The term is somewhat new to me but of course the concept of loving myself isn't. Perfection doesn't exist but being perfectly myself is a different matter.
It is very difficult to simplify, for the sake of easy reading, the journey I have been on in order to recover from the damage caused by falling into a hole. My experience is not an uncommon one for women, as many of us are taught to value self sacrifice, to put others first, and from there it seemed that for me it was an easy fall from self denial to simply believing that I was wrong. Wrong as I am, who I am, what I think, do, believe, perceive, all of it wrong. Perhaps eventually I will figure out how to tell this story in a way that may be useful to others.
For now I am going to deal with my physical body. A body that does not match up with the cultural ideal of beauty or health. A body which I had become very skilled at labelling with wrongness. You may know the drill: arms too fat/thin (or thighs or tummy or toes or any and all parts); this part too long, that part too short, this bit too wobbly, that part too (insert something unacceptable here). And I despaired of not being able to fix these 'problems'. We are taught to view our body as a collection of problems. We are told how to dress for or exercise away 'problem areas'. Fix them or at least hide them, and of course, be ashamed. With the rise of the internet has come a rise in punishing images disguised as inspiration. There was thinspo-the inspiration to lose weight coming from images of supposed thin perfection, thigh gap included, but some degree of backlash resulted and now thinspo is often disguised as fitspo-the inspiration to be physically fit, which is defined as lean, muscular and hopefully possessing six pack abs. In response to these there is also the fat acceptance movement and health at every size movement which for some people is not inspiring because it presents yet another ideal they cannot live up to, which is unabashedly loving their body despite it not fitting the cultural ideal.
Sometimes fighting fire with fire really does work. In wildfire situations, deliberate controlled burning of an area can stop the spread of an advancing fire because when it reaches the control-burned spot there is nothing left to feed it. In order to fight fire with fire metaphorically with regards to my body, I decided that I had to change the words in my head. How the words in my head got there is complicated but essentially they are a result of a lifetime of believing there are things 'wrong' with my body and that I must fix or change and if changing them is actually impossible then I must mentally berate myself about these 'flaws'. Wow, that is not sane but the last thing I need to do is beat myself up over having fallen into that trap. I am not exactly like, perhaps not even much like, the cultural ideal and even in the ways I am there is nothing in that which determines my value. NOTHING. There are many things that are the popular taste which I do not personally find appealing myself and I have never thought I was wrong because of this. So why would I think I could be wrong to like my body the way it is even though messages abound telling me what I should admire and aspire to.
I am tall, white, relatively slender and have obviously female body parts, which is useful since I identify as female. I have no deformities of feature. These are my privileges. This makes my life easier to navigate than what some people experience because these are features which put me that much closer to the cultural ideals for females. If you asked me to I could create a much longer list of the strikes against me. This list would not only involve all of the ways I do not meet the cultural standards of feminine beauty, it would also include the ways in which my ability to improve my appearance through physical fitness are impeded by my chronic illness. How did I get to the point where I thought having such a mental list was acceptable?
It became clear to me that in order to fight fire with fire, I had to change the way I talked to myself and about myself in order to overcome the damaging words I had allowed to be imposed on me. This was not easy at first but frequently taking photos for the sake of this blog helped. At first I looked at images of myself trying to figure out how to improve what I saw. I looked at the flaws to be hidden or fixed or simply despaired. In time my thoughts evolved to an understanding that my body is what it is. There is only so much I can change or disguise and where is the value in constantly believing that I need to do those things? Why live with a negative perception of myself when it serves no purpose?
The only purpose it serves, is to make me feel dissatisfied and a dissatisfied person seeks solutions, often in the form of something to purchase and THAT is why we are externally bombarded with messages that teach us to perceive our bodies negatively. If someone wants to sell us something, convince us that we need something, whether that something is a product or a belief system, we must be convinced that we are in need of fixing somehow. We must be told that we have flaws and continuously shamed for them. This is also a successful form of gaining power and for this reason body shaming, body critiquing, the message that however you look it is just not right, not good enough, possibly even hideous, is pervasive in our culture.
I know, I am taking a long time to explain how I fight fire with fire. Gradually, after seeing photos of myself constantly I began to grow tired of criticising myself. I began to see that I was much more critical of myself than I was of other people. That I might actually look at another body similar to my own and find it beautiful. Why was I not applying the same view to myself? I didn't know the answer to that but I did know that I could retrain my brain. That I could, with practice change my thinking. So I set out to do that and at first it was forced. I won't mislead you about that. At first it felt a bit silly and artificial. I considered it rehab. I looked at my reflection and I admired what I saw. I used words to myself to describe what I saw positively. After all, it is just as easy to say 'lovely plump arms' as it is to say 'ugly plump arms'. Saying leads to believing. It does. Just look at any religion.
Yoga employs a practice of gratitude. Gratitude towards your own body for what it can do. I always had trouble with that because I was scornful of saying 'thank you arms, for lifting up that fork today, I was so pleased to be able to eat' when what I wanted to say was 'thank you arms for being so strong you can do handstands and you look great in a sundress.' But I started to do it anyway. "Thank you body, for sitting up today so that I could type my poems. Thank you arms and hands for holding a paintbrush today. Thank you feet, you are rather nicely shaped. Thank you neck for holding up my head. Hey, legs, you are rather pleasingly sturdy." The more I say this the more it cancels out the negative thoughts. I do not always believe what I am saying one hundred percent. I have to apply a good kick in the pants to any countering negative thought that might try to pop up in response. It takes time and practice.
Radical self love should not be named that. It should not be considered radical but sometimes it feels as though it is to begin with. I am not alone in struggling to accept the body that I have, to be kind to it, to actually like it. Telling myself that it was vain and bad and wrong to even care was not getting me anywhere. It was just more self abuse, more criticism, more 'shoulds'. I did care, I do have a body, I am me and none of that is wrong. In order to believe that, I need to chant the mantras. It's just one method. A method that is working for me. If you are looking for a method, perhaps it will work for you too.