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Growing up, I was largely unaware of my body. I knew that I had one, certainly, as most people tend to, but, being able-bodied and healthy, I never really contemplated my body or thought about it all that much. In fact, I was so unaware of my body moving around in space that my parents used to call me Crash, because of my propensity to run into pretty much anything I passed. Spatial awareness was not my strong suit.
However, my glorious days of bodily ambivalence came to a crushing end in middle school when someone on the playground yelled out in front of everyone, “Wow Garrett, you’ve got some fat knees!” I looked down. I didn’t really know what constituted “fat knees” or why having them would matter, but everyone laughed and so there appeared to be consensus—I had fat knees. I went home that night and dug out a pair of my uniform pants from the back of my closet (I went to a school in South Florida that required us to wear uniforms and as such, pretty much everyone opted for the shorts to avoid melting or having a heat stroke), and never looked back.
I asked my mom to buy me shorts that went past my knees so I never had to look at them again, and I wore pants to school every day from middle school through my senior year of high school. If you think hard enough, everyone has a moment in their lives when they became aware of their bodies, and this was mine. Arguably, it wasn’t great, and it didn’t exactly set me on a path toward success when it came to having a healthy relationship to the vessel I exist in and traverse the world with.
In addition to the pants-only rule I made up for myself, I also pretty much immediately started avoiding mirrors if I was in any manner of undress, and have been on a perpetual diet for the majority of life. It hasn’t been an easy journey with my body, to put it lightly, and I haven’t always been as kind to it as it deserves. Even the various self-love movements and ad campaigns that have sprung up in the last decade, encouraging us to “love the skin we’re in,” haven’t done much to assuage the feeling that my body was somehow subpar, or unworthy.
The body positivity movement, which is rooted in the belief that everyone should feel that their bodies are beautiful, was too, well, positive for me. Undoubtedly, it has been super helpful for a lot of people, and did quite a bit to challenge the ideas of what’s been allowed to be considered beautiful, or desirable for a long time. But personally, I felt like a failure if I didn’t feel good about my body all the time. It also didn’t help that, in large part, the move toward self-love was taken over by companies and influencers who mostly didn’t care about the bodies they were influencing. They cared more about pushing quick-fix products than they did about cultivating sustainable change in the way people connect with their physical selves. Sure, there were moments, even prolonged ones, when I felt better about my body, but it isn’t lost on me that those moments were always connected to times I felt like I’d lost weight, and even then I still didn’t feel truly “positive.”
My relationship to my body has also had an impact on how I connect to myself and my partners sexually. Pleasure is inexorably tied to the body, and in movies, television, and particularly porn, it is tied to a very specific kind of body. The kinds of bodies I saw giving and receiving pleasure were firm, defined, tanned, and as such I internalized that these were the kinds of bodies that were deserving of pleasure. Because my body was nothing like the ones I saw on screen, I began to believe that it wasn’t deserving, and that’s still something I grapple with today.
In my most rational mind, I know that this is untrue. Of course all bodies deserve to feel and experience pleasure, but knowing something and feeling something are two very different things. At times, I’ve felt like perhaps this will be my perpetual state, that I will live out all my days with the underlying feeling that there is something inherently wrong with my body, while simultaneously blasting empowering pop songs into my ears to try and chase that feeling away.
Recently, however, I came across a relatively new wellness practice, body neutrality, that has been helping me feel the skin I’m in, if not feel better in it. Body neutrality is the practice of respecting your body, even if you don’t love it completely. It focuses more on everything your body can do (which is a lot!), than on how it looks. So far, it’s helped me feel like less of a failure on days when I feel insecure, and it’s allowed me to acknowledge my body without radical self-love, an extreme I’m just not ready for yet. It hasn’t been a perfect practice for me, and there are definitely days when I’ve experienced the same highs and lows I have since middle school, but when I’m able to focus and clear my mind, it has helped me reach a neutral place that has given me some comfort.
Body neutrality has the potential to sound like the same kind of wellness jargon as any of the myriad feel-good fads that dominate social media, and so I think it’s best to figure out how to practice it in a way that works for you. Here’s how it manifests for me.
Acknowledge your body
After avoiding mirrors if I wasn’t fully dressed for much of my life, I tried diving into the most extreme end of the pool. I did that thing where you stand naked in front of a mirror and tell yourself all the things you love about your naked body. The issue was, I often felt like I was lying for the sake of this practice. Instead, body neutrality has allowed me to simply acknowledge my body when I happen to catch a glimpse of myself while I’m getting out of the shower or when I’m getting dressed. “Hey, there you are,” is a silly, but helpful thing I’ve started to say, or think, to my reflection in the mirror. It’s a small step, but one that is helping me become familiar with myself again.
Be in your body for you
It’s no secret that I love a rom-com, and Julia Roberts is, for me, one of the greats. There’s a particular scene in "Eat, Pray, Love," when Julia’s character is consoling a friend who is nervous to appear naked in front of her new beau for the first time because she feels insecure about her weight. “Let me ask you a question,” she says, “in all the years you’ve ever undressed for a gentleman, has he ever asked you to leave? Has he ever walked out, left?” No, her friend replies, “Because he doesn’t care. He’s in a room with a naked girl. He’s won the lottery.”
Part of this has been empowering for me, but recently I’ve found the reasoning to be lacking just a bit. Instead of thinking about my body or my pleasure as being a win for someone else, I’ve been trying to think of it as serving me, and my needs. And in doing so, it’s also helped me to find ways to acknowledge the different kinds of pleasure my body can bring me. There’s pleasure in dancing, alone or with a partner, in going for a walk on a nice day, in scratching a particularly tough to reach itch—it’s kind of incredible all the pleasure we’re able to bring ourselves that we don’t even acknowledge on a regular basis.
Think about your body more, in different ways
Because I came to be aware of my body through its appearance, I’ve never really thought about my body irrespective of that, which is unfair to myself as most of what my body does has nothing to do with the way it looks. A little while ago, I did a guided meditation that asked participants to lay on our backs with our eyes closed and focus on how different areas of our bodies felt. When the instructor asked us to focus on our knees, I felt nothing about them. I could kind of feel them, maybe, with my eyes closed, but the experience was net neutral. They didn’t hurt, they were, in reality, just there, as part of me. It was nice to think about a part of my body that I’d been so negative toward for the majority of my life still getting the job done for so long regardless of the fact that I spent so much time trying to hide them. Figuring out how to connect with my body more, not less, but in a new way, has been something really special. My body does a lot everyday, and saying thank you to it for keeping me (mostly) together is something worth acknowledging.
It’s still too early to tell if working toward body neutrality will help me figure out how to appreciate my body in the long term, or, at the very least, be kinder and more gentle with myself. However, in the short term, I can definitely say it’s been a step in the right direction. If nothing else, it is a reminder that right now, and always, it’s not important to be great; it is, very often, okay just to be. And on top of that, the time and emotional energy that I’ve gotten back from myself that used to be spent fanatically obsessing over body image and engaging in self-criticism would alone be worth the endeavor. My time is worth so much more than that, and so I am reclaiming it from my mind, for my body.
Garrett Schlichte is the Operations Manager at Dipsea, and also a freelance writer. Their work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, and other places on the internet and in print. Please send iced coffee.