Our Learned Body Hate

How do we learn to hate our bodies and how we can find our way back to them?

The commentary on bodies starts at conception.

The commentary on bodies starts at conception. We comment on the mother’s body and how her body changes can be judged in terms of how “healthy” her pregnancy is.

Cue “mom guilt” as soon as the two lines show up on the stick. We then comment on babies! So chubby, look at all those rolls, so long and skinny, and so on and so forth.

Although all genders receive comments on their bodies, the commentary on girls’ bodies starts way earlier and is socially normalized before the age of 5. When we call little girls pretty, heartbreakers, beauty queens, we have good intentions, but kids learn very quickly that their appearance is equated with being loved and accepted.

Already receiving comments on her body and hearing people comment on other bodies

Kids unconsciously learn that the “positive” comments equal being loved and the “negative” comments equal unlovable. I use quotation marks because society/culture/community/patriarchy/colonialism/consumerism/ etc all have a strong influence on what is a”good” body (fit, pretty, slim, white, young, etc) and a “bad” body (fat, scarred, not white, differently abled, wrinkly, etc.).

How we talk about our own bodies, others’ bodies, moralizing food and ourselves for the food we are eating, commenting on weight loss/gain, aging, movement, clothing, etc. is teaching our children to set a standard for themselves that they must meet or else they may not be loved and accepted. That’s not what parents are trying to do. It’s the impact of the lack of awareness of our own biases, self-talk, food beliefs, body image issues, etc.

When we have internalized fatphobia and we live in diet culture, we don’t want our children to feel the pain that we have felt. Unaware, we try and keep their bodies “good” so they don’t get teased, picked on, judged, etc. Unfortunately, our good intentions often lead our children to feel badly about themselves – the very thing we were trying to prevent. We control their food intake, we tell them which foods are good and bad, the tone and language we use to speak about our own bodies and food intake is absorbed by the little ears and eyes around US.

Every body changes.

And before we know it, we are going into the season of puberty already understanding that our worth comes from our bodies. And what happens in puberty? Every body changes. Widens. Grows. Boobs come in slow and fast, big and small, and then the idea of the “male gaze” becomes a reality. We now see our bodies as something to be looked at either for praise or for criticism. And we feel like we have no control over that. And either way, our body is no longer just the thing that takes us around in life. It becomes the reason we are loved or unloved, worthy or unworthy, acceptable or unacceptable. And the sometimes lifelong war with our bodies gets into full swing. All of the ways this girl emotionally survived the world are all of my triggers as a grown up. Unseen. Unheard. Unimportant. (Unless the body gets smaller, the body gets fitter and can be a good athlete, the body can be the best singer/ dancer/ actor. I just want to give her a hug.

I remember feeling so worried about bare arms at my high school graduation. And after high school, I went heavy into alcohol and partying and my body got bigger and bigger. What I can see now is that the shame that been given as a child in an attempt to keep my body “good” was so painful. And alcohol/partying turned down the noise on those thoughts. All of the drinking and lack of sleep and just general life I was living resulted in my body getting bigger and bigger. And then my body became “bad.” Hmmmmm. Interesting.

I’m 17 in this photo. And I wouldn’t wear shorts again until my 30’s. My teens and 20’s were full of self-hatred, sadness, fear, restrictive eating, binge eating, fad diets, positive reinforcement of weight loss, comments on weight gain, and a general belief that I was unlovable until I got thin.

HERE’S WHAT HELPED

  •   therapy. So. Much. Therapy.
  •   seeking out resources and voices on self-worth & self-compassion.
  •   exposure; what will happen if I *don’t* wear a cardigan over my tank top in the heat of summer. (Spoiler: nothing.)
  •   surround myself with friends that accepted me for who I was and not what I looked like.
  •   practicing the terrifying act of vulnerability. Sharing some of my fears around my body; just to say it out loud; and to have people listen and understand.
  •   dating! I know, it’s the worst. But it was also good practice at showing up completely as myself with little to no investment in the outcome.
  •   experiencing my body as something that wasn’t a problem – especially when I had kids after being told I would likely have a lot of trouble with that.
  •   seeing myself through my kids’ eyes – unconditionally lovable always.

Does this mean I don’t still hear those voices and immediately have the shameful thoughts when I see a photo or try something on that doesn’t fit right? Absolutely not. But I can get through those automatic thoughts quickly and come back to what I actually know for sure (as opposed to what I was conditioned to believe): that my body means nothing.

That my heart, my spirit, my personality, the way I care for myself and others are all the things I would have with me whether I lost/gained weight, lost certain abilities, etc. It’s what lasts once our bodies are dead and gone. My body is just the thing that carries who I am around. And I will not spend time in spaces that try and make me feel the opposite.

-Heather kernohan

This is a practice. I practice it daily. And just like anything else we practice, it gets easier. To the point that it comes more naturally to me and I spend very little time in body shame. There are many people in my life that could tell you about the years l spent in 24/7 shame and fear. It’s real. I get it. I have been there. And I am proof that we can all do the work, practice self-acceptance and self-compassion, and find our belonging within ourselves. And when we can belong to ourselves with others? Well that’s just an ice cream sundae of belonging and who doesn’t want that?!

~Heather Kernohan

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