I returned home, I felt, for the first time in my life, happy with how I looked dressed, and undressed.
Upon my return, I worked reasonably hard at keeping the weight off—practicing yoga, running, working out at the gym and counting calories during the week (I allowed myself the pleasure of splurging on weekends.) In some years, I gained a few pounds but I always managed to lose it again. Although I was happy with my body, my love was conditional. Were I to have gained back more than a few pounds, the same hateful scripts would have been rekindled and spewed forth. My body demons had not left town; they were merely hiding around the corner from where I lived, waiting for a chance to move in again.
And then, in my mid-thirties, we conceived Ayla. With each week of my pregnancy, I felt love for all of my parts, especially the ones that I had disliked the most. I recall looking down at my belly, and feeling a surge of love rather than disgust. When I looked in the mirror, I felt certain that every part of me—from my nose to my toes—played a vital role in protecting or nourishing my child. As Ayla grew inside my womb, my skin grew taut and my entire body felt silky smooth and firm. Looking in the mirror was no longer punishment; instead, I gazed lovingly at my profile, at my backside, at all the vantage points that I had avoided for so many years.
And then, after a beautiful home birth, I experienced my first taste of pure awe at the human body. How had I so grossly underestimated my body? Years of hatred began to unravel, leaving threads of unconsciousness in it's wake. I forgave myself my ignorance. How could I have understood the miracle of the human body before giving birth? Now I knew that my body was a wondrous thing, and it was a feeling that I knew I would never forget.
It took almost a year to shed my pregnancy weight. Even after experiencing unabashed body love, or maybe because of it, I wanted to maintain a healthy weight. I wanted my body to have the right balance of food, water, exercise, play and rest. So I worked hard at getting to post-natal yoga classes and watching my diet but this time my calorie counting was imbued with a quality of gentleness. The weight would disappear when my body was ready to shed it. I exercised, but without the fervor that seemed to afflict so many others in the gym. I began to align my eating with the seasons, unconcerned when I gained weight in the winter and unimpressed when I lost it in the summer.
Now when I look in the mirror, I see my body or my individual parts anymore. Instead, I see a whole person--a person who is at peace with many of her parts (the ones I can see, and the ones that I can't...) I also see a person who has learned to listen to her body—and to follow its lead rather than mindlessly ordering it around. If I look really closely, I might see a body too. But instead of sucking in my belly and throwing back my shoulders to "make a better picture," I can look at my body as it is, without reacting in any way. The only feeling I might have is gratitude; because now when I look in the mirror, I can see a body that has willingly travelled to the four corners of the earth with me, that has weathered sickness and injury, and that by no small miracle, springs to life each morning, ready to graciously carry me through yet another day…