Perhaps perception plays its most deceitful and nasty and fascinating and sometimes wonderful tricks when it comes to how we view our bodies and the bodies of others. Especially when you are a woman coming of age in the western world anytime in the past two centuries.
The overriding perception is often this: there is something wrong with my body.
How strange. How strange to be conditioned to believe that the vessels in which our souls dwell, that the only vessel we have and will ever have is somehow inherently and fundamentally and irredeemably flawed.
Clearly there is something amiss here. We all know that.
We all know that our culture is nuts when it comes to body image and size and shape and beauty. We are beauty-obsessed, thin-obsessed, flawless-obsessed, sexy-obsessed. We are taught from a very young age that our worth resides in what we look like and how attractive we are to men. This is no revelation. We all know this.
The plot thickens. Some of us lucky ones witness our parents and the first adults in our lives embrace and appreciate their bodies, no matter what. We are sent message of love and respect and appreciation for our bodies and the importance of treating them well and taking care of them. Others of us, unfortunately, see negative behavior modeled through our parents and are sent messages of hate, rejection and shame. We watch our parents or siblings or friends bash their bodies and try to change them. We are told either directly or through certain behaviors and circumstances that our bodies are flawed and ugly and something of which to be ashamed.
So it’s not just culture that is shifting the perception. For many of us, it’s right in our backyards, and we grow up with the unshakeable notion that our bodies are not good enough, too this or too that, and sometimes downright disgusting. For those of us who grow up this way, we could have all of society line up and tell us we are beautiful and sexy and fantastic and radiant, and we would still have trouble believing it or feeling it because our perception of ourselves was shaped in such a negative fashion from a very young age. We have to be the ones to change that perception, from the inside out. It no longer matters what people tell us.
I’ve written on here some about my childhood and my father and some of the messages I received from a very young age. It’s no one’s fault really, and I am not blaming anyone anymore, but the fact was that I taught from a very young age that I was ugly, fat, unworthy, lazy, too sensitive, mediocre, disappointing, and a nuisance. Some of these things were uttered directly to me, while others were sent accidentally or vaguely through neglect and disinterest and the result of divorce and two parents who had never dealt with their own inner landscape. I’m not trying to knock my mother or my father or anyone else who took part in my childhood. No one was sitting around plotting how they could harm me. And I was a sensitive child. Perhaps had I been born with a thicker skin and less awareness of my environment, I would have been able to step around some of these messages that became land mines to my sense of self. I didn’t. It is what it is. I have made peace with it.
Like any girl would who grows up in this culture and suffers a turbulent childhood filled with mixed messages and a lack of protection, I spiraled into years of self-hatred, body obsession, and disordered eating. I firmly believed for a very long time that if I could just get skinny and pretty than I would be happy and lovable. It makes sense, given what we are taught. Disney Princesses are never ugly or even average looking. Barbie dolls are anatomically impossible. Supermodels make up less than 1% of the population and are airbrushed and photoshopped and suffering with their own disordered eating and negative practices of controlling their bodies. Actresses fall into a similar category. We grow up seeing beautiful, seemingly flawless women as the ones who are successful and paid attention to and the ones who get the guy. We go to school and notice how the boys pay the most attention to the prettiest and sexiest girls. (And they too have been brainwashed by society about the very narrow perception of what is beautiful and “hot.”) So I bought in. Boys at the beginning of high school paid very little attention to me. I was a little bit chubby and not very stylish and mostly focused on getting stoned. But I wanted to be one of those girls, too. So I started running. I started counting calories. I started skipping meals. I started restricting carbs. I went to more yoga classes. I smoked cigarettes and drank coffee instead of eating and occasionally took pills that would eradicate my appetite.
It worked, too. I looked “better.” Boys took notice. I felt more attractive. And it wasn’t all bad. It felt good to get exercise and eat some healthier options. It felt nice to feel pretty. I completely fell in love with yoga. I always enjoyed my dance classes. But the seed was planted. The diet/exercise/lose weight to be good enough world was in me.
It stayed quiet for a while as I tended to alcoholism and drug addiction. It was far more distracting and effective than the diet and exercise world. But that diet and exercise world reared its ugly head once more when I least expected it, when I was twenty-three and sober and finishing college at UCLA. I spiraled into anorexia and bulimia and an all-consuming obsession with being skinny. I wanted my bones to stick out. I wanted to be a size zero. I wanted to lose another twenty pounds after already losing nearly thirty. I liked that I had no period and no libido. I felt, however fleetingly, like I had finally entered a world of which I had been formerly been denied access: the skinny world. And I wore it like a badge of honor.
But not for long. And it didn’t really work. Because it was never really enough. And I still completely hated myself.
I’ll save the road to recovery for another time, because this entry is really more about the perception of bodies and thinness and what we deem “good” and “bad.” Needless to say, I am still on that road to recovery, and it is the most up and down, challenging, terrifying thing I have ever done next to getting and staying sober.
Talk about reprogramming your perception. I have to do a complete overhaul of everything I thought I knew and believed about myself and beauty.
When I look back on pictures of myself from a few years ago, I often have the same experience: wow, I think. I looked pretty good. But I can remember how I felt when those pictures were taken, and I thought I was ugly, fat, and worthless.
I can remember how I felt about myself sometimes, even when at my thinnest. I am ugly, fat, and worthless. The outsides did not matter. It was all perception. It was rooted in no kind of reality. It was all conditioned responses based on what I had learned growing up.
Part of healing from eating disorders is learning how to eat again and making piece with food. That, in some ways, is the hardest part of all, because it requires doing something that is terrifying every time you sit down to eat. It requires a willingness to gain weight. It requires an acceptance of food as neutral, not “good” or “bad.” It requires sometimes feeling too full or bingeing or feeling out of control.
For the most part, I have made it through that phase. But the real work, the true work required to change and heal completely resides in the perception, not just of self, but of bodies and beauty in general. My body and weight has seemed to settle. My menstrual cycle has normalized, my libido is in full swing, my appetite is fairly neutral. I don’t really under-eat or overeat or binge anymore. My body is at a size that I have to come to accept as good enough and perceive as worthy. Because it is.
But sometimes I have to work at it. I have to do things that will shift my perception.
For example, I love following “plus-size” (whatever that means) models on Instagram. These women are beautiful and sexy and healthy. They are anywhere from size 8 to 14, and they are smokin’ hot! They normalize all different types of bodies. They literally train my brain to understand that beauty does not only reside in the images I was formerly used to seeing, whether I liked it or not- super tall super skinny supermodels. When I look at these “plus size” women I don’t think, Eew, they are fat. (Thank god.) I think, wow, they are so beautiful and amazing. Look at all the different ways bodies can be beautiful. I think they radiate an even deeper beauty, too, because of the example they are setting for all of us and how they are pioneers in a much needed movement for young girls and women everywhere.
That is what makes perception is fascinating. It is never entirely based on fact but merely a willingness to look at something differently. A willingness to change our minds. Because when I have been larger than a size 4 or 6, my perception of myself has always been, I am FAT. And yet that is simply a skewed perception, because I wholeheartedly and authentically am attracted to these women on Instagram! It’s a great tool for reprogramming and retraining my sometimes whacky perception.
I also have to get rid of clothes that don’t fit. Period. The willingness to do this took me forever, but now I welcome it. In a perfect world, we would all have clothes made for us and pay no attention to sizes and labels and all that nonsense that fucks with our heads. But it’s not a perfect world, and once in a while I can feel completely worthless because I no longer fit into size 28 pants. I can feel worthless because I’m a size 8 or a 10 in a dress. There’s this strange perception of it being “too large.” I used to save all of my smaller jeans that were purchased during different phases of my eating disorder in hopes that I would one day fit into them again. Sometimes, in a sort of desperate frenzy, I would try them all on to measure myself. Of course they would all be tight, and the entire exercise would exhaust me and depress me. it was sheer insanity. Today, when I put on clothes that actually fit, I feel instantly better. I am not shoving myself into pants that are too small or jackets that are too tight.
I like to take notice of women out in the world. Because I find many women so very attractive and beautiful, and not just the ones who are meeting the status quo of beauty. Sure, those women are beautiful, too, but I often see girls who look more like me or who are bigger or shorter or taller or rounder or shaped completely different, and I see beauty within them. I often wonder if women have looked at my body and found it beautiful. I’m sure it has happened at least once.
It is always easier to turn these shifts in perception to others. Turning it onto myself is the real work and the true measure of healing. And it’s happening. Very slowly, little by little, up and down on that jagged recovery line, but it is happening.
There’s a saying in recovery to “act as if.” Act as if you are happy, and soon you will be. Act as if you are grateful to be sober, and soon you will be. Act as if you love and accept your body and think of yourself as beautiful, and soon you will be. This may be the magic ingredient. It’s like what mom used to say: nothing is more attractive than confidence and self-esteem.
Perception is often where the magic happens, when we can seek a right-sized and spiritually centered one. The heart-centered kind. The kind that I hear when I am quiet and still and connected to God, and it tells me that I am beautiful and lovable and absolutely unconditionally good enough exactly as I am. When I can let all the conditioning and crazy cultural nonsense slip away, I hear that that voice and believe it in my very bones. That no longer jut out.
And did I mention that libido is in full swing?