Hello everyone, It’s been a bit since my last post. I organize conferences for a living, and just got back into town from one of them… So now I’ve decompressed and am back in gear for writing.
Discussion about body image and the fucked-up beauty standards our culture holds women to is all over the internet these days. I wanna add my 2 cents, as a dancer and feminist and mature woman. I think the more voices we have talking about these issues, the better. Our collective storytelling holds immense personal and cultural value.
There is quite a bit written and said about belly dance being this amazing magical art form that makes women love their bodies and gives them the courage to parade on stage in a belly baring dance bra no matter what their size. And it does, in many ways, give women confidence, I’m not going to knock that. But I think there’s a bit more complexity to it.
I think lately I’ve been wishing that belly dance WAS that magical, that it would make all my body insecurities go POOF.
I’ve had body image issues since childhood, like most girls, even though for most of my life I was skinny to average. I now find myself suddenly weighing more than I ever have in my life, even though I am technically still in the “healthy” BMI catagory. It’s been both good, bad, liberating, and disheartening all at once.
I remember when I first started to have anxiety about my looks, I was 11 years old, and my moon cycle had just started. All of the sudden my little girl body sprouted hips, so quickly that I still have stretch marks from it. I felt like my body was morphing out of my control, and I did not like it. I was so embarrassed of my new shape that I wore long t-shirts to school every day. Classmates made fun of my hairy legs, so I started shaving. My face was pimply, and I felt like Quasimoto. One horrible boy on the playground walked up to me one day and said “God, why are you so UGLY?” and I was too crushed to tell him to fuck off.
I look back at photos of myself now and can’t believe I ever felt ugly. Not to toot my own horn, but I looked like a lovely girl, looking at the camera with a shy insecure smile. It breaks my heart that I ever disliked myself then.
The apex of this middle school body image crisis was one day when some other boy made fun of my “big” nose. After school I went to my best friend’s house and locked myself in the bathroom to cry. In the middle of my cry I realized that I LOVED my nose. It had a bump on the bridge like my grandpa’s nose, and it kind of looked like my mom’s from the front. And I love my grandpa and mom, so why did I feel ashamed?
Then I realized that if I didn’t believe the insults that people hurled at me, that those insults couldn’t hurt me.
I decided to love my nose, and I haven’t hated it since.
In my late teens/early 20’s I gained some weight, as most women do, and like most of the fabulously pear-shaped women in my family, became a bit bottom-heavy, with a little pot belly. At that time in my life I was mostly surrounded by very body-positive women, so I didn’t stress too much about it. But then I moved away from those women, and went back to Southern California, the land of anorexic movie stars and beach babes.
Here’s a picture of me then, for reference. (Punk rock selfies, yeah!)
I’m a radical feminist, I have a freaking Women’s Studies degree from a women’s college in the Bay Area, I should be totally immune to bullshit beauty standards, RIGHT!? Man, I wish. Brainwashing dies hard.
I seemingly had every woman’s dream come true happen in my mid-20’s. I rapidly lost weight, with little effort on my part, I was just exercising more. Then I went vegan, and even more weight melted off… I remember going to the Levis store to shop for jeans, since my clothes were too big, and I realized I was their size 0. Some people would have been excited, but I was a bit terrified. Any smaller and I could no longer fit in women’s jeans. I didn’t feel like I was in control of what was happening to my body. But everyone else thought I looked fabulous! Men would compliment me, other women would look at me with this strange mixture of disgust and jealousy. I took on this hipster persona and went clubbing constantly, DJ’ed, go-go danced in rock clubs, the whole gamut. I totally exploited my scrawny frame in tight ass designer clothes.
But, underneath the fashionable clothes I was wasting away for no apparent reason. My face looked gaunt, my hair was brittle and dry, my skin looked like shit, and I tried so hard to eat “healthy” (by the misguided nutritional information I was given.) I was always hungry, and I purposefully ate more to try to maintain my weight. I managed to put on a few pounds, and got up to a size 2, so I felt a bit better about it. I was societies ideal for women, I was the size you see on TV and in magazines, and it’s because my body was eating itself from the inside.
Here I am at my tiniest. The hilarious thing about this photo is that I actually felt bloated that day. There are no photos of my bad skin, I’ve photo shopped or deleted everything that showed it. My legs were covered in ugly spider veins that popped up randomly when I was 22. You also can’t see my very prominent collar bones and ribs. But, look, I’m a model!
Years later, after an avalanche of health problems, I realized I had what seemed to be Celiac disease. Wasting away is common with this condition, because your immune system attacks your intestines, damaging them and impairing your ability to absorb your food. That’s why I could eat and eat and not gain weight. It just went right though me (literally.. I know, TMI)
Going on a strictly gluten free Paleo diet helped heal my gut, and my skin and hair were suddenly healthy. I started putting on weight too, partially from being able to absorb things, and partially due to the arthritis and spinal damage that was the consequence of my unintentional malnutrition. I couldn’t exercise or dance very much, even walks around the neighborhood were sometimes interrupted by excruciating muscle cramps in my legs.
Eventually I got healthy enough to exercise more, but the weight stuck on. After years of malnutrition, I felt like my body just wouldn’t have it if I dieted in the least. I practically wanted to inhale tons of nutritious food, my brain, nervous system and whole body were still recovering from the debilitating crap I’d been through. If I felt like I needed a second bowl of stew, I ate it. I listened to my instincts instead of Weight Watchers point system.
Because of this, and my fabulously pear-shaped body, I went up 4 pant sizes in 2 years. The booty blossomed, so to speak!
At this point, I should have been celebrating my new found health, and relishing in my new womanly body. Honestly, and this is hard for me to admit because I am trained to be the super-duper body positive feminist… Instead of celebrating, I was distressed and disgusted, and a part of me was wishing I was still a malnourished waif.
I tried my very best to overcome my programming and give myself positive affirmations, even when my favorite pants would no longer zip up, or my underwear got too tight around the thighs. My girlfriends exclaimed positively about my newly grown booty, but my partner at the time wasn’t so supportive. It came out in therapy that he was less attracted to me now that I’d gained weight, and I still remember the disgusted looks he gave me when I ate things he disapproved of.
Part of me felt like crawling deep, deep inside myself and never coming out again. The other part of me enjoyed snacking on wedges of cheese in front of him as a big “fuck you”.
And I listened to things like this, which soothed my soul:
“Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet.”
And what’s totally ridiculous about all of this is that I am still, even at my heaviest, technically not overweight for my height. Yeah, I wear size large bottoms, but I am, actually, perfectly healthy.
Sometimes I think about dieting, but I don’t want to. I eat really healthy food, and I hate feeling like I’m starving. So I’ll just have a full serving of dinner and my glass of wine and be happy and chubby.
Rad things about my weight gain:
My skin looks WAY better, and I actually look younger than I did at 27, I think. I still get carded regularly at 34.
I finally gained enough for my boobs to get bigger! My boyfriend keeps laughing at me cuz I am constantly staring at and/or playing with them.
So, yeah, that’s my body image story. I’m still struggling, but trying hard to accept myself. Now that I am performing with Black Magdalene, it’s an even bigger curve ball, cuz now I see pictures of my belly on stage and I just want to cringe. But I’m trying not to. I’m trying to love it, dimples and all.
There is no one cure-all for the body image bullshit we have to deal with. Belly dance won’t make it magically go away, but, I think it does help. Supportive people help. Loving yourself helps. Being good to your body helps.
Love the belly, it loves you.