Live Through This

You Are Some Body

How I accidentally healed my relationship with my physical self—and you can too.

Illustration by Marjainez

Illustration by Marjainez

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

36 Comments

  • dottie May 22nd, 2013 11:21 PM

    I love this soooo much! Great job! :)

  • Ella May 23rd, 2013 12:14 AM

    Loved this article! Almost all girls have struggled with their body image at some point, and I’m so happy that rookie not only addresses it, but honestly helps.

    -Ella
    http://lilliputianliberal.blogspot.com/

  • wanderluster66 May 23rd, 2013 12:18 AM

    The connection between body and mind is so beautiful in this article. Thank you for writing it! I am currently reading a book by the Dalai Llama, An Open Heart, and am currently on the chapter of Calm Abiding, and working on mindfulness in order to become wise, and I must say, the buddhist practices that you mentioned have already helped me so much to realize how to deal with certain emotions and things when they show up, and how to avoid negative emotions in the first place. I was just explaining to someone today how wonderful these ideas are, and how anyone can do them – not just buddhists! The book was given to me by a mentor and I highly recommend it to everyone who is interested by this article.

    • nerual May 23rd, 2013 1:34 AM

      that is so awesome! i actually saw the dalai lama speak a few weeks ago. he came to my college and gave a really amazing lecture centered on peace. i think mindfulness is a step towards that, on a personal level.

  • Da May 23rd, 2013 2:15 AM

    this is my first comment on rookie, and i usually NEVER comment on, like, any websites, ever. but this is seriously so relevant.

    i used to loathe my body, too. a lot. but now i kind of want to scream at the me from my not-so-distant past: “HAVE YOU EVER TAKEN THE TIME TO JUST SIT THERE AND SMELL THE AIR AFTER IT’S RAINED INSTEAD OF THINKING ABOUT HOW GROSS YOUR NOSE LOOKS?” it’s so ridiculous how lost we get thinking about such a miniscule aspect of our bodies like how they look. i loved this sentence: “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.”

    like, guys. being in possession of a body (which houses the brain and your very CONSCIOUSNESS) is unspeakably awesome. it boggles my mind all the time: when i eat (ugh eating is so great), when i pick my clothes out and realize that things i like in my head can be physically manifested ON MY PERSON, when i masturbate, when i cry and it’s like something was caught somewhere between lungs and throat and it’s finally making its way out.

    so thank you, sady, for writing that. i totally felt a lot of the things in this article and now i shall go and give mindfulness a try.

    rookie, stay awesome.

    • via vald May 23rd, 2013 12:08 PM

      yes! yes! yes!!! these physical experiences are so REAL, maybe the realest things we can ever experience as humans? and if they give us these joys, how can we hate our bodies or to act like they’re just these lumps we carry around and criticize? your comment is so wise: when we stop to think about how incredible it is to just exist — to be able to taste food and feel emotions and orgasm — we just can’t focus on our wonky noses anymore.

      on a personal note i’m so pumped you’re going to try mindfulness because it’s done SO MUCH good for me. so many times this year i’ve been upset about something but been able to step back and say ‘oh. i am upset about this’ and somehow that self- acknowledgement itself is calming. all the best!!

  • emeraldruby May 23rd, 2013 2:21 AM

    That was amazing, thank you x

  • spudzine May 23rd, 2013 2:23 AM

    OMG THIS IS SO ME RIGHT NOW IN TIME. I’m serious. I am in an abusive relationship with my body and mind, and feeling things scares me. Feeling happy scares me because I know that I will eventually feel sad. Feeling sad scares me because I think i am an awful person. But I have to feel my feelings and think my thoughts if I ever want to get through them.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • elliecp May 23rd, 2013 2:31 AM

    God I get this so much. I’ve had a terrible relationship with food for the last year, and made it worse by quitting sports because I was embarrassed that I was too fat and looked stupid. It’s horrible, but it does get better..you just have to take tiny baby steps in the right direction.

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • katiestarrynight May 23rd, 2013 4:32 AM

    Thank you.

  • dragonfly May 23rd, 2013 5:27 AM

    wow. THIS IS SO GREAT. I can fully relate to mindfullness during ballet – I LOVE THAT FEELING OF BEING SO ABSORBED SO MUCH. :) anyway, THANKS ROOKIE YOU ARE AMAZING AS ALWAYS.

  • Naomi May 23rd, 2013 6:04 AM

    this is actually perfect

  • Narnia May 23rd, 2013 6:43 AM

    I started doing this actually partly after reading about Taoism. It helped me get rid of my OCD and keeps me out of easily falling into depression. It also helps we marvel at the world more often. Just noticing the feelings of being alive, good or bad. it takes practice though because at first, and still sometimes now, the ‘mindfulness mindset’ can cause me to overrationalize things and see them as boring, menial, and pointless, which is a bad type of non-feeling OR i want to do only pleasureful things, neglecting even trying. I think this mindset also helps if you want to be a writer because it lets you understand the human condition from a transcendental point-of-view. Thank you for giving me a word for it, sady!

  • Tyknos93 May 23rd, 2013 6:50 AM

    I just woke up from a dream centering on my body and it was AMAZING. Then I read this article which is perfect, I want to take this feeling with me forever. I also love this Warsan Shire poem
    “Why do you live in your body like you will be given another?
    As if it were temporary. You starve it, you let anyone touch it, you berate it,
    tell it that should be completely different…“

    So yes to all this. Treat your body like expensive silk. Treat your body like YOUR body. Thank you.

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

    • via vald May 23rd, 2013 12:09 PM

      “Why do you live in your body like you will be given another?”

      oh boy does that hit home. thank you!

    • abby111039 May 23rd, 2013 4:30 PM

      That quote was really fucking awesome.

  • Smriti May 23rd, 2013 7:27 AM

    Thanks for this article.. I clicked on the link for mindfulness and found out that the sanskrit translation for mindfulness is “smriti” and that’s my name : ) I don’t know why but I just felt too happy … Thanks Sady.. I could say that you brought a new meaning ; )

  • suze May 23rd, 2013 7:37 AM

    This is beautiful. I tell my friends they’re great and should be happy and confident, while at the same time I can hate my body so much, it’s frustrating and makes me sad. This helps, thanks.

    http://cloud-country.blogspot.nl/

  • Samara May 23rd, 2013 8:13 AM

    This is great but please could Rookie start using trigger warnings instead of suddenly springing up a sentence about self harm?

  • Jamia May 23rd, 2013 10:12 AM

    Great piece Sady. Embodiment is one of my personal goals and intentions right now. Thank you for your story.

  • Runaway May 23rd, 2013 10:38 AM

    Thank you, Sady!

  • via vald May 23rd, 2013 12:21 PM

    thank you so much for posting this. would like to recommend ‘it’s easier than you think’ by sylvia boorstein to anyone interested in mindfulness as well as something of an introduction to buddhist ideas (without any proselytization, i should add). it was recommended to me by a therapist, actually, when i was struggling a lot with anxiety and depression, and i found it to be extremely helpful and even liberating!!

  • MegW May 23rd, 2013 1:10 PM

    I love this. Also, LUSH.

  • MaryFairy May 23rd, 2013 1:12 PM

    This is exactly what I had been looking for today. Thank you.

  • starsinyourheart May 23rd, 2013 2:03 PM

    I was semi taught mindfulness in therapy, but was told to take it home and look at it properly earlier this year. I never did, but this last few weeks I’ve found myself slipping into old ways and thought about looking into it. Seriously can’t believe its come up right when I’ve been thinking about it!

  • Sophii May 23rd, 2013 2:08 PM

    I think I felt quite mindful whilst reading this. I tried to control the anxious feeling in my stomach, breathed slowly and just enjoyed reading the article with ‘Louder than Bombs’ playing in the background. It was actually a very beautiful moment that usually I would not appreciate.
    I always think that there must be more to life than this about every mundane task but I have realised that there is not more to life than life. Life is life and we should appreciate it and not overcomplicate it. When I am happy I worry about when I will next be sad so I feel like I am rarely truly happy. I seem to be really angry and really sad at the moment and really stressed because of exams so this article about mindfulness could not have come at a better time for me. Thank you Sady.

    http://thechicmuse000.blogspot.co.uk

    http://sophiewilsonsbooks.blogspot.co.uk

    http://prettypassions.tumblr.com

  • trassel May 23rd, 2013 2:59 PM

    I think I might have done mindfulness a bit on the bike this morning actually. At least from what I understand of this article. I was just thinking about how every part of me felt as I moved, to distract myself from the fact that I have a small wound on my palm. But I think that might be a tad bit dangerous, if you aren’t mindful about the traffic. Hahaha XD

    palmborg.blogspot.com
    trasslaren.tumblr.com

  • GlitterKitty May 23rd, 2013 4:13 PM

    I found this article really interesting. Sady described the ballet class feeling really well. It happens to me in ballet class too but I could never really explain it like she did. I found the mindfulness thing really interesting too. I didn’t really know much about it but I think I’d like to try it sometime. It reminded me of the quote from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

  • abby111039 May 23rd, 2013 4:31 PM

    This article came at EXACTLY the right time for me. It’s literally perfect. Thanks a million for writing this!

  • eesmee May 23rd, 2013 7:25 PM

    Thank you, Sady, this is a really interesting article and I think mindfulness will now be my new long-term personal objective in life!

  • kendraleigh May 23rd, 2013 8:36 PM

    I love this article. I’ve always attempted to do this but never knew there was a name for it. Everyone in the whole world should read this.

  • Milala May 23rd, 2013 10:46 PM

    BEAUTIFUL ARTICLE, I LOVED IT

  • Mary the freak May 24th, 2013 6:49 AM

    i really needed this. i feel uncomfortable in my body, i feel uncomfortable with others, and i am sure this will help. thank you.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • loonylizzy May 24th, 2013 2:41 PM

    awesome article!!! i have anxiety and suffer from panic attacks, and i use meditation and mindfulness as a way to help calm my mind.
    also, i really related to the part about the ballet insecurity and such. i’m really tall and lanky, and for years i felt insecure and upset about my body because all of my friends were cute and petite and curvy and i was bony and taller than everybody, even the boys in my class. i thought that girls were supposed to be little and adorable, not a head taller than everyone. but now i have a much better perception of myself because i realize that there’s no such thing as “the way a girl’s SUPPOSED to look.” i’m really glad that i read this, it was beautifully written and very relatable. thanks rookie!

    http://www.theflightoftheflamingo.blogspot.com

  • kruisin May 25th, 2013 10:58 AM

    This is amazing!