You know how you can’t always tell what people are like on the inside? That’s me. I have a wonderful, privileged life and I am grateful for it. My marriage and kids are great, I enjoy my day job, am a published author, have great friends, etc. but inside I am full of crippling self-loathing about my weight and appearance.
I know why I have it and have been to years of therapy and take medication to help overcome years of childhood abuse. But knowing why doesn’t help me feel better or keep me from overeating and not exercising.
I have friends of all shapes and sizes and I truly think they are beautiful, but I simply can’t believe it about myself. I’ve felt the same loathing when I starved myself to a size 4 in college, as I do now at size 12, with 40 pounds of baby weight I never took off. And it’s not just the weight. Some days I wonder how people can stand to look at me I think I am so ugly. Thinking about it logically doesn’t help me feel any differently.
I feel I can do anything and have achieved so much in my life except for this one part. Please help because I’m exhausted. Thank you!
I am very moved by your letter, and I have a lot to say about it. At the outset, one of the things I want to say about your letter is that I am mindful of an implicit dynamic in any response by me, viz., that I would be a male life coach responding to a woman’s struggle with issues of body image. In the present moment it seems to me that however enlightened your life coach may be, he is still struggling ruefully with the ramifications of his existence as a male. With that in mind, I decided this letter needed a more complex approach, and, it seemed to me this complexity could easily take the form of the reinforcement with a woman’s voice.
The writer I have selected for this job, the newly anointed fellow life coach I have selected for this purpose, a writer I admire a great deal, is Lidia Yuknavitch. Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water, a truly arresting and haunting book (I love her fiction a great deal as well), has a great deal to say about self and body, always in a way that is unflinching and brave, and I therefore thought she would be a good ally here on that basis. I also love her presence in the world as a public intellectual, as a thinking and feeling person in the world, and as a woman, so I knew, above and beyond her work, that she could well serve here with advice and wisdom, and she has agreed to do so. You and I are both lucky for this.
The form this response is going to take is I’m going to say a make a few remarks first, and then Lidia and I are going to have an exchange about your letter, and, in the end, we will, I hope and trust, arrive at some useful advice for you.
First, I want to tell you, because I so appreciate the openness of your letter, that I am not without great difficulty in the area of self-image, though I have not had occasion to write on this subject as a life coach until now. In fact, I wanted to write to you, in part, because of my own difficulties with my body. It is perhaps not routine for men to feel disgust as keenly as I feel it, or (at least in my experience) it is not routine for them to discuss it, but I feel it may comfort you a little bit, to know that this letter writer has often felt very strong negative feelings about his own physique.It’s easy, and appropriate, to say that one wishes that the abuse had not happened, as assuredly one does, or, more that one feels sympathy for its having happened, but these observation do not do create a path forward.
My disgust has taken two forms. My earliest feelings of disgust had to do with what I perceived as a lack of masculinity in boyhood and adolescence. I was a lanky, small, thin kid, often bullied for being bad at sports and generally effeminate, and this feeling lingered into the punk rock 70s in which a certain amount of self-harm and purposeful homeliness—self-inflicted haircuts and piercings, e.g.—were for me a way to feel control about my appearance and the bullying that seemed inevitably to accompany it. This period of purposeful homeliness led directly into my own heavily disguised anorexia, which persisted well into my later thirties. My body disgusted me throughout the time I’m describing, no matter what I did to it, no matter if other people seemed to think it was fine.
Now, in middle age, my disgust has taken on many new gradients that have to do with the soft, bald, weak, creaky physique that in addition to being not terribly masculine in the traditional ways is also not at all what it once was. Being an older man is even more challenging than simply facing up to being a man, it turns out. There is a lot of argument these days that would have us believe that the genders (all four or five of them) are very different on this matter of body image, that women, e.g., internalize self-hatred of their bodies at an early age, and I am sure this is true, but I would adduce my own story to indicate likewise that contemporary civilization does not indemnify men from bodily discomfort, from crises of physical well-being, and I therefore tell my tale to try to create a level playing field for what is important about and implicit in your letter: the search for a reasonable, and non-delusional self-care and self-respect in the face of trauma and a ghoulish idea of the body that we are all apt to see reinforced around us day in and day out.
You allude briefly to abuse in your letter, and I do not want to pry into what is surely a very painful topic, but I want to say that I noted this theme, that it was present, and that it was conjoined, in this case, with the weight issue, in a way that is not unknown, as you suggest yourself, but which is no less poignant for being known. It is not that abuse and post-traumatic compulsion and self-hatred are stereotypical, it’s that these are a pathway for identity. This is one way that people are. It’s easy, and appropriate, to say that one wishes that the abuse had not happened, as assuredly one does, or, more that one feels sympathy for its having happened, but these observation do not do create a path forward. They are simply statements of fact.
I hear you about the abuse, and I lament this abuse, and its relationship to the you of the present, and this is one way that people come to be, and it would be better if it were otherwise, if the things that lead to abuse (power, gender, familial difficulty, etc.) did not so frequently lead to abuse. But now perhaps it’s more in the spirit of the life coach to be with you where you are now, and to try to love the you of now, in all of her complexity.
I want to talk a little bit about what affirmation is, and how one enacts affirmation with respect to bodily issues, but I think before that happens it might be great to welcome Lidia here and see if she has a few thoughts as well:
Oh Anonymous, how I love you.
I don’t mean a smarmy, overly familiar kind of love. I mean a kind of love nested deep inside our vulnerabilities and fears.
And oh how I hate the booby trap story of “weight and appearance,” that false fiction that says svelte attractiveness makes you more desirable and a better person at best, and at worst, is a creepy image-based beauty, health and exercise industrial complex that feeds on our insecurities in order to fatten somebody else’s wallets (see the documentary HyperNormalisation . . . scary!).
I deeply recognize your story, and I am moved by Rick’s phenomenal exploration into his own understanding of his body. The first thing I want to say is this: I have had five different bodies in my life thus far. At 55, I can look backwards a half century, and what I can see quite clearly is that each body I have inhabited served a vital purpose in my life, whether or not I knew it at the time. It’s a different way to understand the story of our bodies, to ask what if the body had a point of view? What stories would it tell?
The first body I inhabited was a young girl swimmer’s body—an athlete’s body, though that’s not how I understood it at say, ten. I just wanted to be a boy. My father wanted me to be a boy. The fact that I had a girl body turned into trauma at the hands of my father. That is an insight I have arrived at looking back. Living in his house brought me pain and suffering; the swimmer girl body brought me back to life every single day. I was so strong—as strong as any boy could ever be—I could swim miles. My father never learned to swim. Eventually he drowned in the ocean.
The second body I lived in was a sexualized one between the ages of 18 and 25, like legions of other young women. Having escaped my dreaded Oedipal household, I launched myself at the whole world with a rage that emanated from my crotch. Seriously, I was a sexual battering ram. I had to put all that pain somewhere, and since the world doesn’t give women much of any place to put their rage or pain, I launched mine like a grenade. I was nowhere near as beautiful or thin or built as any of the other women around me. I was average at best on the beauty scale. But I was aggressively open to sexual anything. Looking back now I can see exactly what I was doing, even though at the time I didn’t have any idea. I was screaming my head off. I was lighting my own hair on fire.
The third body I was born into was a mother’s body, only the story breached; my daughter, little girl fish who lived inside me for nine months, died the day she was born. And so my mother body became a monster body to me. I believed with my whole body that I’d killed the thing I meant to love, that somehow the dark that was in my father had gotten into me. I wish I could go back and talk to myself in that moment. That fiction I placed upon myself was heavy. Too heavy. But since I believed I was monstrous, I set about for the next decade trying to destroy myself. I could not even look in the mirror to brush my teeth. I nearly went under, Anonymous, more than once. I touched the depths. I didn’t want to be alive anymore, much less living inside the body of a childless mother.
The fourth body that came to me right before I turned 40 was another mother body. The birth of my son, in so many ways, saved me from myself. The birth of my son made me see that the death of my daughter is what put writing into my hands. The body that came with that life-death kiss was not athletic, or svelte, or beautiful. My boobs were as big as a human head while I was breastfeeding. Sheesh.
The fifth body is the one I am living inside right now. I am 55, 56 this summer. Everything hangs low and heavy like too ripe fruit. I hate all waistbands because my gut rejects the constriction, pushes against the assault like are you fucking kidding me with this? I’ve lived my whole life earning this gorgeous ample. I mean if my gut could talk. Is my gut beautiful? Who knows. Probably not. However, my gut has carried life and death and everything about me for my entire life. I’m probably alive because I have guts. You know what I mean, Anonymous? Our bodies have brought us back to life so many times.
Of course I could go on a long long long long rant about The Beauty Myth and how stupid it is that women are made to feel they need to navigate that nonsense. Talk about exhausting. One of my favorite lines in the world on this topic came from Ursula K. Le Guin before she passed: “I need something more than Oil of Olay and less than a gun.” Cheered me up tremendously. I knew what she meant. What a gauntlet.
Or I could remind you that “ugly” is a story we made up based on complex ideas about abjection—like when I decided I was monstrous because my daughter died inside the lifewaters of my body. I really believed it. Much worse than Medusa or Frankenstein or Dracula or Godzilla (Except you know what? My whole life I have had a soft spot for the monster in literature, art and film. Something about living at the edges of things. Something about how deeply other people misunderstand how their stories created impossible existences . . . I am not the story they made of me).
Or I could remind you of that lovely archetypal matrix that is supposed to help women understand the stages of their aging:
While I find some comfort on some days inside images of the great Wheel of Women cycle, most days I just want to stab it with a fork and eat it . . . I’m supposed to feel like a wise crone? Mostly I feel like a wise-ass aging mermaid who secretly wants to slip back into the sea . . . I suppose the upside is that most of my fucks have fallen off with this crone business on the horizon, so that’s a plus.
The thing that has helped me the most by far is swimming. I don’t mean as a form of exercise, although it is apparently a great form of exercise. I mean as a form of meditation. When I am swimming, my mind releases back to my animal past, since we were all swimmers before the breach of birth. I go back to that breathable blue and my overthinking, critical, creepy mind is de-amplified. I’m just a body in water.
To a certain extent that “zen” thing happens when I’m writing or painting too. Those practices bring me out of the critical mind and into the imaginal mind.
The chief aim of the affirmation, it seems to me now, is simply to try love, to try to believe that love is the engine of social engagement.
I’m not saying you or anyone should just swim it off. I’m asking what is there in your life that might help you move the focus of your loathing, how might you compost or just restory the loathing? I believe in restorying. Changing the terms of the story. Because believe me when I say I get loathing. I just think anything that can be storied can be de-storied and re-storied. Forever.
Which is how I came up with my current body and life Mantra. I had just had an encounter with someone at lunch who suggested I join a gym (dear humans: never, ever say to me “you should join a gym!”). I can only surmise that the person meant well and was perhaps worried about my size and shape? My aging and lumpiness? I will admit I kind of wanted to spit my burger out at the person who was of course eating a salad. So later on, while I was swimming, my self loathing sort of fizzled into steam there in the water or something, and a Mantra floated up: “I am exactly the size and shape that I need to be in order to write the books I want to write.”
At first the Mantra seemed stupid to me. But the more I repeated it to myself, the more it seemed true, and eventually, almost righteous! I’m laughing but I’m also serious. Today I might even add one more word to the Mantra, “motherfuckers.” You know, to put a point on it.
These are our bodies. We get to tell the story of them. In many ways, I’m right with you on this journey. How can we step into the storytelling and step out of all those old crappy stories we were told to swallow? That’s what I want to know, more and more. We have to write ourselves back to life, I think. All the time.
Anonymous, it’s Rick here again, with a thousand thanks to Lidia, for her most hypnotic, courageous, and righteously powerful words, and I want simply, here at the close, to try to say a few things instructionally about where to go with your feelings, which are so human, and so complex. It’s funny, I was carrying your letter around for a year, really, I had it last summer with me when I was teaching in Saratoga Springs, NY, and somehow got talking about it with a student who was very given to affirmations as a healing technique. I had been thinking, a year ago, that I would tell you that acceptance was the key, as that is a sentence I utter to myself with some regularity. Acceptance of these feelings, as utterances of the complexities of the self, which is how I tend to deal with the baying of my often mentally ill internal monologue, in which disgust still figures relatively often. That was going to be my approach, until I talked to my student.
She, whose story is not perhaps that far from your story, told me that she puts post-it notes variously around the house, which are simply injunctions to try to practice love, when the voices in her head, like my own voices of disgust, would fairly shout in a judgmental way about her failures in life, and work, and appearance, and so on. She said she really needed to read these notes. And something about her earnest belief in this tactic changed my mind a bit. It is true that your life coach reads daily meditations, and still goes to self-help meetings, and still struggles with the banshee-wail of self-destruction regularly, but it also happens that he will try anything that is positive, and so I believe that some process of affirmation, some repetition of the idea that you are part of creation, and precious as such, regardless of the bad voices in the skull, is not at all a failed proposition. The human voices that would speak out against such a tactic, of which, apparently, I used to be one, are simply those who don’t want to try everything that might cause improvement.
The chief aim of the affirmation, it seems to me now, is simply, Anonymous, to try love, to try to believe that love is the engine of social engagement, it is the mysterious unknowable between people that causes them to be at their best, but it is also something that we can bring to the self, a sense of tolerance and appreciation for self, by which I mean esteem and respect for wherever we are, and in whatever condition. You know, Anonymous, that you would extend this love to others, and you know that it’s also possible, likely even, that others would extend it to you, and if all of that is true, then it’s only plausible that this same engine of good is a thing you might extend to yourself. Anonymous, if you are willing to try, I am willing to try. And let us note how rich and palpable the vein of it is in Lidia Yuknavitch, for which I am even more grateful today than I always am, whenever I catch a glimpse of her mesmerizing voice.
All best wishes in your struggle,
Rick Moody, Life Coach