To Have a Body

"Grace Meets Matisse" (2016)  Elise Peterson

"Grace Meets Matisse" (2016) Elise Peterson

Body positivity. Body confidence. Love your body. These days, messages like these are hard to avoid. In the past few months, it’s become extremely popular to see Instagram posts in which people compare the differences in their body in a posed photo and when it’s relaxed. There are so many messages for us to love our bodies, although these are often followed by images of thin and toned bodies and ads (upon ads) that all promise you a "better" body in as little as 14 days. The conflicting nature of these messages make the cry for body positivity/confidence feel artificial. 

I’ve always been concerned about the size and shape of my body. As a kid, I was always aware that I was bigger than most of my friends, who were small and quiet and cute. I, in comparison, was big and boisterous, and often felt like Princess Fiona when she first hugs her parents in her ogre form. Despite this awareness, I still wasn't bothered much. I was pretty confident and happy as a kid. I was smart and sociable, and the shape and size of my body didn't define me.

In middle school, that started to change. I started to binge eat to combat feelings of loneliness or inadequacy. I didn’t have words to describe what I was feeling but I knew that if I felt horrible, scarfing down a container of cookies and cream ice cream and a pack of powdered donuts was a momentary remedy. I gained a lot of weight, which made me more insecure, especially when people in my life would bring attention to it--my doctor, my family, my best friend. I continued to feel lonely, angry, and insecure. I continued to binge.

When my family moved to Trinidad when I was in the seventh grade, I lost a lot of weight. The unwanted move, the sudden change of circumstance, combined with intensified feelings of sadness, led me to stop eating. Matched with the magic of puberty, all my fat disappeared and i became “shapely”. People began to comment on how much weight I had lost and how good I looked. But I still didn't feel good. Until that moment, I had always associated slimness with happiness and confidence, so it was a bit of wakeup call to realize that my now loose clothes didn’t make me feel any better about myself. Now I worried about keeping off the weight, hungry for compliments so as to validate myself.

Why did it matter if I was fat or skinny, chubby or toned? Why was I, at 12 years old, already evaluating my worth based on the size of my thighs and the roundness of my face? In all the time I’ve been alive, society has always promoted thinness. It has humiliated and shamed people for not fitting certain body standards. Even in our age of body positivity and confidence, this narrative still persists. And while in recent years, there has been a greater acceptance of women with larger bodies, there’s still a lot of work to do before there is an actual change in the way we see and talk about bodies. It feels like there's little room in the body positivity conversation to talk about the complexities of “loving your body”. I wish we talked more about how not loving your body doesn't mean not loving yourself.

I do not love my body. Every time I look in the mirror and tell myself that I love my thighs or that I love my belly, I feel ridiculous. But I also don’t hate my body. There are some days where I wish it was smaller and more toned. Those moments pass.

A body is just a physical vessel. We exist in them, but they do not define us. My body doesn’t say anything about who I am, except maybe that I really like donuts (like REALLY LIKE). My body doesn’t determine my worth, and I don’t need to love it. I think that's okay. 

Lessons from My Teens

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Today is my 20th birthday and if things have gone my way, I am currently trawling the streets of Paris, dressed to the nines, a little tipsy, with a shit eating grin plastered on my face.

My teens saw some of the hardest moments of my life--on top of the usual teen angst bullshit, there was also a lot of family bullshit to deal with. There was getting my first job, quitting my first job, and getting fired for the first time. I made lots of friends, I lost just as many and passionately disliked some of my closest friends. Through it all, I made a bunch of mistakes, did lots of things I regret but that I'm wiser for.

In honor of saying goodbye to my teens (Sayonara! Adios! Á bientôt! I won't miss you!), I put together a list of things that I've learnt in the past 7 years.

You can never change yourself to please others

I spent all of high school trying to make myself likable to people who really didn't like me. Me suppressing parts of my personality never curried me any favor and it didn't make me happy. I wish I had focused on doing my own thing and working on being a good person. 

It's easier for people to undermine you if you undermine yourself

In my last year of high school, I directed a play for a few months and faced a lot of criticism from fellow student directors and their casts. Even worse, people often shared their criticisms with my actors which undermined my authority. Although I knew it came from a place of spite, I couldn't help but take their criticisms to heart and often felt like a phony. Reflecting on that experience, I realize that you can't control people's perceptions of you, you can't stop them from making hurtful comments, but you can control the way you react to it. That doesn't mean it won't hurt, but that it's up to you to make sure that it doesn't get in the way of achieving your goals and celebrating your successes.
 

You're true friends will be your greatest supporters

I had a lot of conversations with myself over the past year about why I felt so uncertain about continuing certain friendships. I eventually realized that it was because those friendships were the ones that put me down, that always made me feel like I was failing in someway. These were friendships in which I felt I had to constantly prove myself. At first I thought I was being too sensitive but soon realized that in comparison I had friends who were really supportive, who cared about me and never patronized me. Those were the friends I always left a conversation with feeling refreshed and happy. When life is tumultuous all on its own, it's important that your friends are a source of comfort and support, not the source of your problems.

Go to the party to get drunk and dance--not to get the boy

I wasted a lot of energy and emotions trying to create romantic entanglements at parties and attempting to kiss boys that would barely look at me. I started having so much more fun when I stopped thinking about that and just danced, even if I was the only one dancing. 

Stay in your lane

Getting involved in other people's drama can seem like a lot of fun in the moment. Sometimes, it can be a little fun. But most of the time, getting involved in other people's business will never work out in your favor, it will only make them dislike you. I wish I had stayed out of the drama, if only to save myself a few tears.  

No matter the lessons you learn and the work you put in, things will still go wrong

It's really appealing to think that once you become more aware and knowledgeable, you'll be able to control things to work in your favor. You think that you'll be able to shape the way your sadness feels. You think that by making a plan you're guaranteed that everything will go as planned. Sadly, that's never the case. And I think accepting that makes it easier to tackle the challenges that come your way. 

What lessons did you learn in your teens? What lessons are you learning in your twenties?