Can you love yourself if you refuse to know yourself?
Last summer, I tossed pretty much everything I owned in a Marie-Kondo-style-pre-moving purge — including, but not limited to, my full length mirror. It was that over-the-door one from the College Section of Bed Bath & Beyond, and it did not spark quite enough joy to drag it to New York. My new apartment had a small bathroom mirror, but no easy way to look at my body at length.
I have had many bodies over the last 15 years. I topped out at 6’ by the time I started high school, and since then, my body has grown and shrank, hardened and softened, in a predictable sort of cycle with no end in sight. I have not liked just about any of those bodies. Or, at least, I have never been able to stop paying attention to my body. I was always keeping tabs on it, analyzing it, intimately aware of how it looked compared to yesterday, to the day before, to the day before that.
Until I moved into an apartment without a full length mirror. And realized, a couple months later, that I wasn’t feeling much of anything about my body at all. I didn’t know if I was heavier or lighter, harder or softer, than I was when I moved in. I had no clue. After a lifetime of constantly evaluating my body, this was weird. But it turned out, the key to liking my body, or at least not actively disliking it, was just not really knowing what it looked like at all.
Full-length-mirror-less, I treated my body the way a beauty influencer treats their face — like an organ so disembodied that it’s practically a pet. They always say “the lips,” “the skin,” never “my lips,” “my skin.” Now I’m going to dot this highlight on the cheekbone, they say, as though it isn’t their cheekbone, but a value-neutral cheekbone that belongs to all of us. Now I am going to brush the hair. Now I am going to pull the pants over the legs. I blissfully refused to acknowledge it beyond its utility, a weird carbon mass that dragged me to work.
On March 10th, I was instructed to stop dragging my body to work for two weeks, until the pandemic subsided. The pandemic did not subside. I got another email a week later telling me to work from home for two more weeks — then another, two weeks later, extending it another month. Eventually, they just stopped sending emails about it. And I settled into months of Zoom grids, spending all day staring at something I had barely looked at in the last year: myself. And right away, I felt a way I hadn’t felt in a long time either: ugly.
After a year of hardly paying attention to myself at all, I was back to setting my phone up vertically most mornings, just to look. And most nights, scrolling through months of pictures, trying to figure out what had changed from the day before.
In 2017, Madalin Giorgetta posted a before and after photo. On the left, she’s standing there in a bikini, nervously looking away from the camera. The caption says INSECURE, 52KG. On the right, she’s smiling and posing, almost mannequin-like, captioned CONFIDENT, 56KG. It showed up on my Instagram explore page that year, alongside a mountain of similar photos: thin women transforming into muscular thin women.
She reposted the photo intermittently, changing up the caption. Before, I did cardio. Now, I lift weights. Before, I exercised because I wanted to be smaller. Now, I exercise because I want to be strong. It was one of many viral transformation photos depicting a similar sentiment — exercise because you love yourself.
Fitness Instagram was borrowing language straight from body positivity, practically plagiarizing it. But despite the apparent shift in attitude, the behaviors were similar to the Fitness Instagram from years before, when everyone was following Kayla Itsines’ Bikini Body Guide and suffering (there are a lot, and I mean a lot, of burpees involved in BBG). Sure, the Fit Girls were gaining muscle mass. But they were also measuring their bodies and their food, to the centimeter and to the gram. They were still dieting for summer, but calling the diet a cut. And they were still eating some god awful thing called a One Carb Waffle.
#StrongNotSkinny Instagram was the same thing as all the Fitness Instagrams that came before it, rebranded for a time when it was no longer acceptable to hate yourself. The problem was that I still did. Following along almost felt sneaky — like I could circumvent the diet culture and fatphobia red flags I was seeing if I wasn’t doing my squats with the expressed goal of being thin. I knew I was being lied to, because I was lying to myself. But it was a lie I was willing to believe, because it managed to square my belief system with the less-than-palatable part of my brain that still just wants to be skinny.
Two years and hundreds of thousands of followers later, Madalin Giorgetta posted a video to her YouTube channel titled WHY THE FITNESS INDUSTRY IS A SCAM.
She was taking it all back — all of it. She said she had used her body to further the narrative that skinny was healthy. She had made money off women’s insecurities about their bodies, promoting the idea that changing our bodies leads to happiness, confidence, and success. The “CONFIDENT” side of her Before & After picture was taken while dieting down for an activewear photoshoot.
She would be relaunching her workout app, Body by MG, as Work it With MG, with any references to weight loss and diet culture removed. Her Facebook community for her previously named Body Babes would have new rules — most notably, no transformation or progress photos, the very thing that had made her famous. The workout programs were divorced from physical appearance entirely, focusing on feeling good and the other health benefits of exercise.
The thing is that she is right about all of this. The other thing is that it made me angry. Maybe I was angry because she wouldn’t see any real consequences for the harm she’d caused promoting diet culture. Maybe I was angry because I felt like she outed those of us who can’t seem to let go of diet culture and find it in every program we try. And maybe I was jealous that she’s transcended it all and I just can’t. The Bikini Body Guide girls were damaging, but at least they were honest.
One by one, other fitness influencers made the same pivot. After burning out on diet and exercise, they were gaining weight — and truly learning to love themselves this time, they said. And my god, did they post about it. Long, poetic odes to their bodies, praising it for what it does, not what it looks like. Every day, a new post, a new reminder to all of us that our bodies are good, exactly as they are.
Part of me thought the change was refreshing, even subversive, especially when the posts showcased marginalized bodies. But all the accounts really did was give me a whole new vocabulary with which to hate myself. I remember seeing posts about hip dips — a phrase I didn’t know existed, to describe a part of my body I had never even thought about — and thinking, well fuck, here’s a new insecurity to work through. I felt like Lindsay Lohan in the scene in Mean Girls where she watches Regina and friends criticize themselves from head to toe. “I used to think there was just fat and skinny,” she said. “Apparently there are a lot of things that could be wrong with your body.”
The longer I scrolled, the less honest it all felt. People would post earnestly about themselves, and brands would co-opt their language to sell things to them. Hating yourself wasn’t marketable anymore, but loving yourself absolutely was. Lose weight because you love yourself. Get fillers because you love yourself. Wear makeup because you love yourself. Of course it’s possible to love yourself and do those things at the same time. But to equate them to each other, as though these things were the solution and not the culprit? It felt like diet culture could find me anywhere, even when I was finally trying to run from it.
All I’d done, though, is run towards it. My feed was filled with bodies. And with that, I was constantly thinking about bodies, looking at bodies, talking about bodies. The #bodyposi Instagrammers and the brands who learned how to talk like them never presented that sort of detached bliss I felt last year as an option. If you don’t like yourself or your body, they assert, you should try to.
But I can’t seem to love myself by knowing myself. Can I love myself if I refuse to?
This week, I found an old folder on my hard drive from 2017, a dump of all my phone pictures from that year. As an adult, this was my thinnest and fittest. And most pictures in that folder were body checks, pictures I remember scrolling through and comparing side by side. It looks a lot like my phone does this year, an ongoing catalog of my quarantine body that I can’t seem to stop paying attention to.
I want it to look more like the year before — photos of places I went, the things I did, the people I did them with. Pictures other people took of me, where I’m not standing in a way I’ve practiced in a mirror. I don’t want to love my body. I want to return to ignoring it.
Because for me, there’s not much of a difference between feeling good about myself and not feeling much at all. All bodies are good bodies is a beautiful sentiment, and a true one. But I’ll forgo the highs that must come with internalizing it if it means forgoing the lows of knowing myself too deeply.