This is a post about body positivity. I am not an expert; I’m just someone who has been wrasslin’ around with body image and self-worth issues in a lot of different ways for most of my years on this planet. I’m also not done yet. There are still days where I stand in front of a mirror and I can’t look myself in the eyes or when I avoid physical contact because this body feels like a cage. But those days are fewer than they used to be and I have better ways of dealing with them than I used to, so I wanted to share something for people who maybe going through some of the same struggles, and also for people who don’t really understand what body positivity is or how it works.
If you’re having trouble understanding body positivity, go swimming.
No. I’m serious. Go swimming.
I don’t mean put on a swimsuit and look in the mirror and repeat positive affirmations, or whatever. If that’s something you like to do and that works for you then fine. But I mean actually just get in the water. Not a bathtub, though a nice warm bath can be a great way to pamper and get in touch with your body, but I mean a big ol’ mess of water like a swimming pool or a lake or the ocean. Something where you can get in and move yourself around and get in all the way up to your eyeballs, or dive down and feel the water around you. Now I know that not everyone can swim, and you don’t actually have to; I’m trying to be a little poetic here, so indulge me, ‘kay? I’m talking about getting into the water and really focusing on how it feels.
Did you ever notice that water gives you the exact amount of space that you need? Nothing more. Nothing less. The water rushes up to meet you exactly where you are; it doesn’t say, “You could fit in here so much more if you were just 10 pounds thinner.” The water never tells you that you have such a great personality, that it will take you in despite your “flaws,” that it’s concerned about you and just wants you to be happy. It simply clears a space, the exact amount of space you need at that moment. If you come back later and you’re a little bit thinner, it will make a little bit less room; come back a little bit heavier, and it makes a little bit more. Whatever your body is at the moment you enter the water, is right. It’s perfect, and it’s perfectly you.
“But aren’t you concerned about your health?”
That comment always comes up when people try to talk about body positivity, especially about larger bodies. Sometimes it comes from a genuinely decent (though naïve) place, and sometimes it’s from a place of wanting to be an asshole without actually looking like an asshole. If you make this sort of comment, I’ll leave it to you to decide which of those you are. How you respond to this next part might help you figure it out.
The first problem with a statement like this is that it assumes that all larger bodies are inherently unhealthy and all smaller bodies are inherently healthy, and that it is always preferable to have a smaller body over a larger body (or at the very least, to have a specific kind of body that the commenter has in mind). This is not necessarily the case. You can’t tell just by looking at someone how healthy they are. You don’t know what their eating habits or exercise routines might be, you can’t see most genetic factors or illnesses that a person might be dealing with. You just see a body, and you’ve decided that because it is larger, it must not be healthy. That’s a problem.
What’s a bigger problem is that this assumption is also paired with a belief that if your body is unhealthy that it isn’t deserving of love. That if you love your larger body, regardless of whatever degree of health or illness it might be experiencing at that moment, you are doing something wrong. That love can only be granted to your body if it meets someone else’s understanding and definition of healthiness. That by loving your larger body, you are actually doing yourself damage.
But it’s funny how inconsistently people apply this belief. If you knew someone who had an athletic physique but was battling cancer, would you tell them that they don’t deserve to love their body? Why not? Their body, in that moment, isn’t healthy, right? And if we condition loving your body on it being healthy, then they don’t get to love their body either. Do you see what a counterproductive message that is?
Let’s get back in the water.
Does someone with cancer float differently in the water than someone without? Does the water give one single fuck about how healthy or unhealthy your lifestyle or your body is? Do people fit into the water differently if they are short or tall? Fat or thin? Hairy or bald? Have all of their limbs or are an amputee? Sighted or blind? Hearing or deaf? Use a cane or a wheelchair, or walk upright? Have dark skin or light?
Water treats every single body exactly the same: it gives you exactly the space you need, and it never flinches away from you because you don’t fit some image being sold in a magazine. It doesn’t care if there are parts of your body that you feel shame about, and if you try to move away from its embrace it moves with you, and the space it gives you is always the same. It’s always perfect, and perfectly you.
People claim they are worried that by loving my larger body that I am doing myself harm, but let me be very clear: I have always and will always do more self-harm to my body when my feelings about it are centered on shame or fear or disgust, and I have always and will always do the least amount of self-harm to my body when I meet myself with love and compassion.
“But I really do just want you to be happy!”
Why do you assume that I can’t be in the body that I’m in and be happy? Why do you imagine that being happy is predicated on me being something different than what I am right now? Don’t you think that assumption, that I can’t be exactly what I am at this moment if I want to be happy, might be contributing to whether or not I actually feel happy?
And again, why is being happy a condition for loving your body? Love isn’t about happiness, at least not all the time. When my grandmother was in the hospital, dying of cancer, someone was with her at all times until she passed. We didn’t do that because it made us happy. We did that because we loved her. Loving your body doesn’t mean that you might not want to change things about it; what it means is that you offer yourself love and compassion regardless of whether or not anything changes, and regardless of whether or not you even desire for anything to change. Right now, your body is perfect. If a year from now it’s bigger or smaller or exactly the same, it’s still perfect.
I love being in the water. Always have.
My body can move in the water in ways that it can’t on land, and I can just float, held up by something that gives me the exact space that I need to exist at that moment. Its embrace is unconditional: it will always give me the space I need regardless of whatever changes I may go through, or if I go through absolutely no changes at all.
So if you’re struggling with self love and body positivity, whatever your size or shape, know that you don’t need to have it all figured out. It’s a process. There will be some days that are easier than others, and some days that will be really fucking hard. But it’s worth it.
And if you see someone who is struggling with it, instead of giving them conditions for when and how they might “deserve” to be loved, try offering them a space to exist that isn’t burdened by conditions. That may mean examining some of your own junk about your own body, and maybe you can help each other float.
It’s a hard world out there, and we’re all trying to learn how to swim.