The history of my long estrangement from my body started early; so did that of every girl I knew. I first noticed it when I was about 13 and my friends were doing weird things with their food. Whereas three years prior, we could all just sit down and enjoy the cafeteria’s Pizza Day, there were now all sorts of odd rituals that came with the experience. One was to take the pizza, pick off all the toppings, place three or four napkins over the top of it for about 30 seconds, and watch them get translucent, the wet circle in the center spreading. “See that?” one girl said. “That’s the fat.” It was also a pizza, which now had no toppings and shreds of wet napkin stuck to it, one of which you would almost certainly wind up swallowing no matter how hard you tried to pick them off.
This was also the year I quit ballet, because I was afraid my legs were getting “too muscular.” I had loved ballet, not because I was good at it—my timing was always off—but because of how it felt to focus that intensely on my body. I had to spend so much time thinking so precisely about the muscles in my hips and in my feet, the position of my arms, the angle of my chest—and when I did it right, I felt so strong, so complete. Envisioning how my body should move, and then moving it in precisely that way, felt like having a superpower. But when I went home one day and looked at the muscles I’d developed, I thought, Girls aren’t supposed to have those. And that was it.
Everybody had something to be ashamed of, it seemed. And in all this constant thinking about how our bodies looked, how other people perceived them, how they ranked against other bodies, we stopped thinking about how our bodies actually felt. We started to make them feel bad and actively formed abusive relationships with ourselves in the process. I would lecture a friend about how dangerous and antifeminist it was to throw up her lunch, and then go home and cut myself, just a little, in places no one would see.
I was locking myself out of my own body, denying myself most of the pleasure of actually being in it. And I kept doing it for years, no matter how much I told the world about my feminist principles. You can know everything about the politics of beauty standards, genetics, and the millions of dollars spent each year making sure every female alive hates some part of herself so much that she will pay a major corporation to help her hide or change it—but then you look in the mirror and talk to yourself like the enemy anyway.
My body issues had always been pretty low on my list of concerns—they didn’t seem pressing enough to require my immediate attention. I discovered otherwise rather by accident, when I started healing my relationship with my body through a kind of side door, while trying to accomplish something else entirely: learning mindfulness.
Mindfulness was something I’d read about a bit in high school and college. I casually started practicing it around two years ago, but I became really serious about it last year, when I was hospitalized and came away with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I was sick and wobbly and completely unsure of what my future would be, and this particular discipline, which largely involves sitting, breathing, and trying not to think too much, seemed like a good one to pursue in the moment. And when it started working, it changed things on a deeper level than I could have anticipated.
I know that mindfulness can sound like one of those hocus-pocus New Age woo-woo words that when you look at them closely turn out not to mean anything. But the idea actually comes from the Buddha himself, way back Before Christ. Since then there have been and continue to be countless interpretations of mindfulness (which can include yours, because no expertise is required), but the basic objective is to try to concentrate, completely and nonjudgmentally, on exactly what your experience is at a particular moment in time. This technique has been adopted by a lot of nonreligious folks and people from other traditions, but in Buddhism, this is in part how one develops wisdom. When radically simplified, the Buddhist philosophy states that everyone is inherently wise and kind, but that our behavior doesn’t always demonstrate wisdom or kindness because we’re driven by false beliefs and self-destructive impulses. The idea is that if you learn to perceive the present moment with greater clarity, you’ll be able to see how your beliefs and impulses are leading you off track. Therapists have started incorporating mindfulness into treatment, because it seems to help with stress and anxiety—that’s why I started doing it, and so far it’s working.
Mindfulness builds something called “metacognition,” or the ability to not just have your thoughts and emotions, but to be aware of the fact that you’re having them. Think of every time you’ve been in an argument and something terrible came flying out of your mouth, something you couldn’t take back. Mindfulness actually helps you perceive that one little second of space just before you say “fuck you,” which is enough space for you to think, This relationship is important to me. I don’t want to be hurtful. I could lose someone I value very much with these words. I’m overwhelmed, but I don’t want to make things worse. Let me say something else.
While there’s no right or wrong way to practice, this is how I suggest you might start: Take a minute and focus on exactly what is happening right now. Don’t try to change anything, or fight anything, or process anything—just take in the physical details of where you are in the moment, and breathe. But rather than stare off blankly into the distance or tolerate your headache, focus on experiencing the specific sunbeam on the floor in front of you or the specific pain in your left temple. And instead of letting your inner monologue ramble on endlessly, pay attention to any thoughts or emotions that rise up, and say, in your own words, “I see you.” (If I can’t think of anything to say, I just go, “That’s interesting.”) You’re not trying to get rid of the thoughts, or the feelings, or the sunbeam, or the headache. You just want to be clear about the fact that they exist. You’re not altering anything, you’re noticing it, because (the thinking goes) change comes not from forcing your experiences to be different, but from being clear about precisely what they are. When you get into the habit of being fully engaged with what’s going on in your life, you also get into the habit of making intelligent judgments about how you want to live it.
Here’s a simple, formal technique that can be useful for beginners like us: You sit down comfortably and breath, and observe your normal, natural breath without trying to change it. Now start counting your breaths (one breath = one inhalation + one exhalation). If you lose count, your mind has wandered—no big deal, just start over. Once you’ve gotten used to this, you can start to drop the numbers and focus on the breathing alone. (I’m not that good at it, so I use a string of beads to help me count—one bead per breath.) Having a specific posture—for example, sitting cross-legged with a straight back and your hands on your knees—can help, because you’re giving yourself a signal to focus, but it’s not necessary. People experience mindfulness all the time, by accident. You can be mindful on the subway. You can be mindful riding a bike in a crowded city. The feeling I had in ballet class—that intense clarity, the specificity of each move—was mindfulness.
The first time I attempted mindfulness I had a massive panic attack. I was in the middle of ending a friendship, and I was furious, so I sat there with my eyes closed, counting my breaths to calm down. And the experience of just sitting alone on my couch, feeling my anger but completely unable to act on or even express it, was actually terrifying. It was as if I’d never really experienced how painful it was to think the worst of somebody. My chest and throat ached, and I was clenching my jaw so tight that I had trouble opening my mouth. I wanted to yell and stomp around and call names, which was my usual coping strategy at the time for furious-making situations. And that’s when I had a little epiphany: experiencing the pain of my own anger made me realize one of the reasons I usually yelled and stomped was that doing so would distract me from how awful it felt to be this angry. And this is how my body came into it. The one thing every book, every teacher kept telling me was: Pay attention to your body. Pay attention to what it feels right now.
When you have an abusive relationship with yourself, when you objectify yourself, you can actually become less aware of what you physically feel. You’re so focused on making your body do things and obey you that you start to tune out your genuine experience. For example: Are you angry? What is angry? How do you breathe when you’re angry? Some people say they stop breathing and harden themselves physically. For me, it’s a buzzing feeling, like I’ve had too much coffee, and there’s pressure right at the top of my chest. I don’t withdraw—I engage, often stupidly. “Going into angry” let me get the sense of all the physical energy that often kept me from walking away.
You can get into every emotion this way. An emotion changes you physically. It sets off chemical and physiological reactions, which you can perceive. Fear might feel cold, because your veins literally constrict to send more blood to your muscles. When you’re happy, or safe, your posture might change—you stand up straighter and your arms hang at your sides, leaving all the vulnerable baggage you carry near the front of your body, like your gut, open to attack—but when you feel guarded, you might drop your chest and hunch your shoulders, because evolution has taught you to perceive that creepy dude in gym class like he is a bear who might snack on your internal organs. Focusing on this stuff isn’t a distraction or a waste of time. It’s teaching you to perceive your experience instead of intellectualizing it. You can’t honestly say “I’m not angry” when you notice that reliable cramp in your jaw.
And it’s not a problem if you’re angry or sad or afraid. It’s just a fact. It’s an unpleasant fact, but so is gravity, because someone could conceivably drop a piano on your head and kill you. You are an intelligent person who knows that ignoring facts doesn’t change them, so there’s no point in ignoring or denying pain, either. But it’s not just about the bad stuff—you can be more mindful of pleasure, too. You can go for a walk in the sun and try to experience every moment of it hitting your skin. You can get some soap you like the scent of—I go to Lush like they’re paying me for product placement*—and then take a shower and think about nothing more than how awesome it is to be able to smell that particular soap. You can do this with food. What does your food taste like? I don’t want to know what’s in it, whether it’s good for you, or whether it’s more or less food than anyone else is eating. Tell me what it feels like to eat it, and when you’re done, tell me if you’re full.
Because how can someone who actually knows what her food tastes like eat a napkin? And how can someone who knows what it feels like to dance stop dancing? Becoming mindful of your body changes your whole relationship to it. You stop asking the questions you’d ask about a new car or an outfit—how does it look? Do people like it?—and begin to actually experience it as a living, changing series of experiences. Even if you can’t be 100 percent connected to your body 100 percent of the time, it can at least be your friend. And you aren’t mean to your friend.
So many women spend our whole lives treating our bodies as objects to be conquered and controlled, and never getting to experience the joy of living in them. It might seem hard, maybe even impossible. But you can do it in five seconds. You can start now. ♦
* WHICH THEY ARE NOT