This story begins when I went to a hot yoga class a few months back. I was dressed inappropriately, which is to say that I had worn a t-shirt and long yoga leggings—fine for a normal vinyasa class, not so fine for a hot room. I was melting (more than is intended), and at some point near the start of class, I got bold and took the t-shirt off and did yoga in my sports bra.
I wasn’t going to mention this incident on CR, initially. But when I told Steven how the whole experience had made me feel (which, as you’ll see, is the point of this post), he strongly encouraged me to blog about it. I disagreed, with emphasis. “Oh, come on,” I said. “That’ll seem painfully navel-gazing” (to come across as navel-gazing is, I think, every blogger’s perennial fear). Steven was resolute, and insisted that others might appreciate hearing about this topic, as they seem to appreciate about other body image related issues. In the end, I decided that he’s right. I also decided that I should spend some time thinking about why I greet the instinct to talk about my body—no matter the circumstances—as “navel-gazing,” vain, shameful, or embarrassing.
I think part of my hesitation is the discomfort I feel with some visions of body positivity that I encounter online. These include progress photos of weight loss or fitness journeys, “fitspiration” photos (which I’ve written about here), and body selfies that strike me as aspirational, intended to instill a sense of “I want to look like that.” I know that these images are intended to celebrate personal triumphs, to inspire others to stay motivated in the quest toward being more fit or more healthful, and—sometimes—to celebrate positive body image. I know that part of my discomfort stems from the fact that these images convey (to me) a kind of confidence that I’ve never had, and that’s my problem.
But I also know that these kinds of images can be deeply triggering for the many men and women who struggle with disordered eating or body dysmorphia. I know that they can be very disincentivizing for people who are trying to recover, because recovery is often about learning to accept our bodies as they are without our imposed dietary and exercise efforts—a goal that can conflict with the culture of fitspiration. I could go on, but the point is that sometimes, for reasons that have everything to do with my own baggage, I can’t relate to the impulse to celebrate the body, either through images or by making it visible to others.
Throughout the course of ED recovery, I’ve tried to find different ways of appreciating my body. First I went through a fitness phase; if I couldn’t control my body through restriction of food, then I’d control it through a quest toward being toned and trim. I bought fitness magazines religiously and worked out far more than I enjoyed; there was one summer of college when I spent more than two hours at the gym each day. I told myself that this was all about wanting to celebrate being “strong,” but in the end I had to recognize that it really wasn’t. It was all about the fact that I no longer had my thinness to revel in, so I had to find something else, and I was hoping it would be a toned physique.
Then I went through the “fake it till you make it” phase. I wore clothing that was far more form-fitting than anything I’m naturally comfortable with in the hopes that, If I could dress in a way that implied self-confidence, then maybe I’d actually learn to feel confident. This phase also included more wakeup than I wear now and more time spent in front of mirrors than comes naturally to me. It was what I thought women who were proud of their appearance did—they paid attention to their looks, they wore clothing that showed off their figures, they highlighted their attributes and features. (As I write this, I realize exactly how silly and presumptuous it all sounds.)
In the end, I let go of all of these different ways of “framing” my body. Ironically, what gave me the most peace was simply to spend less time thinking about my body altogether. I feel tremendously grateful for what my body allows me to do: move, feel, think, and express myself. But at a certain point I put an end to the scrutiny I’d been giving my physical appearance. I stopped spending time in front of mirrors. I stopped examining my thighs in yoga pants. I stopped caring about makeup. I gravitated toward clothing that was billowy, layered, and boxy. To some extent, this was/is a matter of personal preference (I’ll take boyfriend jeans over skinny jeans any day). But wearing loose stuff also allowed me to stop devoting excessive thought to my shape. I don’t know whether this was good or bad, but I know that it allowed me to move on.
The danger of this tactic was—maybe still is—a sort of refusal to acknowledge or look at my body. And when we refuse to face something, when we allow it to become a great unknown, it’s much easier for our fears and anxieties to warp it into something it’s not.
When I was a kid, I thought my body was monstrous. It wasn’t exactly about feeling big or about feeling ugly, though I felt those things often. It was about feeling as though there was something strange and other and a little hideous about me. The feelings began at a young age, and they paved the way for my anorexia.
I never think of my body as being monstrous anymore, but I do still have days or weeks where it feels ungainly or awkward or large or wrong to me somehow. When this happens, I tell myself to snap out of it, and I try to stop thinking about my body altogether. I focus on work, friends, yoga, cooking, writing, sex—anything that draws me out of that headspace and into a frame of mind that feels more rational and clear. But my tendency in these moments is to dissociate from my body a little, to shut it out. And I’ve realized only recently that, when I refuse to look at my body for days, when I fight my boyfriend about purchasing a full length mirror for our apartment (something I went years without), or when I cover up with loose layers, I’m creating more space for warped perceptions to run free. I stop worrying about my body so much, but I also don’t have a chance to see myself as I really am. The monster, to use a clumsy metaphor, gets stuffed back into the closet; it’s not visible anymore, but we still believe it’s there.
So when I went to yoga the other day and took off my shirt, it really was a big deal. It was a big deal because, no matter how far I’ve come, I’m rarely able to spend much time looking at myself in an exposed state. To practice yoga in front of a mirror without much layering was, I realize, a step for me. Let’s be honest: I didn’t only remove the extra layer because I was hot. I did it because I wanted to know what it felt like to be the sort of person who could face her body without flinching or distorting or turning it into a big deal. I looked around the room at my fellow yogis, and I was inspired by how many of them were wearing very little clothing. They weren’t doing this to make a statement or because they naturally ooze confidence (though if they do, good on them). They were just doing what’s natural in a 100 degree room—staying cool. And they weren’t allowing self-consciousness to get in the way.
A funny thing happened when the t-shirt came off. I looked in the mirror and saw something that I don’t often see: my body, undistorted. It was neither big nor small nor strange nor special. It was just a body, like all of the other bodies in the room. It had what might be called imperfections, and I didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, I was able to see my body in an exposed state without passing judgment. And amazingly, I made it through the class without doing much scrutinizing at all. The experience wasn’t meaningful because I looked in the mirror and loved what I saw. It was meaningful because I was able to view my body impartially, and after I’d done that, I was able to move on.
Do I think that this will change my customary yoga attire or my way of dress? Probably not, or maybe just a little. But it was a good experience for me. As with so many things about recovery, my relationship with looking at myself is all about finding moderation. To spend too much time on my appearance evokes memories I dislike, memories of mirror checks and pinching and lifting up my shirt so that I could examine my belly twenty times in a day. I also don’t find it very interesting, and I’d rather be doing other things. But to disavow interest in my appearance altogether is also not a solution; it is, in fact, a convenient way of refusing to actually heal or address the fact that, from time to time, I have a warped perception of the way I look. It compels me to turn away from my body, and in turning away, I only perpetuate the kind of dissociation and distortion that can characterize eating disorders in the first place. There’s is a healthy middle ground, and maybe that yoga class was a foothold upon it.
As always, I’d love to hear whether or not this resonates with you guys—especially the theme of refusing to look at ourselves, and what the consequences are. It’s also worth noting that fellow vegan blogger and body love warrior Emily Nolan Joseph has created an entire community surrounding the idea the topless yoga can be a healing experience. (You can check it out here.)
Later in the week, a special Valentine’s Day dessert, and a post about a cool food photography workshop that I took recently. Until then, thanks (as always) for letting me share.