For the women in my family, the body was a sFor the women in my family, the body was a source of anxiety, shame, a measure of discipline and worth – something to fret over, scrutinize, and punish for bad behavior. Food invoked anxiety and fear. Calories were meticulously tracked and exercised away as quickly as possible.The women openly complained about their “flaws” and lamented the numbers on the scale, while many of them ravenously ate a couple extra hundred calories in secret. I learned that life began five pounds (or, in my case, 10 pounds), from now.
I didn’t grow up feeling comfortable in, or good about my body. The body as a source of joy and vitality was an alien concept most of my life. I enjoyed food and wanted it, but I knew that made me weak, undisciplined and “bad.”
It didn’t help that I inherited my height from my father’s side of the family. I learned that beauty was a beast, one I had to conquer in order to measure up and feel good about myself. And that I had to conquer it no matter the costs because, hey, baby, you’re worth it.
My mother and the women in her family were all diminutive women with tiny feet, tiny hands, bird-like shoulders, and bitty waists. They were delicate flowers that liked to remind people that they were “petite.” From the time I’d entered fourth-grade, I was referred to as “big-boned,” “solid,” “big like her dad’s side of the family” and in need of “losing a few pounds.” I had surpassed my great-grandmother in height by the time I was 11. By seventh-grade, I was taller than my mother and grandmother. Measuring 5’3” and weighing 130 pounds, I was an “Amazon,” that poor freak of nature that had inherited the wrong set of genes.
I knew none of these comments were compliments. In fact, most little girls want to secretly flip someone the bird when an annoying aunt or family friend hovers and croons, “My, she’s gotten to be such a big girl!” “Big” and “girl” don’t go together well in our culture. But I didn’t have the confidence or wherewithal to say, “Whoah, whoah – back the hell up. Don’t you all know you’re talking about my body right in front of me? Don’t you know your tones are either derisive or filled with worry about my size? Don’t you know this kind of body talk objectifies me and makes me feel like shit?”
Nope, I was too deeply mired in my own shame and guilt about my body. Oh, why oh why wasn’t I born short with a delicate bone structure? Plus, these were my family members and adults in my life that I respected, admired, and trusted. I believed they had my best interests at heart. And they did. They really did. I don’t doubt that for an instant.
My mother and my grandmother, the two women I idolized more than anyone else and who loved me deeply, were projecting their own anxieties and insecurities on me because they didn’t know any better. We’re all prone to absorbing the socially constructed images and messages in our cultural environment.
And they’re no exception.
Like me, their own families, peers, and the society they grew up in influenced their sense of self and their measure of worth as girls and women. Like me and legions of other girls and women, they internalized the notion that what matters most, aside from any other skills or talents, is how pretty they are (and in our culture, pretty is synonymous with skinny). Not how they feel, not what they can do, not how healthy they are.
And, let’s be honest, there are lots of skinny people who aren’t healthy. In fact, health never entered the conversation in my household. Losing five or ten pounds was never a matter of health, but a matter of aesthetics.
I mean, ceaselessly dieting, from the Atkins diet to the pineapple diet (where you consumed vast quantities of pineapple because pineapple would “eat” away the extra fat you were carrying), over exercising, diet pills, caffeine, and excessive calorie restriction isn’t exactly the yellow brick road to optimal health.
After years of compulsive and punishing exercise (my mother got me a gym membership when I turned 12), severe calorie restriction, bouts of binging and purging, and Slim Fast shakes for breakfast, I stumbled into a yoga class led by Bryan Kest.
It was the mid-nineties, I was 24-years-old and my life was about to radically change. Everything I knew about my body, everything I felt toward my body, and my negative self-talk was about to undergo a seismic shift. For the first time since early childhood, I was about to learn how to be comfortable and radiant in my own skin. For the first time in my life, I was about to learn how to love my body.
I settled in on my mat in a space that would become the rare and sacred space devoid of competition. A space uncluttered by external chatter, removed from the world of advertising and one that would quiet and soothe my own self-critic. Kest began that first class by inviting me back into my body. “Welcome to your bodies. Welcome to yoga.”
“I can’t enjoy how pretty I look if I don’t feel good.” – Bryan Kest
I’d spent almost two decades trying to have the reality of my body conform to the image that had been created in my head. The women in my family, boyfriends, my peer group and, most importantly, the prolific realm of pop culture, had influenced this image of physical perfection, and its correlating value. The joy of living in my body as a child had been replaced by disappointment.
The women in my family were consumed by their weight and their desire to measure up to mainstream standards of beauty; lamenting weight gain with bouts of depression and self-loathing, celebrating weight loss with great fanfare and sizing other women up. An unhealthy preoccupation with my body and food was set in motion before I hit puberty and manifested in all sorts of dangerous methods to obtain thinness: diet pills, colon hydrotherapy, fasting, legal and illegal stimulants, calorie restriction, self-induced vomiting and excessive exercise. And all along the way, the images around me assured me that the pursuit of pretty by any means necessary would be pay off. After all, baby, you’re worth it.
The routes to freedom presented themselves at about the same time: feminism and then yoga. After wandering around fairly aimlessly for over a year, running away and living in Maui for a period of that time, I had landed in “Sociology 22: Sociology of Women” in the fall of 1994at Los Angeles Valley College. I didn’t know what Sociology was or what it might have to say about women, but it sparked my curiosity. “I’m a woman,” I thought and, “this should be more interesting than meeting my general requirements for a major I’m not too committed to.”
“It’s not you. You’re not an isolated case. It’s systematic and it’s called patriarchy,” said the radical 60-something woman at the front of the room with the “War is not good for children and other living creatures” medallion swinging from her neck. She wore a turtleneck encased in a neat blazer and put one leg up on the seat of the chair for leverage as she lectured with more gusto, authority and confidence than any woman I had ever encountered. I was utterly smitten and completely enthralled, all the while having my mind blown during each and every class. The world was transformed. My paradigm shifted from one that viewed my body image issues as seemingly personal troubles to understanding them as public issues that were (and are) systemic in nature. In short, my soon-to-be mentor, in all her fierce fabulousness, had ignited my “sociological imagination.” And it was distinctly feminist.
My sociological and feminist education included a healthy dose of media literacy, a field of study that was just beginning to blossom at the time. I was offered the ideological tools and skill set to deconstruct mediated images and understand the role of the advertising industry in the creation and manufacture of these endless streams of images and messages that flood the cultural landscape. This allowed me examine my tortured relationship with my body in a systematic and structured way, lifting the clouds of shame and guilt that followed my every move.
Maybe there wasn’t something wrong with my body. Maybe there was something wrong with the messages the mainstream medic culture proliferated, contorted and unrealistic messages that were raking in profits from my insecurity and from the body image issues of girls and women around me. (The mainstream media’s targeting of male body image issues didn’t begin in earnest until several years later.) The realization that I wasn’t the problem was a relief and ultimately liberating. It also left me utterly pissed off.
Yoga provided the practice that rooted the things feminist sociology had taught me. It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance; it’s another to embody and practice it, especially after spending decades learning, practicing and perfecting self-loathing.
My friend, Marla, led me to a spacious dance loft in downtown Santa Monica, a space large enough for over 120 sweaty bodies to get their downward facing dog on by donation. The room was bursting at the seams with a sea of bodies and their body heat warmed the cavernous room. A hard-talking high-school dropout from Detroit was leading the practice in the most conscious and loving way amidst his occasional farts, burps and f-bombs. It was 1997, and I had landed in the company of an eclectic group of yogis led by the sometimes delightfully inappropriate and absolutely authentic Bryan Kest.
I knew I had stumbled upon something utterly delicious and profoundly nurturing for me. It had taken me a lifetime to find yoga and over a year of active searching to find a teacher that fit my needs. His street-wise attitude and working-class background meshed with my own and I felt comfortable. I was finally home.
To read the rest of this essay, purchase the book HERE.
This article is an excerpt of my chapter in the newly published anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. In the complete essay, I detail my budding relationship to feminist ideology and my yoga practice. I examine media culture at large and reconcile my experience of yoga as a practice of self-love with an increasingly commercialized yoga “industry.” I invite you to read the rest my chapter, as well as the eleven other phenomenal essays in this book, which discuss contemporary North American yoga and its relationship to issues including recovery, body image, and spirituality. You can learn more about 21st Century Yoga by visiting the website, and purchase a copy either in print or Kindle edition.
Hey there. Yeah, you, the fierce teenager I know so well. I know you are having a time of it, trying to find your way out of the vituperative situations thrust upon you by circumstance. I only wish you knew then what I know now.
It’s hard to watch you struggle with your self-esteem and self-worth, as you berate yourself often, and weave truth into the lies your father told you. It saddens me so that you believed them, but in retrospect, I’m not surprised. It’s normal to want to believe your parents, even though in your case, they were full of crap. 40 years and a lot of nicks later, I can tell you they were, in fact, lying, and those untruths had nothing to do with you. You really are enough, dear one More than enough. And when you hurt yourself, you let them win.
You won’t believe this now, but you are a survivor and a warrior. You have always had the intrinsic ability to see the truth and tell it like it is. You are compassionate, and kind, but it will take time for you to embrace this and stop hiding behind your anger. Eventually, I know you’ll come around.
I want you to know that you find safety and solace from the pain and trauma you’re swimming in. The weight of your secrets and pain won’t break your back but will be the very thing that carry you to safety. Only then will you find the right place to unburden yourself and let go. You really will be ok. Trust me, as the adult you, we have almost 19 years clean, a wonderful child, and a loving husband that wants nothing but happiness and success for us.
There was a time when I ignored you and thought doing so would make the nightmares go away, but it wasn’t until I embraced you and your strength that I realized how incredible you are. Your mom’s boyfriend who tried to kill you was afraid of your moxie; the bastard in high school who raped you tried to kill your spirit with rumors and shame; the ex-boyfriend who hit you wanted to control your spirit. They lost and you prevailed, eventually directing your life to one of service and love. You were a badass for asking for help and seeking therapy on your own at 16. Talk about willingness, how inspiring!
I wish I could tell you that your grandmother loved you like the daughter she never had. I wish I could stop you from making some of the choices you made, but I can’t. They are what they are, and they ended up making you into the woman you become. I wish I could tell you not to stop singing, and not to believe the hate your father spewed at you. He was wrong. You are talented. You are smart. You are normal.
You, dear one, are worthy of all the love in the world. It’s going to be okay. Be safe; Be kind to yourself; Follow your heart. I love you, songbird.
Dear Sweet 16,
It’s me, the 39-year-old you with a little advice, lots of love, and tons of gratitude.
I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I’m writing to let you know that I’m thinking about you. In fact, I think of you often and you need to know it. I think you’re a remarkable, crafty and capable young woman and I’m grateful to you for giving me this life; a beautiful son, a deep love and appreciation of art and nature, a rewarding career, and some kick-ass friends. Yeah, really. That’s what’s going on now and you’re the one to thank. You don’t give yourself enough credit, grrl. You’re fierce.
I wish I could remind you of these admirable traits more often, especially in those nagging moments of doubt and uncertainty that seem to be becoming more frequent. I’d love to regularly celebrate your accomplishments and triumphs with you. So I’m here now, offering you support and words of encouragement because I know you need it. I know you feel inadequate far too often. You think you’re not cool enough, pretty enough or smart enough. I know that you feel alone, especially since your greatest champion, Opa, passed away earlier this year. I know it sucks that you lost him so early. But be glad you had such a rich relationship with your grandfather while you did. His gifts to you last a lifetime. His memory never leaves you.
It’s Not You
But the guy you’re with now, the guy you’ve been dating for almost two years is another story. He’s a problem. He’s a huge reason your self-esteem has tanked. May I remind you of your joyful spirit? Your sense of wonder? He’s made you feel inadequate and you’ve lost yourself along the way.
I know you blame yourself for his abusive behavior. Too often he makes you feel crazy and erratic- he causes you to question your worth. You think you’re the reason he changed. You keep waiting for him to come around- to treat you the way he did when you met. He was so kind, attentive and loving. Maybe he’d change if you changed—if you were better.
I know it may be hard to believe now, but it’s not your fault and there’s nothing about you that needs to be fixed (and you certainly shouldn’t be wasting your time trying to fix him). You’re smart, you’re talented and capable. Really, it’s not you. Besides, I’ve seen him recently and, honey, it ain’t pretty. If you keep waiting on him to change, you’ll be waiting forever and your life will pass you by. He’s well over 40 now and not much different than you know him now.
And why do you have a boyfriend anyway? You’re much too young for a serious (and seriously dysfunctional) relationship. I know it seems like anyone who is anyone is dating, but don’t cave into the pressure. There’s plenty of time for dating. Your relationship status isn’t a sign of your worth. Yeah, I know- he’s hot, he surfs, he plays guitar. Well, even those charms fade, believe me. You’ll meet other guys, better ones. Don’t let him treat you badly. It isn’t you.
You’re resourceful. You’re a survivor. It’s because of you that I’ve been able to accomplish all that I have. In fact, whenever you run into old friends, the friends you’re hanging out with now, they’re amazed, absolutely amazed, at how you turned out. You truly defied the odds and I am eternally grateful for your fierce commitment to improve your life.
Don’t Waste Time
You deserve better. No high school sophomore should have a bruise on her face in her yearbook picture. Once you come to recognize, believe in, and appreciate your own worth, you’ll lose interest him and demand better. I promise. Don’t waste your time seeking external validation from anyone, especially him. When you do that, you’re vulnerable and at the mercy of his fickle moods and desires. He is not the most important relationship in your life. He does not determine your value.
Love Yourself Fiercely and Unconditionally
You determine your own value. Nurture yourself, respect yourself, and cultivate self-love.
Don’t be so hard on yourself.
Don’t second-guess yourself.
Don’t judge yourself.
Don’t self-sabotage your own success.
Don’t make yourself small.
Use your voice.
Focus on your art, your poetry and what’s in the truth of your heart. You’re not going to do everything perfectly, nor should you expect to. You do end up making mistakes both small and large (along with some epic ones). It’s OK. It all works out. Don’t beat yourself up. Make amends and move on. Yes, people get hurt along the way, including you. It’s all part of the process. Learn your lessons and don’t repeat your mistakes (not too many times anyway).
Be open to the nice guys. You know, the ones that like you the way you are. The guys who treat you well, laugh at your jokes, share in conversations and don’t tell you that nobody else will ever love you. Nice guys aren’t boring–I swear, and they’re not full of it. When you believe you’re valuable, you’ll believe others. Like I said, work on that self-love thing before you dive into anything with anyone else. In fact, ditch the boyfriend you’re with now. Don’t wait another six years. Trust me on this one.
One day, you’ll thank me in the same way I thank you for all you’ve given me. I’m proud of you and I love you completely.
Written by Cakie Belle. Originally posted at Cakie Belle. Cross-posted with permission.
Most people hate conflict. We actively avoid the people we don’t like, whether it be in our workplaces, our homes or our social lives. We make compromises to avoid arguments. We make sacrifices to get along. We dream of peace on Earth. And yet so many of us spend every minute of our lives willingly engaging in a cruel and ruthless battle where ultimately, there can be no winner. Of course, I’m talking about the war with our bodies.
No matter how well other things (like our jobs and relationships) are going, if we are in constant conflict with ourselves we simply cannot fully lead the magical, wonderful lives we deserve, or experience true, lasting, blissful happiness. Without self love there can be no peace, because when we hate our bodies, we are literally living, breathing, eating and sleeping with the enemy.
I have been embroiled in my own body battle since I was just a little girl and when I look back I can see that my hatred for my physical self has cast a dark shadow over many memories that should have been wonderful, like days at the beach where I couldn’t enjoy myself because I was so self-conscious of my tummy, nights out with my girlfriends when I felt unattractive and jealous, and romantic dinners with my boyfriend ruined by the fact I was racked with guilt for eating a fattening dessert and garlic bread. It’s a miserable way to live.
The truly bizarre thing about the war with one’s body is that it is so completely one-sided. We treat them like the enemy and yet, our bodies do nothing to spite us. They do nothing to hurt us. They do nothing cruel or unkind or unforgivable. Our poor abused bodies simply do their job, keeping us alive and making the best of whatever our genetics and lifestyles have given them. Our bodies work tirelessly to keep us functioning and offer little complaint when we treat them badly. We abuse them, shame them and belittle them, but until the day we die, our bodies simply carry on.
Give your poor body a break! It is time you acknowledged how amazing your beautiful body is and recognised its unique magic. It is time you appreciated it for all its miracles and its time you started treating it with the love and respect it deserves. It is time that you made peace with the one person you will spend every single day of your life with. That’s you.
Draw up a peace treaty. Buy your body a thank you present (like gorgeous lingerie, new perfume or a big cupcake). Treat your body to a bubble bath, a massage or a hike up a mountain. Look in the mirror and tell your body you are sorry. Tell your body it is beautiful. Make a promise to treat it better. Write your body a love letter. Banish the toxic self-talk. Wave a white flag and surrender to the fact that your body needs you and you need it. Pour your whole heart into improving your relationship with yourself. Stoke the flames of fierce self love.
Don’t waste another single moment fighting a battle you cannot win. Let the war be over.
Originally posted at Ms. Magazine.My body is a battleground. I have spent most of my life waging a war on it. I have vivid girlhood memories of my worth being measured by my waist size and numbers on a scale. I was taught that I must “suffer to be beautiful.” This irreconcilable relationship with body and self continued into middle school, as I hid my budding curves; into high school, when I combined starvation, purging, and over exercising; and well into adulthood, including during my pregnancy and postpartum experience.
But I am not alone. I am part of a lineage of women who declared war on themselves, from my great-great grandmother who donned the organ-crushing corset, to my great-grandmother who internalized the Victorian feminine ideal of daintiness and measured each bite meticulously; to my grandmother who cinched her waist with girdles and ate diet pills for lunch; and to my mother who embodied the emaciated silhouette of the 1970s and aerobicized her way into the 1980s and early 1990s with her food-and-exercise diary tucked in her purse.
But this is not just my legacy. This is an experience shared by countless girls and women, beginning at earlier and earlier ages and affecting them well into their lateryears. This legacy of self-hatred and self-objectification–punctuated by disordered eating, continuous exercise and abusive fat talk–inhibits the path to personal liberation which begins with self-love.
As bell hooks states, these practices are “self-hatred in action. Female self-love begins with self-acceptance.” As the number of girls and women engaged in these destructive habits increases exponentially, campaigns such as Operation Beautiful, Fat Talk Free Week (which began on Monday) and the NOW Foundation’s Love Your Body Day (October 20) are more important than ever to combat the onslaught of voices undermining our personal and collective self-esteem.
While it may all sound simplistic, in my own personal experience I have found that self-affirming rituals such as banishing self-criticism and honoring my body through reverence and celebration to be rewarding and transformative. In fact, I have felt the most beautiful and whole when I have silenced the critic in my own head, limited my level of mediation and engaged in loving practices that allow me to cultivate respect for my body as opposed to deepening my disdain and disappointment. The greatest personal shift occurred with the birth of my son and the understanding that my body was the vehicle for creating, carrying and birthing this miraculous new life. Staring at my new son’s beautiful little body, I wondered why I didn’t regard my body in the same way–miraculous and perfect. I asked myself why I heaped self-loathing on a body that should garner respect and gratitude.
In fact, respect is the connective strand that binds the 20 ways to love your body that Carmen Siering offered in her Love Your Body day post. If we can learn to respect our body, perhaps we can learn to love our bodies over time, and eventually turn that self-love into personal liberation.
It was in an afternoon yoga class 10 years ago that I realized my relationship with my body had been profoundly changed.
Gazing up at my legs, glistening with sweat in shoulder-stand, I realized that I wasn’t searching for signs of “imperfection” or scrutinizing my body with the negative self-talk that too many of us have with ourselves on a daily basis—the abusive dialogue I had with myself most of my life.
For the first time I could remember since early childhood, I wasn’t critical of myself.
I wasn’t looking for parts of my body to control and change.
A distorted body image, self-criticism, and the pursuit of “perfection” by any means necessary is a perverse inheritance passed down from the women in my family and influenced by the unrealistic and prolific images manufactured by the larger media culture. Given this environment, I never had a chance to emerge unscathed, self-esteem intact. The women in my family were constantly dieting, tracking calories in food diaries, lamenting weight gain, celebrating weight loss and sizing other women up. An unhealthy pre-occupation with my body and food was set in motion before I hit puberty and manifested in all sorts of dangerous methods to obtain thinness: diet pills, colon hydrotherapy, fasting, legal and illegal stimulants, calorie restriction, self-induced vomiting and excessive exercise.
The routes to freedom presented themselves at about the same time, feminism and then yoga. Feminism offered the ideological tools to examine my tortured relationship with my body systematically and deconstruct mediated images. Yoga provided the practice that rooted the things feminism had taught me. It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance, it’s another to embody it.
Susan B Anthony, after whom the 19th Amendment is nicknamed, once said, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
In a time when women were prohibited from wearing pants, donning “bloomers” to straddle a bicycle saddle was seen as a bold statement of protest, liberation, and freedom. As the bicycle’s popularity soared in the 1890’s, it became a symbol of mobility, and as women began moving out of the cloistered domestic realm, the bicycle became not only a symbol but a tool of activism.
Today, especially in Los Angeles’ Car Kingdom, the bicycle is still a symbol and a tool of activism. It’s a bold statement against oil consumption, traffic, and pollution, and like all other forms of activism, it’s not easy. Cyclists are often denied their rights to the road by motorists and law enforcement. Riding a bicycle can be dangerous and discouraging. It’s not too unlike confronting men with their sexism, suffering the humiliation of gendered condescension, or constantly wondering if people are seeing you or your sex.
Barbie is a cultural icon. With her long, silky, blonde hair, perky breasts, cinched waist and mile-high legs Barbie represents mainstream definitions of physical perfection, the paragon of beauty and ideal femininity. Her shiny pink corvette, swanky townhouse, and oodles and oodles of perfectly accessorized outfits indicate her success within the consumer culture machine. Collectively, her physical and material assets (Eurocentric beauty, white-skin and class privilege rolled up into one statuesque doll), represent the collective dream spun by post-WWII advertisers and reinforced by the culture at large.
For more than 50 years, she has not waned in popularity (gained a pound, developed a wrinkle or gray hair) even in the face of mounting criticism.
Despite some of the negative headlines Barbie is still a hit with girls across America and the world.
More than one billion dolls have been sold since her inception, and according to the dolls makers, Mattel, 90% of American girls aged between three and 10 own at least one.
While Barbie is a manufactured fantasy, she remains an emblem of idealized femininity and a key element of gender socialization.
Barbie fan Danielle Scott, 16, said: “Playing with the hair, the brushes, switching outfits. It really just made girls be girls.
“All the characteristics of what to look forward to and what girls really could do…” she said.
While it is true that Barbie has had approximately 125 jobs over the last half-century (jobs that presumably allowed her to purchase her multiple homes, extensive wardrobe etc. etc)., Barbie is not famous for her resume. She is most well-known for her flawless figure and coveted beauty.
I was still reveling in Britney’s unaltered Candies photos circulating the feminist blogosphere, specifically, and the internet, in general, when I read at HuffPo that Kate Hudson celebrated her birthday with a new set of breasts (story at UsMagazine, too). As I was digesting this bit of disheartening news, @RevoltRealWomen posted the link on twitter (I told you information travels quickly out here).
Why am I disheartened? When a woman as beautiful and as “perfect” (by mainstream cultural standards) feels insecure enough to get breast implants, there’s a big fucking problem out there for women. It’s an example of how impossibly perfect, and utterly *unreal*, these standards are. I’ll be blogging more on this topic in the next few days.
This also explains my skepticism on the importance of Britney’s photos. As I blogged last night (full post here):
Do these efforts matter? Well, yes. Of course.
Do they represent “change?” Not exactly. Real change will occur when these images are not the exception but the norm and these images do not represent a handful of images and in a sea of millions of taken-for-granted but absorbed images that counter their positive message.
For every body image “victory” like curvy French Elle or Britney untouched, we have countless Kates altering their bodies and succumbing to the endless pressure exerted by a merciless industry, body snarking as sport and beauty standards that can only be reached through outrageous and dangerous body practices such as going under the knife for elective plastic surgery.