The air has been beautiful lately. Even at my most tired, I have opted to walk to work in the early mornings and soak up the sun’s first rays peering through my neighborhood’s gold and crimson leaves. The air has also been biting on these occasions, but unable to give up the smell of the night’s rain on the pavement, I have pulled my scarves and sweatshirts from the back of my closet, and inhaled the changing seasons.
This particular time of year is usually one I find difficult. This time around isn’t especially different, although I have been taking steps to avoid the annual hibernation and shutdown I have experienced in the past decade. The frost gets in my bones and saps my already-meager supply of energy. I have written about this before: it is debilitating. So far, I am still able to get out of bed at a reasonable hour and I can laugh honestly.
By this time I have generally barricaded myself under my warm covers and turned away from an active social life, save one that exists only electronically. But I find myself participating as actively as I can in this small town where I know only a few people. I have learned the limits of my energy in this past year and in doing so I have begun to manage it as efficiently as I am able. So in this sense, I suppose this year has been different. Of course, that is not to say that my worse days do not make an appearance. This time, it is not the icy air and the falling leaves that has saddened me. Nor is it the early evening onset of a darkness that is so deep it lingers into the morning as I make my way to work, when just a month ago I could breathe in a brightening dawn. Rather, it is as I reach for my woolen coats and see my sweet summer dresses, hardly worn, that I feel a desperation to put off the impending winter.
When I am truthful, I can admit that I spent the whole of this summer in turmoil with how I perceived my body. More often than not, it was my distaste and loathing for my physical appearance that reigned over my practicality. Most days I chose to wear clothes that were ill-suited to the temperature rather than reveal whichever part of my body was causing me shame. My back was spotted with acne that I felt should have cleared up years ago. In my embarrassment, I forewent tank tops and dresses and my shoulders remained pale and unkissed by the sun.
I am unsure if the troubles I have with my physical appearance are a symptom of my emotional difficulties, but somehow they have become intertwined so tightly that sometimes it is challenging for me to decipher the feelings I am having in relation to my body. This post has been brewing in my mind for some time now. In fact, the first paragraphs have sat on pages in my notebook for weeks, but every time I attempt to continue, I stare blankly at the paper and instead flip aimlessly through my phone. Sometimes I am apt to believe that I have trouble expressing this because the feelings themselves have passed and become irrelevant. Other days I am painfully aware that the relief of these feelings is only temporary and at those times I find the things I want to write so personal and humiliating that I have no desire to do so.
Maybe also, in some small part, is the principal that has been drilled into my head: talking about one’s body is essentially forbidden. I am acutely aware of what women are supposed to look like, and like everyone else in the population, I know exactly where I do and don’t measure up. This creates its own problems; I have learned to feel ashamed about the physical parts of me that do not adhere to the model. At the same time I have been taught a distaste for vanity and whatever pride I could potentially take in my body has been smothered. In a single breath I have inhaled these ideals and as a result I have been blinded to the parts of me that may remain attractive to the popular standard. Worse yet, as much as I’d like to subvert this, I catch myself considering this The Standard. Society dictates that I am only allowed to look a certain way, but that I must never, ever take pride in the parts of me that are deemed acceptable. It is a vicious and detrimental combination.
I suppose that I can imagine I’m basically attractive. But this thought has taken years of work to say and believe, and on many days it still does not ring entirely true. I asked Miguel the once, “How long have you known you were hot?” I can tell that my questions are strange to him. I know that he doesn’t experience a physical self-loathing in the same manner I do. I watch him strut around the house completely undressed and I am stunned by and envious of the confidence that seems to come so naturally to him.
“Have you always walked around like this?” I ask, “It’s just so foreign to me.”
He looks puzzled. “But you’re naked all the time,” he says. It’s lost on him that learning to be nude in his presence has been a difficult and painful process for me. Even now, over a year after he first saw me bare and vulnerable, I always avoid his steady gaze.
“Stop staring,” I tell him.
“I’m just looking.”
“I like your body; I want to learn every line.”
I know Miguel means it sincerely. Even so, I tense up. I can feel a spotlight on each imperfection. As I lie there rigidly, I recall every stretch mark, spider vein, clogged pore, and every hair. I can never stand this for as much as ten seconds before I push him away.
I wonder if he knows how much these insecurities have affected our sex life. I can think of numerous times that the moment was heavy and our sexual tension was high but I could not bear the sight of my body. As much as I wanted him, my anxiety took over. There have been times I begged for him to turn the lights out even though it was disruptive and somewhat killed the mood. There have been times I have wriggled away from him, humiliated at the thought of him seeing the blemishes on my back. Time after time I have kept my shirt on under the guise that I was cold.
Some days I sit in front of my full-length mirror and stare at myself hatefully. I have begun to carry weight on my small frame and my hips spill over the top of my jeans. My upper arms jiggle and new stretch marks crawl down my inner thighs and up my sides. I am angry to watch my size 4 body acts as though it is a size 14. I see so many girls who are both considerably larger and more radiant. They carry themselves and own their pudge in a way that I am just not capable. I am bitter that I am fortunate enough to be a size that is supposedly attractive and somehow I still feel morbid and disgusting. I stare at the mirror and I cannot unsee the small hairs on my upper lip, the too-big pores, and the acne scars.
On these days I opt out of social activities. “I’m having a bad body day,” I tell Miguel. He doesn’t understand; he thinks I mean I’m sick and offers to make me soup. There have been times that I have felt this way but kept silent and that he has told me I look good. When this has happened I have been certain that he can see how terrible I look that day and that he is trying to make me feel better. Only later do I realize that he may have actually meant it.
That is another part of the problem: I am not able to take compliments at face value. I generally have such a poor opinion of my body that I assume compliments are in someway insincere. Most times, I feel as though I am being mocked. When I can see that the attention is genuine, I conclude that the person must be some sort of creep. I have difficulties believing that “normal” people would find me attractive, and so I determine any admirer must in some way be predatory. I have posted nude pictures online on multiple occasions when I have felt inadequate. And in a more artistic move, I have modeled nude for a photographer friend. Always, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Still, I pinch my belly in the mirror and look on with scorn.
I am practicing. I have given up on the hope that my breasts will ever grow and I have found positive aspects of their size. I am trying hard to look at the jagged purple marks on my legs and hips and to say, “yes, those are my stretch marks. Those are my stripes.” I want to glance at the little blue veins popping up on the back of my knees and thighs and feel unphased by them. I am trying to accept that I am aging physically and to think of all the weathered women I have known and how glorious they were in all of their experiences and laugh lines. Certainly there are things that I could try to reverse some of my flaws. But generally they are expensive and ineffective. It has become more important to me at this point to ease out of attempting to attain physical perfection: instead, I want to look at my body with a forgiving eye, and then a loving one. None of this comes easily to me, but I am grateful to know that Miguel is a safe place for me to struggle through these lessons. Our bodies are so much a part of our identity and it is cruel to be unaccepting of them. For me, it is a big first step to be outing my struggle in this way. But sometimes when things are said out loud they lose some of their hold on you. And now, I am going to go easy on myself.