The friend says the pressure to love her body is too much. “Isn’t it enough to not hate it?” This is what we are supposed to do as women. It’s yet another thing to add to the list. Love ourselves. Love our bodies exactly as they are.
That word, love. It covered my notebooks in junior high, markers and hearts. As a teenager, those four letters grew far too big for crushes. They became like currents sweeping the earth in a gusting flourish, ecstasy and aspiration with a peace sign woven into the O.
The tropospheric ribbon of script I tattooed across my days was a declaration of protest. It was a way to give voice, unformed as it was, to an infant movement. A confederacy of truth was gathering, and it was growing skeptical, maybe downright mutinous, of the dogma that ordered my inner life.
This story is the story of almost every tormented adolescent. Nevertheless, it is the only one I know. Sometime around ten years old, a near constant chant of hate and doubt coiled around me. Spiked with destructive fantasy, it was razor wire coursing with a single buzzing note. It was conductor and song. By 15 or 16, I couldn’t hear any of it as a distinct voice. Each was inseparable from the synapses that carried it. Taken together they were truth, mood, impulse, self. They were me.
Did these lies birth depression or were they born of it? That high pressure system weighing down skull and skin made it twice as hard to rise, to act, to show up for friends. People looked at me and stared. They thought things. “Ugly bitch.” “Loser.” “Self-absorbed brat.” “Ugly, sloppy, pathetic pig.” Their revulsion was as loud as speech. Louder, even.
I was sure it was real. Of course, it would have been impossible to articulate this perception. No one in my life could have known the madness of the certainty. It had no counterpoint. I simply knew it the way I knew my name. When you share a bed with a ghost only you can see, even your own mother can’t tell you that your nights are your own.
I knew deep down like the rhythm of breath, knew with metaphysical certainty, that I was ugly. Core ugly, soul ugly. Not a single person close to me ever did anything other than love me, yet I still knew. And because of this, I hungered for and hunted down any outward sign of approval. It was a form of survival, I suppose. What measure could I gauge? I scanned the horizon then zeroed in. The boy likes me. He wants to be near me. (1 point!) The teachers says I’m smart. (Gold star!) I have promise, the community needs me! (Blue ribbon!)
I collected these prizes in my private display case. It had no lock. It was stapled together, it was particle board. It was pilfered almost nightly.
Everywhere I looked, I saw almost exclusively through warped and silvered glass. Every object in the world contained a reflection of my worth, hideousness, appeal, stupidity, insight. Every person was an opportunity to assess me. Projects at school or work were chances to prove my value (or expose my failings). Me me me. The battle was constant, a raging and stinking war between the longing to feel good and the relentless cannonfire of ugliness.
I know now and maybe knew then that my suffering barely registered on the planet’s scale of pain. Even so, it was mine. Precious. And as such, it was almost impossible to recognize as something to be rooted out, something that did not belong.
“Love yourself” was dogma by the time I hit adulthood. I began to sense something was amiss because I certainly didn’t love myself. Another failing. Another reason to court disdain.
The feeling of love, the sweet-hot high that swaggers across our screens and croons from our radios is the only prize we know. We chase it or manufacture it, using shortcuts that prime that surge — temporary, but how are we to know? — of pleasure. It’s everywhere. Whether it’s in a good run or a belly laugh or a glass of wine, the feeling associated with love is its own undoing. Unable to sustain the feeling without its origin, the only choice is to up the dose. Seek out that sensation, that ineffable yet warm and pleasurable and filling deliciousness. Seek it and swallow it into every pore.
And still come away hungry.
We’re doing it all backwards. We reach out to grab handfuls of the feeling to gulp down, instead of scooping up from the source we’ve generated.
What do we learn eventually if we can hear it from the scarred veterans, or better yet, figure it out ourselves, is that love is a verb, not a sensation. Love is a series of small actions sustained over days, years, a lifetime. When you love another person, you bring it to life in the choice to organize your beloved’s birthday dinner even when she’s acting like an asshole. In telling him what you love about him even when you’re so damned tired you’d rather just read your murder mystery and go to sleep. In showing up for the graduation ceremony or the softball game or the tough conversation during a health scare even though none of these things feel very good at all.
This is what we learn about loving other people, the advice that it takes anyone in a relationship with another human being a whole lot of years of years and twice as many screw-ups to start getting right.
It’s the same for the self.
We know we are supposed to love ourselves because that’s what strong, healthy people do.
For a while, we might fake it. We attempt the flailing, transparent show of braggadocio. We become complicit in the ascendance of our cheapest and safest successes, and try to ally ourselves exclusively with those.
Because we don’t feel it, we believe we don’t love these bodies that carry us, that are us. Like my friend who says, “Isn’t it enough not to hate it?” Whether it’s the body, the mind, or the emotional shape each of us takes, with all the scars and all the shadows, love is the same.
The absence of loathing is far from enough.
To love ourselves is certainly not to feel the electric thrum of pleasure in our own company any more than love is a first kiss. To love ourselves, we have to gather our forces. Arm the revolutionaries. We have to tell ourselves the truths below the truth.
To love a self — the wounded shell and its broken parts — is to say,
This fine, strong body is a gift, it dances me alive. This is the eye that sees the rainbow of produce at the supermarket and sends a current of anticipation through the web of my flesh, that tastes the scent of dill deep in the jaw even before picking up the spidery bouquet.
To love is to say, This mind bends to many angles and finds footing in any terrain, it solves puzzles and carves out paths for the people depending on me.
To love is to say, These wings rise to the pulse of Sweet Honey in the Rock then these ribs swell with night then these fingers reach to brush the wiry coat of the dog as she watches in her naked affection this strange human who sometimes speaks in song.
It is to say, This body and mind and self I love also loves me so well.
Then we give ourselves the gift of a walk under the fat September moon, an early night in clean sheets, a good book, and a kind word before sleep.
Image: Ellie Rex, “Labor of Love”