Body hatred and ugly emotions

Recently, I’ve been trying to wrestle/sit with some of my toughest, meanest, ugliest demons. The process is bringing up a lot of difficult feelings for me like sadness, anger, shame, fear, and grief. Sometimes I don’t know if I trust the process. I want the bad feelings to go away so I can return to the surface of my life. How long will this take? Is it going to get better or worse? How will it affect those around me?

What I struggle with the most are the ideologies and institutions that involve other people. If it’s just me, I can deal. But when I’m in relation to someone else or in relation to a social or cultural norm, things get complicated. When we’re in relation, we’re intertwined with someone else’s messy humanity, or even a whole tangle of multiple humans, or multiple humans and impersonal forces like the economy.

What I’m finding buried down here, in relation to others, is anger. So much anger. It’s exactly what I was afraid of finding. When it’s just me, I find sadness. But what do you do with a bottomless pit of anger?

A few questions I’m allowing to bubble up to the surface of my psyche recently (which you can probably expect to see in several entries in the near future):

  • Comparison. Does it ever go away? Can we turn it off, like a faucet? What do we do with feeling left behind, off track, out of the loop, or against convention? If I feel strongly against conventional paths, will I ever be fully okay with my choices, especially if loved ones have expressed more interest in convention? Will there always be a nagging little voice that says, “But everyone else did it this way – some day you will regret everything!”?
  • All the teachers I’ve been reading say love is giving without expecting anything in return. But how do I do that? I always want a return on my investment. It’s not fair that I should give and give and get nothing back. Yet they all say that is the greatest gift of all. Why can’t I get to that place of endless, selfless giving? Why do I expect and need so much from loved ones? Am I unreasonable? Incapable of love? What test is here?
  • The great teachers also say we should always assume everyone is doing his or her best. Yes, everyone. With the tools, resources, and knowledge they have, people’s actions are their best efforts to deal. But how do I cope knowing that and feeling so strongly that someone else is not doing what I think would be best?
  • And finally, another message I’ve been receiving is that everything difficult in our lives – challenges, problems, tragedies – is a lesson to be learned, or an opportunity for growth. I understand that on an intellectual level, and I even try to practice it, but when I’m in the messy middle of something difficult and I can’t yet see the lesson, how do I continue to get out of bed every day and face it?

So yes, no easy answers here.

I’m going to share a fifth struggle today: my own body hatred and its relation to my depression. This is the most deeply personal issue I’ve shared on here, and I’m afraid. But it feels important.

I’m reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir, Love Warriorand there are passages upon passages that I transcribe in my notebook because she sees into my angry thoughts about my body, my femininity, my relationships with men, and my struggle to love. Here’s one that stopped me in my tracks last night:

Ten is when I noticed that I was chubbier, frizzier, oilier than the other girls. I became self-conscious. My body started to feel like a separate, strange entity, and I thought it odd that people would examine and judge me based on what they saw, something that didn’t have much to do with who I was. I just didn’t feel like my body was at all a decent representation of me, but it was all I had to send out to the world. So I did what I had to do. I went out into the world. But being human always felt like too private an experience to share with other people. In public I felt naked, exposed, utterly vulnerable. And so I started hating my body. Not just the shape of it, although there was that. I hated having a body at all. My body made it impossible for me to succeed at being a girl. The universe had presented me with some very obvious rules for femaleness: Be small and quiet and wispy and stoic and light and smooth and don’t fart or sweat or bleed or bloat or tire or hunger or yearn. But the universe had also already issued me this lumpy, loud, smelly, hungry, longing body – making it impossible to follow the rules. Being human in a world with no tolerance for humanity felt like a setup, a game I couldn’t win. But instead of understanding that there might be something wrong with the world. I decided there was something wrong with me. I made a hypothesis about myself: I am damaged and broken. I should be shiny and happy and perfect and since I’m not, I should never expose myself. I should just find a safe hiding place. And so I retreated out of my body and out of the world, every chance I could.

Can men relate to this? I don’t know. I shared it with my partner last night and he said, “I’m sorry. You are small and wispy.” And I wanted to scream, “That’s not the point! It’s a feeling! It’s comparison! It’s the media! It’s men on the street! It’s encounters with boys in high school and college and even adulthood who said the dumbest crap about women and their bodies! It’s literally growing up, coming of age, and living while HATING HAVING A BODY AT ALL.”

Glennon says the universe gave her the rules for femaleness, but in my experience, the universe wants me to love my body and feel at home in it. That’s what we try to practice in yoga. It’s culture and society that presented the rules for femaleness that are totally disconnected from the reality of living in a human body.

My closest female relationships are the ones in which we’ve been able to talk about this in real terms: our lumpy, loud, smelly, hungry, hairy, aching, bleeding bodies. There are so few men I know who would really hear me when I talked about this. But I need them to know. Is that totally unreasonable? I need them to know that I never feel small, quiet, wispy, smooth, stoic, and light. And I don’t want to anymore. Half of my high school journal was me saying, “I CAN’T BE SHINY AND HAPPY AND PERFECT ALL THE TIME.” Why did I decide that I needed to be those things in the first place?

Body-hatred was one of the first cracks in the chasm that grew between my mind, my body, and my spirit. If I could just get out of my body, reject it, maybe all would be resolved. But no, detachment made everything worse. Like Glennon says in her next paragraph, books were my original escape. But then as I aged, I turned to more unhealthy means of getting out of my body. I desperately sought approval from men. If I could just get my hair the right shade of blonde, apply my makeup just right so it looked natural but made me prettier, and show the right amount of skin without showing too much, I could shape the perfect femininity as defined in male terms. I used to agonize over my laugh, my voice, my facial expressions, my double chin, and whether or not the rolls on my stomach were visible through my shirt. And then, of course, I drank at the end of high school and through college and my early twenties. And maybe another day, I’ll work up the courage to share the other ways I abused myself in those years, which saved me the responsibility of thinking at all.

Now, though, I’m working on getting back into my body. I still feel disconnected from it. Sometimes I hate it. But it is mine. It is my vessel for being in the world, and it has been good to me. All its little processes just work without me thinking about it, despite the abuse I’ve put it through. It gives and gives and gives despite my hatred of it.

In an interview Krista Tippet did with Parker Palmer in 2009, Palmer talks about his depression. He had a therapist who told him that depression wasn’t the hand of an enemy trying to crush him but rather the hand of a friend trying to press him down to ground on which it was safe to stand. He says that part of what made him depressed was living life at “artificial heights and untenable elevations,” describing an elevation that involved an inflated ego, or a freefloating spirituality, or a detached sense of “oughts,” a false ethic, or simply living intellectually in his head more than in his feelings or in his body. He says living at this height puts you at such altitudes that if you trip and fall, which you inevitably do, you have a long, long way to fall and it might kill you. But if you are on ground on which it is safe to stand, you can fall and get up and fall and get up again, which many people do every day.

This was precisely my experience, although I never heard it explained like that. Depression felt crushing to me, and I was afraid of it, but as I’ve discussed in other posts, I’ve come to realize it was a friend. It had a purpose. Dr. Kelly Brogan writes in her book, A Mind of Your Own, that depression is a symptom rather than a disease and my experience validates that. Something was deeply wrong in my body and in my mind, and my sadness was both of them working together trying to tell me that.

I was living at too high an elevation. I was rejecting my body and striving for, yet never reaching, an unattainable ideal of perfection. Each time I got back into this cycle, when I would inevitably trip, I fell so far it felt like dying. I wanted to die, a lot of the time.

So this disconnect is something I’m working through. I want to live in my feelings. I want to live in my body. I want to live on the ground. It’s the struggle of doing the work to get back in a body that I’ve hated since late elementary school that feels impossible right now and is bringing up a lot of anger. I want to scream whenever I hear anyone, men or women, talking about women’s bodies in a way that detaches them from their humanity. Instead of screaming, “YOU DID THIS TO ME!”, however, I want to get to a place where I can take responsibility for my own healing.

Sometimes I wonder if I have a daughter (or daughters) some day, how can I raise them to feel secure in their bodies? How can I protect them from the barrage of messages they will get day in and day out that encourage them to hate what they have? I have barely been able to do it for myself.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. Let me know if this resonates.

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