Body changes through a neutral lens
Today I want to talk about something that feels a bit vulnerable: my own relationship to my own body!
When I first started this work, I made content about my relationship to my body all the time, for two reasons:
I was actively processing and healing that relationship, so I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and always had a lot to say!
I didn’t have nearly as much experience helping my clients through the body neutrality process back then, so I often had to draw upon my own experience to demonstrate insights and ideas.
After going through that healing work and coming out on the other side, however, my relationship with my own body has been pretty uninteresting the last half decade.
I’m always down to share personal stories and struggles as they come up (this series is named #TransparentTuesday for a reason, after all!), but as I always tell my clients, the end result of the body neutrality journey is kinda… boring!
It’s not like I don’t struggle with things anymore, it’s just that my body and appearance have been so thoroughly stripped of false or inflated meaning and significance (my definition of “body neutrality”) that they rarely play a role in those struggles. And while I’m deeply grateful for that, it does sometimes make it more challenging to come up with content ideas for my business.
Content marketing wisdom says people in my position have to share relatable and personal stories about our own struggles, assuring our audience that we’ve “been there” and we “get it.” This makes a certain amount of sense, because we humans love personal and relatable stories. When someone talks about overcoming their struggle with the same stuff we’re struggling with, we’re more likely to feel seen, safe, and connected to them. And even though relatability can’t tell us whether or not someone is actually good at their job, it also makes us more likely to trust them and, ultimately, to buy from them. I get it. I do. But also, the part of my journey where I struggle to heal and overcome my body image issues is just… done. Trotting those old stories out over and over for the sake of “relatable content” and “brand continuity” feels kind of disingenuous, manipulative, and icky.
It also just sounds incredibly boring to me.
It’s way more interesting to me to make content about the present, rather than the past, which is why a lot of my body image content these days centers around my client work, and why I’ve been writing about topics like relationship dynamics,sex and pleasure,gender identity and expression, and making art lately!
All of this is to say that I rarely have body image “stuff” come up in my own life to write about anymore, but recently something has, and I want to share. So let’s go back to the beginning.
Early in the pandemic I got hit with a debilitating episode of depression, and I gained some weight due to a combination of fatigue, stress, and lifestyle habit changes. Eventually I found the right combination and dosage of medications to get me back on my feet, but while my mental and physical health started getting better immediately, a side of the medication (for me) was slow but continuous weight gain.
I don’t normally weigh myself (I don’t own a scale), so I never knew how much my weight was actually changing, but for nearly two years it felt like every few months or so, I would discover that I no longer had clothes that fit.
The weight gain itself didn’t bother me at all, because I don’t attach any moral judgment or significance to the size of my body. I did find the process of constantly needing to buy bigger clothes extremely annoying and frustrating (not to mention expensive!), but that was pretty much it. I actually felt a lot of peace in and about my body during that time, because body size no longer had any connection in my mind to worthiness or identity, and I knew my antidepressants were saving my life.
It’s important to acknowledge here that my body has always been relatively thin due to genetics more than anything, and that even at my “highest weight,”I still had a lot of thin privilege. I could still shop in most clothing stores, I could still find comfortable seating in public spaces, and while I did get a few comments from my providers about how my weight gain was “alarming” or “unhealthy,” I didn’t face social or medical discrimination for my body size.
Quick side note: a psych provider once suggested I switch medications again to help me “get my weight under control” because she was “worried about my health.” I looked her dead in the eye and said “being alive and a little chubby seems a lot healthier to me than being thin and dead.” Check out this episode of my podcast to learn more about the rampant fatphobia in the medical field if this pisses you off as much as it did me.
Anyway, my point is that gaining weight was annoying sometimes, but I was protected from feeling anything negative about it through a combination of body neutrality and thin privilege.
Then, due to a confluence of factors maybe four to six months ago, I started losing weight again.
The weight loss wasn’t intentional, nor was it the result of any “healthy changes,” so please take a moment to reflect, if reading that sentence got you excited or happy for me.
This is the truth:
I took up vaping (nicotine) to cope with stress while I was waiting for my book to come out.
I decreased my antidepressant dosage, because I was feeling numb and wanted access to a fuller emotional range again.
I started painting, which puts me into a slightly manic flow-state and leads to chronic undereating.
A few months ago I got really sick, and I’m only now returning to a state of “normalcy.”
I’m telling you all that so that you fully understand I haven’t lost weight because I’m out here thriving, healthy, and happy. I mean I’m fine, but none of these factors are worth celebrating, mmkay? They’re just… changes. They’re neutral.
Now, just because I can view these changes to my body through a body-neutral lens doesn’t mean I don’t have any thoughts or feelings about them. I do; it’s actually bringing up some Deep Stuff for me to process and heal!
It’s that Deep Stuff I want to share with you today, to demonstrate how the “work” of having a relationship with our bodies never stops, even after we’ve found body neutrality.
So here’s what suddenly being in a smaller body is bringing up for me:
Transitional weirdness Any time our bodies go through significant changes, there is a period of transitional weirdness, in which the mind and self-image haven't yet caught up with the reality of the body. Being confronted with that reality (i.e.: in the mirror, while getting dressed, or during sex) can be jarring, uncomfortable, or even grief-y. And of course when we attach moral significance or meaning to those changes—like “I gained weight, which is bad,” or “I lost weight, which is good”—those moments tend to come with big emotions, like panic, despair, failure, or fear. But even without added significance or meaning, those moments can still be… bizarre. Lately I feel a weird mismatch between how I expect my body to look or feel (based on the last couple of years), and how it looks and feels right now. Plus, because of the factors that went into my recent weight loss, I don’t imagine I’ll stay at this body size for very long, so it’s not like I can really settle into a “new normal” yet. Even though our bodies are constantly in flux we don’t often think of them that way, and being mid-transition can add a whole other layer to their weirdness.
Gender stuff I’ve been exploring and embracing my gender identity as a non-binary person the last few years, so most of that experience was done while living in a bigger body. I never really thought about that connection at the time, but now I’m realizing there was something that felt wonderfully masculine to me about taking up more space in a bigger body. I’m only 5’3, so I’ve tended to always be/feel smaller than the people around me, and it was a brand new experience to be the bigger person (when hugging, holding, kissing, or cuddling with someone smaller than me) over the last few years. I know this kind of somatic experience causes a lot of folks—especially women—to feel uncomfortable or insecure, and to be honest I would have felt the same way, before adopting body neutrality and coming out as non-binary. But having untangled myself from my fatphobic and queer/transphobic conditioning, I discovered that I loved it. Having a bigger body allowed me to step into, explore, and express a side of myself and my gender in a way that I’d never gotten to before, and it felt incredibly liberating and joyful. I think I’m grieving the loss of that experience a bit right now, and also contending with my unconscious association between body size and gender identity. Luckily though, body neutrality allows me to just be curious about that! For example, why does a smaller body feel more “feminine” to me? Is it the result of living most of my adult life in a smaller body, while I was also presenting (inauthentically) as a woman? Am I layering conventional ideas of masculinity/femininity onto body size in a way that still needs to be dismantled, or am I responding to an inherent somatic experience? Is there an unmet need underneath this that I can find another way of meeting? I’m excited to see where this exploration goes!
Awareness of fragility The last time my body was this size I was a personal trainer, and my whole life revolved around fitness. I was extremely muscular, strong, and fit, so even though my body was small, I both looked and felt powerful, strong, and sort of formidable. Guys at bars would say things like “you look like you could kick my ass,” or challenge me to arm wrestle… and while of course strong bodies come in all shapes and sizes (making their comments misguided and fatphobic), I loved knowing my strength intimidated them. As a person with a history of sexual assault and trauma, I felt safer moving through the world looking like someone you didn’t want to fuck with, and knowing I stood a chance of fighting off or outrunning an attacker. I’m in a very different situation now. A combination of my genetics, and the fact that fitness hasn’t been a priority of mine in many years, means the hard-earned muscles, strength, and cardiovascular endurance I once had have all fallen away. So my baseline was already pretty low, and it plummeted even lower when I got sick recently; a month and a half of fevers, coughing, and undereating left me feeling weak, stiff, and tired all the time. All of that is to say that I feel very aware of my own physical ineffectuality and fragility right now, and being in a smaller body somehow makes me feel even more vulnerable. This comes from a deep unconscious fear of looking like an “easy victim” I think, plus a heightened awareness of how easily I could be overpowered right now. Of course, I know the actual size of a person’s body has nothing whatsoever to do with their strength or fitness levels, and victims (like abusers and attackers) come in all shapes and sizes. But there is still clearly some stuff coming up here that needs to be explored and healed.
Imposter syndrome! Oof this is an uncomfortable one to admit, but there’s a small part of me that feels like my recent weight loss makes me less credible, relatable, or desirable as a body image coach. (Eek!) This is, of course, just a perfect example of how body neutrality is an ongoing and lifelong process, not a destination. The human mind has an extraordinary talent for making up stories and attaching meaning and significance to things, and we have a relationship with our bodies as long as we’re alive. That means even the most body neutral person will run into blocks that need to be worked through from time to time, and I’m currently applying the steps of the Body Neutrality Blueprint to this new one of mine!
I hope sharing my story of processing my relationship to my body on the “other side” of body neutrality is helpful, clarifying, and encouraging, no matter where you are in the process!!