What does it mean to have an unshakable sense of self love? Not to be confused with narcissism or vanity, self love is the inherent understanding that you have value regardless of external circumstances. So, whether you are successful and skinny, or broke and fat, your value doesn't change. Self love does not mean "I'm better than other people because I'm prettier or skinnier than them". Self love does not mean "I will love my self when I lose 30 pounds or have a boyfriend or get a better job".Our entire culture would have you thinking otherwise, but from a spiritual perspective, it is my belief that as existing beings, our souls come from a source of love and light. We are inherently whole and complete, and the search for external validation beyond that truth is part of a human illusion. In terms of body image, this means that searching for a sense of completion through the transient status of how our physical bodies look is a futile pursuit.
I first started to use food as a way to avoid my emotions when I was 8 years old. I hadn't seen my father in 3 years, my mom had recently gotten remarried, and we had just moved to a new neighborhood. I didn't really have the tools or the vocabulary to express how all of these changes were impacting me, but I did know one thing: food made me feel better. When I ate, I lost a sense of reality, and even if it was only for 15 minutes I felt like I could cope with things. On top of this, I was starting to go through puberty before everyone else my age, I was the only black girl in my class, and I had grown to be 5 foot 5 by the age of 10.When I started to develop cystic acne in 6th grade, my self esteem plummeted even lower. I was so distinctly different than my peers that even though all I wanted to do was dissolve into the walls around me, my physical changes were essentially on display for all to see.I wished desperately for a different body, clearer skin, and straight hair. There was a time when I couldn't find a single thing that I liked about myself physically. I was in a constant state of shame, self-deprecation, and discontent. Beneath this, of course, was a deep need to process my emotions and understand the changes that were happening in my life.I was hurting.
By the end of middle school I began to lose my baby fat, and during high school while playing three sports I grew into my body and lost some weight. There was a time when I was conditioning for basketball and volleyball nearly everyday. Even though my weight was healthy, and I was physically strong, I still felt deeply insecure about my body. I was stuck in the mindset that I would always be the chubby girl with acne and ugly hair. I still did not believe that I was physically desirable in any sense of the word, and no matter how "in shape" I grew to be, I wasstill walking around as a shell of my Self. I still hated my thighs, didn't think my stomach was ever flat enough, and could not possibly imagine a day where I wouldn't have to wear heavy foundation to cover my acne scars.
For peoplewho have had traumatic experiences in childhood- sexual assault, divorced parents, absent parents, physical, emotional, or verbal abuse, addiction,mental illness,poverty etc.- it can be extremely challenging to grow into a healthy adult that is self-loving and equipped with healthy coping mechanisms. If we have had experiences at any point in the past when we felt less than, unworthy, or not-good-enough, we carry that pain with us into adulthood until it is acknowledged and released.
Throughout college I have started to grapple with healing this child-self that hated her body. My weight has fluctuated consistently during the past 4 years, and I have been on a roller coaster, oscillating betweenself-acceptance, dieting, and comparison. There have been months when I refuse to weigh myself, start my morning with positive affirmations, and will not diet. There have been times when I have felt stable and centered in my self-love, and other times when I have been sent back into a tailspin of negative self-image.
Last year when I studied abroad in Panama, I lost weight, because at least once a week we were doing a 14 mile hike round trip. I was constantly sweating from the tropical climate, and eating differently. Getting in shape, for the first time in my life, wasn't something that I had to consciously be thinking about.I also had very little access to mirrors, and thus was incapable of obsessing over these changes to the extent that I might have back home. However, when I came back from Panama, other people noticed. Several people commented on how I "looked great", and noticed that I had lost weight. At once I derived a sense of satisfaction and horror from these observations. I felt a sick sense of urgency to maintain this new, more accepted weight.And yet I was also hurt that this was one of the first things people cared to talk about when I had just spent 3 months in another country. What did these people think of me before I left for Panama? Was I fat before I had left?Was Ibeautiful now because I was skinnier?
Within 6 months I gained all the weight back. I was caught in another cycle of binge-eating and low self-esteem. I felt less beautiful than I had 6 months earlier, and insecurity seeped into my consciousness. I wanted to be thin, but the pain from my lack of self acceptance caused me to tap into my tried and true coping mechanism: food. When I wasn't binge eating, I was in a panic to lose weight. At all costs, I could not be the undesirable, chubby girl from my past. So, this summer I contacted my school's health center to talk to the nutritionist. I said I was interested in developing healthier habits, when really what I wanted was to be skinny. After my consultation,they told me that my weight was perfectly healthy; that my blood work had come back scotch free. They also told me that I had developedan eating disorder; that I should go to therapy for body image before it developedinto something more serious. This knocked the wind out of me. An eating disorder? That was something that other people experienced, not me. I had never made myself throw up, so how could I have an eating disorder?I had obsessively counted calories, worked out longer than I probably should have, and nitpicked specific parts of my body. But wasn't this just what women did?
After receiving this news, I went home and wept. Someone had finally acknowledged years of pain that had manifested into something with a name. Someone had said out loudwhat had been my truth since the age of 8. I knew, in this moment, that something needed to shift, and not in the form of diets or workouts. It took me a few weeks before I could bring myself to even tell another person about this appointment, but eventually I confided in one of my friends who is deeply kind and understanding. She lent me her copy of "Women, Food, and God," and I tearfully read about the difference between conditional and unconditional love for self. I started watching videos about the intersection of spirituality and body image. I wrote ten-page journal entries about the root of my pain. I started asking myself why I derived most of my self-worth from how beautiful my friends and romantic partners decided I was at any given time. What would it look like to to exercise and eat healthy foodsolely because of a deep, unshakable love that I felt for my self? What would it look like to nurture my mind, body, and soul with compassion and kindness? How do you care for yourself unconditionally?The answers to these questions felt hard and far away. But they also felt like truth.
Healing is an arduous process that requires patience, courage, and grace. To undo the narratives that were solidified by our wounded child-self and society's expectations of usmay even take a lifetime. But the freedom available when we can completely step into the truth that we are valuable and worthy of love regardless of our always-changing weight or beauty, is magic. I am in the midst of my healing. I must constantly come back to telling myself that I am valuable regardless of my appearance. The world will always have specific ideas about how I should look, but the task at hand is to develop such a strong sense of self that I am not affected by anyone's perception of my physicality. I seek to know who I am beyond the physical, while also celebrating my body and treating it with care.
May we all experience the beauty of an unshakable self love.