In the US, the 19thOctober saw the celebration of Love Your Body Day – “a day when women of all sizes, colors, ages and abilities come together to celebrate self-acceptance and to promote positive body image”. As far as I’m aware this initiative hasn’t caught on in the UK where I live so it’s quite new to me.
When I had a look at the promotional material for the event, I was surprised by the surge of anger that I felt at this obviously well-intentioned initiative, which no doubt does some good, perhaps most of all in raising consciousness and getting women talking about the issues. I’ve written before in my journal about my problems with being instructed by feminists to “love my body” and I think this is a good opportunity to elaborate a bit more on those problems.
Avory at Radically Queer has written a really good post outlining some important points, one of them crucially (for me) that the goal should be acceptance of other peoples’ bodies not just love of your own. Also, that everyone’s experience is valid, and (an important one for people with ED and gender identity issues), you have a right to say no to anything that makes you uncomfortable. This includes the right to tell people not to say positive things about your body. This is all part of having bodily autonomy.
It made me wonder if “love your body” has been taken up so eagerly partly because it’s an easier message to promote than “No one has a right to tell you how to feel about your body”. And this is one of my problems with the” love your body” rhetoric, it’s still deployed within a context of telling women how to feel about their bodies. I think it’s worth taking a step back for a moment and asking why our society can’t stop telling women how to feel about their bodies, whether that be telling them to love and accept them, or to hate and reject them. There is always a danger here of creating another form of policing. If you can love your body, that’s great, but we need to remain aware that we are not yet anywhere close to a society that respects anyones’ bodily autonomy, or peoples’ emotions in general, and there are serious and valid reasons why not everyone can love and accept their bodies as they are.
I’m also concerned by the individualism at the heart of the imperative to “love your body”, in this idea that people can somehow, through an act of individual mental will power, overturn the effects of their experiences of patriarchal conditioning, coercive gendering, transphobia, homophobia, school bullying, sexual and emotional abuse, misogyny, and all the experiences that we have that can turn our bodies into sites of pain and suffering. Being told to love your body (if you can’t manage to do that) can induce feelings of shame and guilt, of personal failing, as well as anger, because, obviously, no one has a switch in their mind which can simply turn off the effects of these experiences. I think we need to be very careful about making people feel personally responsible for what are perfectly valid emotional responses to appalling conditions.
My own body is a site of trauma and I don’t see loving it as an appropriate goal for me. This idea that eating disorders come from low self-esteem and lack of body confidence makes me angry sometimes, because until I was about 10 years-old I was an extremely well-nourished and confident child with high levels of self-esteem, despite the fact that I’d already encountered some big challenges in my life. My eating distress and problems with my body were the result, not of looking at adverts or reading magazines, but of a series of psychological and sexual assaults on my person that introduced unbearable levels of stress into my life, particularly, sexual abuse and school bullying that was related to that abuse and also to my gender presentation and sexual orientation. My experiences led me to feel that controlling my food intake was the only thing I could control in my life and losing weight also got me some positive attention. I have nothing against educational packages for schools that teach kids about body confidence really, but I don’t think they would have made a blind bit of difference in my case because that wasn’t the issue.
As I wrote in the old post, for me it’s enough to work on simply being my body. I’m not prescribing this for everyone as people have to work out their own relationships with their bodies, but it’s an approach that is helping me personally because I want to close this sense of split between something that I think of as “me” and something that I think of as “my body”. I find meditation helpful in this regard as it has raised my awareness of what’s going on with my body and my feelings about it. I’ve reached the point of saying I don’t have to love my body, but I look after it as well as I can because it’s just as much part of me as my personality. I don’t always love my personality either (far from it!), but I work with it. I still don’t give my body the care it needs, but it’s a work in progress.