More Rambling about Body Image, Yoga, and My Shitty Childhood

Thanks to Cynical Girl for sharing the new Dove ad (er, Dove “film”), “Evolution,” which I’ve watched about half a dozen times now. (The part that kills me is when they retouch the photo to make her eyes bigger; I pretty much expected everything else, but it never occurred to me that they do that. Duh.) That led me to the website, which led me to this one. Which, um, totally didn’t make me tear up or anything.

Say what you will about Dove using this shit to sell beauty products–I still love that they’re doing this. (And hell yes, it’s made me more likely to buy their shampoo, soap and deodorant, if not their cellulite cream.) And I love the concept of the self-esteem fund, even if right now it seems to be supporting only dorky Girl Scout seminars, which I suppose might work on eight-year-olds. I mean, there’s the rub–by the time a girl’s in middle school, she’s internalized so much of this bullshit that you can tell her she’s beautiful and unique and whatnot ’til you’re blue in the face, and it’s not going to make a difference. My mom actually told me I was pretty a lot more often than she told me to step away from the refrigerator (which was friggin’ often), and if I had a nickel for every time one of my friends told me I was cute and/or not fat, all the way through my mid-twenties, I’d own a villa in Italy by now. It didn’t fucking matter. What mattered was how much I looked like an ideal in my mind, which was not much. It actively pissed me off when people tried to tell me I wasn’t ugly and fat, because as far as I was concerned, they were patronizing liars.

The more I get into yoga, the sadder I am that I wasn’t exposed to it as a kid. (Instead, I took ballet lessons, which are about the worst possible thing for developing a positive body image.) What bums me out so much is that I never learned to appreciate my body from the inside out. Playing sports would have been great for that, I’m sure, but since I had zero natural talent for any sport, I got discouraged right away. I quit ballet a million times for the same reason, but kept going back because I loved some parts of it–which I now realize were the yoga-esque parts. (Virtually all of the warm-ups we did in every class were yoga poses, as it turns out, and most low-level ballet classes are founded on an Iyengar-style obsession with precision and alignment, which my keener ass adores.)

Unfortunately, I hated the other parts of it–the parts where they barked at us to suck in our stomachs and incessantly told us what we were doing wrong, rarely tempering it with praise or sincere encouragement. Most especially, I hated the part where they made it clear that ballet was only for certain body types–types which, by the time I was ten, it was obvious I did not have. And so, between the ages of 10 and 22ish, I avoided all physical activity that wasn’t forced upon me, and bitterly resented all that was, because to my mind, exercise equaled me looking foolish in front of other people, period. There was no upside to it whatsoever.

I can’t imagine how different it might have been if I’d been introduced early on to a form of exercise that’s totally non-competitive and self-directed–and that I have some natural facility for, to boot. A form of exercise that comes hand in hand with an ancient philosophy about respecting the divinity in every human being, starting where you are, being in the moment, and seeking insight more than tight abs. A form of exercise in which pain is evidence of a mistake, not progress or commitment, and lying perfectly still on your back is arguably the most important part of it.

I mean, it wouldn’t have been a cure-all. It wouldn’t have made me less aware of how different my body was from the popular girls’. It probably wouldn’t have made gym class easier to bear, most days. But it might have given me more strength and coordination–and most crucially, it might have made me see my body as something interesting and enjoyable, instead of this shameful albatross I got saddled with as a trade-off for an interesting and enjoyable brain. (It also might have helped my ADD, anxiety, and depression before they were even diagnosed.)

And, you know, since yoga is so much about being in the moment, it’s awesome that I’m spending time worrying about all this now. I just can’t help wondering, though. I spent so long keeping my mind and body entirely separate–seeing one as all good, the other as all bad. (The irony is, of course, that my mind was hardly all good; see above re: ADD, anxiety and depression. And, uh, convincing myself my body was all bad.) There are so damn many things I might have been better equipped for as an adult if someone had only told me there was such a thing as non-competitive, non-painful, non-humiliating physical activity.

When I watch those Dove “films” it just takes me right back to the time when I firmly believed my body was only as good as perfect strangers’ judgment of it–i.e., most of my fucking life. It didn’t matter that my mom and my friends thought I was fine, precisely because they loved me. I wasn’t interested in being seen as a whole package. I was interested in being admired and wanted because of how I looked; nothing was more important. And I was so acutely fucking aware of all the things standing in the way of that happening.

I look at the girls in the “True Colors” ad and think, with an adult’s perspective, that they are all beyond adorable–just as I can look at (some) pictures of myself around the same age and think that. But I still notice that that one’s got wonky teeth, that one’s got baby fat, that one’s not white–and I know how well those things would have played in my elementary school, let alone my middle school. (I’ve never really understood freckle-hatred, because I always coveted freckles, but I concede that it’s real.) I know those little things really are enough to jumpstart lifelong self-hatred, no matter what grown-ups tell you.

So, yeah, I’m glad that Dove’s putting that reality out there front and center, even if they are using it to hawk thigh-firming cream. I’m glad they’re spending money to combat this bullshit. I’m glad my yoga studio offers classes for young women, and that kid-yoga’s an expanding enterprise. I’m glad I eventually did develop a different relationship with my body, and am still working on it, even if I wish it had happened twenty years earlier; better late than never. But the ad still makes me tear up, much as I want to sneer at the cheesy fucking kids singing Cyndi Lauper, because I know all those things are just drops in the ocean.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I wouldn’t wish childhood on my worst enemy. Bleh.

6 thoughts on “More Rambling about Body Image, Yoga, and My Shitty Childhood

  1. “It probably wouldn’t have made gym class easier to bear, most days.”

    Yes, it would have. Because we dorkier kids would have pestered the gym teachers to let us do our yoga in the corner during gym class, and we would have become much more comfortable with our bodies and with regular physical activity at an earlier age, and the gym teachers wouldn’t have had to be bothered with putting us on a team when we were picked last, because as recovering jocks they didn’t want to have to figure out what to do with us anyhow.

    Nivea has better anti-cellulite cream, actually. However, most of my other skincare products are Dove since the campaign.

  2. “this shameful albatross I got saddled with as a trade-off for an interesting and enjoyable brain.”

    How did you get into my head that way?

    I just found this website. I think I will be spending a lot more time here.

  3. I have just discovered your blog and I adore it. I haven’t fully explored it, but so far I have loved and agreed with every entry I’ve read.

    If you haven’t already, I would love it if you’d address something that I am too emotional to write about myself: The REALLY fat people. There’s a difference between fat people and really fat people. I’ve been both and the world is a different place for the really fat than it is for the fat. Once you go over 320 or so, people start treating you like a real freak. They avoid eye contact. They pretend you’re not there. If forced to talk to you it’s clear that they’re modulating their voices to sound lighthearted. I often wonder if they’re fighting their natural inclination to scream… I’ve yet to figure that one out.

    Men are the worst. Many of them want to make it very very clear that there is no WAY they’re sexually interested in you so you should just go away NOW. Don’t even LOOK at them, their body language seems to be saying.

    This is not paranoia on my part. I’ve gone up and down so many times that I can predict when it’ll start up.

    And here’s the thing that I would love to see someone write about: It makes you feel like you’re not a human. It does. After a lifetime of being fat and really fat, I no longer really feel a part of the human race. Even when I read fat acceptance literature (and blogs), I am always thinking: They don’t mean me. They mean regular fat people. They don’t mean a gross beast like me… I’m not human.

    And that feeling is a killing feeling and lately (you might have noticed) the hatred is increasing. Sometimes I feel so ostracized and maligned that I can barely hold my head up in public. I feel shame at what people think I must do to have become the freak that I am even though I know that I eat less that anyone I know and always have. I imagine them looking at me and thinking of all the TV shows and articles that say I’m emotionally, intellectually and morally challenged and believing all of it.

    So… yeah. If you ever were to write an entry on the Very Fat, I’d be very interested. I’m sure it’d be fabulous.

  4. Okay, so this comment is like two years late, but I started reading this blog maybe a month ago, and got inspired to peruse the archives. And it’s funny, because just a week or so ago, I wrote a post about how Iyengar yoga helped me overcome my body image issues, many of which I internalized from ballet class as a child . . . .

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