My (Un) Natural Body
I was sitting at my desk a few days ago, by myself, working on my next book, when I realized that I was sucking in my stomach.
Which, grand scheme, doesn’t matter. I get that. The status of my stomach muscles is not of great importance to anyone, not even me. I can specifically remember trying to train myself into holding in my stomach all the time, when I started dating an older guy in my teens and was sure that the leftover puppy fat from puberty would make me look immature; sitting there, opposite him, barely able to breathe and certainly not able to talk for fear that he might see my stomach as convex instead of concave.
That relationship didn’t last long, but that tiny aspect of it did. I managed to teach myself to constantly pull in my stomach so that the little pouch wouldn’t be visible. And I’d taught myself to do it so well that it was second-nature to me for the next ten years, pretty much. Right down to the point where I was sitting alone, in a room, by myself, doing nothing that requires anyone to look at me, and still hold in that little pouch. Habit, more than anything else. Hiding out of habit.
I’ve dealt with a lot of body image issues over the years, and I’ve been putting in a lot of work in therapy and in the rest of my life to try and work on them; pretty confidently, I can say that right now is the most comfortable I have been in my body from a physical perspective. It is what it is; there are rough days, of course, but for the most part, I don’t feel the need to avoid the very existence of my body as a whole. I don’t have to prepare for ten minutes to look at myself in the mirror anymore, and that’s a win, as far as I’m concerned.
But sitting there, in my little seat, holding in my stomach, I was reminded of all the ways that I still am not really comfortable with my natural body. Because I’m not even really sure that I know what my natural body actually is. Okay, that might sound a little crazy, but bear with me here. As a woman who grew up being seen and treated as a woman, I’ve received messages from pretty much all angles my entire life that I need to change myself. 80% of ten-year-old girls reported having attempted weight loss or dieting at some point in their lives; I grew up in the same generation that overwhelmingly connected thinness with positive personal traits. Beyond that, the sheer specificity of the female bodies that I saw uplifted in the media – smooth, flawless, hairless, perfectly feminine in their presentation and somehow natural in all of it, too – is impossible to hide from. Impossible not to notice that my body didn’t match up.
Ever since I was a kid, I have been carefully editing the details about my body to make sure it more closely aligns with the version that I was consistently presented with in the world around me. I started shaving when I was eleven, starting wearing make-up a year later. Looked for the clothes that would cultivate my pubescent little form into something that looked closer to that ideal. Kept my hair at the right length, even though I preferred it short. Did sit-ups in the middle of the night to try to get rid of the accursed fat on my body. Calculated the calories in a packet of Quavers to try and shed the poochy fat around my stomach. Sucking in, standing a certain way, moving just right to disguise my imperfections and draw attention to the tiny, treasured bits of me that were right.
None of this is natural. None of it is an inherent part of being a woman. Most of it, at one point or another, I have found distinctly unpleasant; cumbersome, annoying, actually physically painful. The constant shifting of my actual natural body to something more acceptable to me (but also, and actually more importantly, the people around me) has been going on for as long as I can remember. To be a woman is to constantly be striving for improvement; never enough, always more. Thinner. Prettier. Better, better, better.
And the worst part of this is that I know it’s benefitted me. Attractive people out-earn their peers by about 20%. About half of hiring bosses in my country consider women who don’t wear make-up a less viable employment prospect than those who do. Bare legs, armpits, and often pubic areas too are seen as necessities for acceptable and attractive femininity. There’s no two ways about it: the average woman’s natural body is not the one that allows them to live the most successful life.
Even outside of what I can back up with studies, I know that my life has been made easier by the fact that I have worked hard to fit into the mould that I am meant to fill. I gained a lot of weight and proceeded to lose a lot over the course of a few years, and even that shift in just one aspect of myself allowed me to see how differently I was treated: at my lowest weight (if you ignored the laxative abuse and bulimia), I was generally treated much, much better by the people I encountered day-to-day than I was at my highest. While I am in a long-term relationship with an awesome person right now, I’ve been informed by a number of people that they would not consider me as a potential partner because I don’t shave my legs anymore (funnily, I never have to ask for this to come up). I work from home, which means I don’t have to worry about putting on make-up to pass for a real human, but I’ve spent long enough working customer-facing positions to know that I would need to if I chose to go back to it. There are aspects of this unnatural bodyhood that I have found enjoyment in over the years, but I’m not sure that’s because I have an actual and organic interest in them, or if I’ve just groomed myself (literally) into enjoying the positive benefits of them enough that I’ve convinced myself I get real pleasure from them.
The constant work to mitigate my real form has paid off, in a lot of ways. That’s why it’s so hard to give it up. If my natural body was rewarded in the same way that my un-natural one has been, then maybe it would feel easier to actually embrace what I truly look and feel like. At this point, even after a decent amount of time spent caring for myself and trying to drag myself out of the real body loathing I was in for a while, I’m still editing my body, out of sheer habit. I still carry myself in that certain way, hold in my stomach, turn my head the right direction in pictures so the camera gets my good side. Moving through the world – even being alone in my own body – without that editing feels impossible now, because I’ve spent so long doing it, so long in that positive reward circle of reaping the benefits of doing it that turning it off would take just as many years of conditioning to pull off as it did to instill.
Living in the society that I do has robbed me of the opportunity to actually know what my truly natural body feels like. So much energy and effort has been poured into the de-naturalizing of it that I don’t even know what it would feel like to exist in a body that I didn’t try to edit; not just in the present, but over the years, all the weight loss and body-changes and grooming that I’ve subjected myself to, everything that has built up to give me the unnatural body that I live in right now. It’s one that I can live in, and I’m okay with it these days, most of the time. But I can’t help but feel a little sad when I think about what it might have been like for me to live in the body that I was meant to have – not the one that I have created in response to what I think I am meant to be.