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When I get in the shower, I look at my naked body in the mirror and I hate it. It has stretch marks, and there’s a little shelf above my bikini line the same width as my c-section scar. I’m not overweight anymore, but I’ve struggled with my size in the past. I’ve been told I had a good butt, but thanks to pregnancy and breastfeeding my rear is a flattened pancake, a mere shadow of it’s former glory. Or whatever. I don’t love these things about my body, but they’re not why I hate it.
I hate my body because it betrayed me.
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 18. This kind of diabetes is autoimmune, meaning at some point my immune system took it upon itself to destroy some very important insulin-producing beta cells in my pancreas. If I want to stay alive, I have to check my blood sugar and inject the right amount of insulin every time I eat. Inject too little and diabetes wreaks havoc on my nerves, blood vessels, kidneys and heart, killing me slowly over time. Inject too much and it kills me right away.
There is nothing I could have done to prevent my condition, and now there’s nothing I can do to reverse it. Until further notice, I’m stuck like this.
As a result, body positivity is something I’ve struggled with. It’s hard enough finding love for a body that doesn’t look how you wish it looked. So how do you find love for a body that’s trying to kill you literally every day? How do you love that?
I’ve thought about this long and hard, and while I’m still not 100% sure I have the answer, I think I’m starting to figure it out. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
1) LET YOUR LOVED ONES BE YOUR MIRROR
Stepping out from behind the shower curtain is a big game of peekaboo for my 15 month old daughter. Her face lights up when she sees me. I get a big, cheesy, toddler-tooth grin, and without fail she waddles over and hugs my wet legs.
In that moment, my daughter doesn’t know what stretch marks are. She has no sense of how a person’s butt should or should not be shaped. She doesn’t know the little spots on my tummy, hips and thighs are needle scars. She doesn’t see that my body is broken, and even if she did I don’t think she’d care.
Thinking on this made me think of my own mom, who has struggled with her weight before, has never liked her legs, and has a large scar on her abdomen from when she was hit by a car at the tender age of seven. When I see my mother though, I don’t see a body. I see my mommy. When I see my husband, I see my soulmate. When I see my daughter, I see my world. If this is how I see my loved ones, perhaps maybe this is how they see me too? How might I see my body and myself differently if, when I looked in the mirror, I could see myself the way they see me?
2) BEWARE THE SPOTLIGHT EFFECT
People have a strong tendency to think others notice more about them then they actually do. This doesn’t make us self-absorbed; we simply experience the world from our own perspective, so we tend to unconsciously assume that others are privy to the same information we have about ourselves.
Science has shown us we have a strong tendency to overestimate the extent to which others share our self-perceptions. We also tend to assume our self-perception is more accurate than it really is. In social psychology, this belief that everyone is noticing us is called the spotlight effect.
When I’m feeling particularly down about my body, I have to remind myself that this phenomenon is a thing. I didn’t wear shorts for over a year after my daughter was born because I couldn’t get over how noticeable the stretch marks on my inner thighs were. That is, until I realized that I literally never look at a person’s inner thigh.
I might be hyper-aware of my own legs’ imperfections, but chances are quite good if we were to meet on the street, you’d be too busy viewing the world from your own perspective—and maybe even worrying about your own thighs—to notice (much less care about) mine. When you realize that the negative ways you view your body are statistically not likely to be accurate and are noticed way less that you think, it can be a lot easier to let go of that negative thinking.
3) TREAT YOUR BODY WELL
I have a girlfriend who is a dancer, and I remember she once mentioned how icky her body felt after eating junk food. At that time in my life, junk was my fuel source, and I remember thinking “Weird, I’ve never noticed that.” After spending a couple years intentionally adjusting my diet, however, I finally get what she was saying.
Bad food really does make you feel bad, mentally and physically (source). If you’ve never noticed that, you may be eating a lot of bad food like I did.
Similarly, studies have shown that regular exercise improves not only mood (my favorite psychology professor often treated depression with exercise) but also body image, regardless of whether or not a person’s weight or physique actually changed.
In other words, you can trick your brain into loving your body simply by treating your body well. Eat good foods and exercise not because you are dissatisfied with your appearance, but because taking care of yourself helps you love your body.
4) DON’T LET NUMBERS DEFINE YOU
One of the hardest lessons diabetes has taught me is that my worth cannot be captured in a number. To keep my blood sugar in a healthy range, I have to poke my finger and test my sugar level anywhere from 5 to upwards of 15 times a day, depending on the circumstances. Being your own pancreas is not easy, and a lot of diabetes management is really just a series of educated guesses. As a result, it’s simply impossible for me, a not-pancreas, to always come away from a blood sugar check with a good number.
In fact, there have been periods in my life where I’d come away from almost every check with a bad number. My mental commentary devolved. “That’s not good” turned into “I failed again” turned into “I’m a failure” with every finger poke.
Feeling like a failure 5-15 times a day isn’t great for your mental health, so I decided to meet with a psychologist. It should have maybe been obvious, but I needed her to remind me that these numbers are just data points. Just momentary and ultimately meaningless blips in time. And if they are ultimately meaningless, why should they affect how I feel about myself?
I’ve come to realize this is true about a lot of numbers associated with my body. Not just my blood sugar, but my weight, my height, my dress size, the width of my c-section scar, the circumference of my butt cheeks. If those numbers didn’t exist in my mind, how much more would I be able to love my body?
5) LOOK FOR SUCCESS
I have experienced the world from inside my body for a long time. Sometimes we take that for granted. Life puts a lot of wear and tear on a body. It gets sick, we get stressed, we feed it junk sometimes and don’t always work it out, but it’s still here. Think about it: How many years has your heart kept on beating for you?
When you think about the multitude of physical processes that must happen just the right way for you to simply stay alive, it’s nothing short of a miracle that after all this time you still are!
You know what else is a miracle? My daughter’s birth. That even my broken, imperfect body sustained life perfectly for nine months. That our bodies can heal and thrive even after undergoing the physical trauma of something like a c-section. That my stretch-marked breasts can create custom-made nutrition perfect for my baby. These things are amazing.
When I start focusing on what my body does right—in other words, when I look for success—it starts to turn everything I used to think about myself upside down. I begin to care less about how my body looks and more about how it feels and how I’m treating it. Am I healthy? Am I strong? Am I doing what I need to do to make sure my body (and I ) will be around for a long time?
This negative-to-positive shift in my thinking makes everything fall into place: It makes me want to treat my body well and obsess less over numbers. It makes me focus less on how I think others see my body and more on what they actually see in me.
My pancreas may be broken, but the rest of me works pretty darn well, and that’s nothing to turn your nose up at. It’s a freeing shift in perspective, one that helped me learn to appreciate and accept my body, diabetes and all. I don’t love that this body of mine needs insulin injections, but I do love what I get when I take them: Life. And that is a gift my body—and the grace of God—gives me daily.
That’s something I can love no matter what my body looks like.