Sometimes, accepting your body is really hard.
By Stef Orzech
Here’s a scenario you’ve very likely experienced at some point in your life. (In fact, I’m willing to bet you’ve found yourself on both sides of this situation, probably more than once.)
Imagine a friend has come to you and confessed that they’re feeling self-conscious about some aspect of their body. Maybe it’s their weight, or their teeth, or their hair — but it’s something that you can tell is really bothering them as a person. Now, your friend’s perceived flaw has never seemed like a big deal to you — even if you’ve noticed it, it’s never bothered you. Naturally, you want to cheer them up; you want to remind them that our flaws are always worse in our own heads and that it’s best to forget rather than dwell on them. So, you reply, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” Or maybe, “No, I think you look great!”
Has it worked? Have you made your friend happier?
What if you’re the friend who has asked for help? Has your friend helped you to feel better?
I’ve also spent the past year actually talking to a lot of people about how they feel about their bodies, as well as how I feel about mine.
Along the way, I’ve learned two major things. The first is obvious (although we tend to forget it sometimes): all of us experience some sort of body anxiety, just by virtue of the fact that our bodies are imperfect and we spend more time with them, more closely, than anyone else.
But the second is a little more surprising: when others talk to us about their body flaws — or when we talk to them about ours — we often trivialize their feelings in the name of cheering them up and making them feel better.
Now, I am not a psychologist. I don’t have studies and figures to wave in front of your eyes. Nor am I a life coach, about to promise you revolutionary change through a simple trick. Rather I’m just a person who has suffered and still suffers from body anxiety — but I want to share with you how I think we can talk about our bodies better.
On a medical, micro-level, this means that my body attacks its own melanocytes, the cells responsible for producing melanin or pigment. As far as chronic conditions go, this loss of color isn’t seriously debilitating: it isn’t the same as losing, say, a limb — but on a social, macro-level, it means that I have ugly skin. And even though (fortunately for me) being lighter-skinned makes my vitiligo less noticeable, it’s still present. Especially because it appeared when I was a teenager, it affected how I grew up and, more important, how I came to see and value myself.
It’s not news that our bodies impact how we experience the world. We know that some people just happen to win genetic lotteries — they’re in good health, or they have very attractive natural features — and others don’t. So if I were to say, “Bodies are not equal and fair,” you might reply, “Well, duh.”
And it’s also not news that the world (although I’d argue especially the U.S.) is full of pressures on both men and women to conform socially and look a certain way. These pressures aren’t always corporate, attempting to market a product or lifestyle: they can also come from our very own social groups, through interaction with peers or our very own Instagram feeds.
Cue the body acceptance movement, which on the whole is a great thing. Feeling at home in your body, especially feeling free from shame or criticism for having a certain body type, is unequivocally good and desirable. Despite not being rail thin or having more body hair than we’d like or struggling with a genetic issue, we all deserve to feel happy and healthy as who we are.
There’s just one problem, and it’s amazing how easily we forget it:
Sometimes, accepting your body is really hard.
Yet countless people have over the past ten years told me that I needn’t feel as strongly about my condition as I do; that I shouldn’t stress about it. While they mean well, and while of course the goal is not to stress about it, I’ve found the road there to be difficult. That’s why I wonder sometimes if, in an attempt to counteract the ideal body that society forces on us, we turn body acceptance itself into an ideal: aware of how poisonous it is to say, “your body should look like that,” we say, “you should feel and think this way about your body.” As if body acceptance were an easily attainable panacea, a permanent reward gained after one has spent enough time working towards it.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the past year is that body acceptance can be more ambivalent than we often allow. Have you ever looked in the mirror and said, “I hate my body,” when you really mean, “I hate this one aspect of my body and it’s all I can think about”? I definitely have. And I know that, even though I really mean the latter, I feel the former; I feel as though this one thing, this flaw I can’t change, prevents me from being normal. I’m even aware that I should be happier. I think a lot of us, at one point or another, have felt that way: not just, “I don’t look as I should,” but also, “I don’t feel as I should, either.”
So what if, in addition to saying “You should feel good about your body,” we said, “But it’s okay to feel angry about a body you didn’t choose, and it’s okay to feel angry that your body impacts your life. It’s 100 percent, totally, completely okay and normal to feel that way”?
And then what if, instead of immediately trying to cheer each other up, we simply listened?
Although vitiligo has more awareness now than it did even just five years ago, thanks to celebrities like model Winnie Harlow and actor Jon Hamm speaking up about their experiences with the condition, it’s still known as that “Michael Jackson disease” or mistaken for burns. That is, there isn’t a huge public recognition of the condition as something a lot of people struggle with. Most people will never understand how it feels to have discolored skin (to lay bare my own privilege, I will never understand how it feels to have vitiligo with dark skin). Most people will never understand how inescapable and limiting that skin can feel.
This brings me to the real meat of what I want to talk about: empathy. Or, how I think we can talk with each other about our bodies better.
While the “feel good” body-acceptance narrative can help us temporarily raise the self-esteem of someone who is struggling, it can also become so engrained in our minds as a quick fix that it starts to invalidate. Which is to say, it isn’t bad; just a little superficial. Think of that scenario I mentioned earlier, when you tell a struggling friend, “No, I think you look great!” To some extent, it is helpful to know that someone else thinks we look good, especially if we’re not feeling great about ourselves in that moment. And if a friend has asked, “Do I look okay?” of course we should tell them, “Yes!” But what if they haven’t asked for reassurance, what if rather they’ve opened up to you out of a need to talk to someone? That response, “I think you look great,” in this second case completely removes the focus from their feelings and places it on oneself; even worse, it contradicts those feelings. That seems like a bigger problem than most of us are willing to admit.
One of the worst things someone can say about my vitiligo, I’ve learned, is that it “isn’t noticeable.” I know they mean well — what they mean is, “It’s not as noticeable as you think” (and that’s probably true). But it is noticeable: I’ve spent ten years fielding rude remarks, invasive questions, and strange looks — and they are the main reason it’s less noticeable today, because over the years I’ve learned to hide it very well to avoid those types of situations. To say I “look fine” or that it “isn’t noticeable” makes the focus not the emotional pain I feel over my body, but the unreasonableness of my feeling that way.
What I’ve come to understand as true empathy, true listening, takes courage. It involves admitting, “Yes, your body isn’t normal. That seems really difficult for you.” And that can feel taboo, to admit to our friends that their bodies are noticeable, to exist with them on the same level as their flaws. It opens us up to their vulnerability, as well as our own. But it keeps the focus of the conversation on the right place: how they are feeling.
Once someone truly empathized with me, allowing me to go on about my feelings rather than simply trying to cheer me up. I told him that I knew it seemed silly, but I felt like I needed to hide myself, that my skin made me feel very exposed and vulnerable. Importantly, he didn’t tell me I was wrong to feel that way, or that my condition didn’t warrant feeling that way. He just listened. He was there for me. As a result I felt more connected to him as a friend and less alienated by my condition. Then he cheered me up. Imagine what would have been lost if he had immediately said, “Oh, but I think you look great!” There would have been no expression, no release of emotion, no resulting bond — just a bandage on a deep wound.
Feeling bad about our bodies is still, in one way or another, largely taboo. In fact, in America, children who are feeling anxious or sad tend to be ostracized by their peers rather than helped. Everyone recognizes that magazines and advertisements feed off of lowering our self-esteem, but when a friend comes to us and says, “I feel disgusting,” we treat it as unreasonable, an outlier. In this country we spend so much effort pushing each other towards happiness and ideals that, when we’re not happy and ideal — when we’re human and sad — there must be something wrong with us. Sadness, because it isn’t pleasant, is socially off-limits. Sadness is for your own time.But true empathy is about allowing our friends to be sad. It’s about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to be sad with our friends.
It’s about listening, and patience, and care for others. And it’s about taking those expressions of body hate seriously, rather than dismissing them or diverting away from them.
I’m not sure a perfect world is one where everyone feels attractive and okay with their bodies — and if that is a perfect world, I’m not sure it’s an attainable one.A far better goal, I think, would be for more people to admit that our bodies do define how we look and what we experience, that they do limit what we can do — and, recognizing that, to listen and try to understand.
At least, that would be a much better (and less idealistic) place to start.
Recently I saw black-and-white Instagram of a woman with vitiligo on her face; she was dark-skinned and it was very noticeable. A comment below read, “I wish I had this.” I laughed to myself. What a thought: to want a condition that causes so many people emotional pain, because one has looked at it and deemed it “fashionable,” but not worn it or felt it. But “fashionable” all the same.
If you hate your body sometimes, I think that’s okay. I hate my body sometimes too. In fact, I think all of us hate our bodies sometimes — at least, it’s way more common than all of us pretend. Should you wallow in self-pity and disgust? No, probably not. And, if you’re experiencing very severe body anxiety, please do seek help.
But if you’re feeling self-conscious, let’s talk about it. I’ll listen. I won’t bullshit you and say that everything’s okay or tell you, “hey, could be worse: at least you don’t have cancer.” I’ll listen. I won’t try to fix you, or do anything beside accept who you are and how you’re feeling, because you are who you are, insecurities and all.
I’ll just listen. And then maybe try to cheer you up.