I think I’ve spent years thinking about my stomach. I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean if I were to literally add up the seconds that it has occupied my brain, the minutes that I have considered how to disguise it, how to shrink it, how to suck it in with more layers or Spandex or sheer force of will — if I were to do that hideous math equation, I imagine 365 days wouldn’t even be the tip of the iceberg. Even now, I can picture those 24-hour-sections of time strung together, connected, stretching into the distance, disappearing into forever.
One day spent thinking of myself like clay, imagining tearing all the softness away and putting it somewhere else. One day spent thinking of myself as a puzzle, searching for a way to balance things out just a little more. An entire week spent telling myself that if no one ever touched me there, that maybe I could pretend it didn’t exist. That it wasn’t really part of me at all. A lifetime of believing that if I could only reconfigure the map of myself, that I would be content.
And though I’ve worked very hard to move away from those thoughts and toward self-compassion in my adult life, I would be lying if I said those seconds didn’t continue to tick on, even now. Just the other day I found myself running and imagining how much better all those miles would feel — or look — if I could only change the body part I hated most. But I shook my head and kept on running, quieting the thoughts with a phrase I’ve used a lot in my life. “That’s just how you’re built,” I whispered to myself, telling myself I was OK, self-soothing. “That’s just how you’re built.”
It’s the same thing I’d say when I’d see a photo of myself that I didn’t like, where my stomach looked rounder than I wanted it to, where it wasn’t camouflaged in exactly the way I’d want it. I’d shake the image away and say it again. “That’s just how you’re built.” For so many years, I thought this was a way to comfort myself, to take some of the pressure off myself. I imagine it was a better thing to say than some of the other, nastier thoughts I’ve had about myself in the past. But it wasn’t until this moment on the treadmill that I realized what it actually sounded like: An excuse. And I discovered what it felt like when you realize you’ve been explaining and excusing and apologizing yourself away for your whole life, even at your best, your most self-compassionate. And then, to my surprise, I also discovered I was wrong.
At my thinnest, my thoughts about my body were the same as they are now. Round where I should be flat. Flat where I should be round. I would look at myself and shake my head and say that same familiar phrase again, “That’s just how you’re built.” But I was wrong. I’m realizing that, actually, I’m built of much softer stuff than the curve of my stomach. Much harder stuff than the meanest words I have told myself. I am built of whatever gene is that makes you want to cry when you see the stack of colors that make up a beach — that beige, that blue, that green. I am built of the chemical that makes your brain light up when you read a book that picks you up and sets you down somewhere else. I am built of whatever it is that makes you want to compliment someone on their outfit just because, of the swell of happiness that comes from making someone laugh. I am built of the grief of losing someone suddenly, that horrible gift of perspective. I am built from family who does not leave and friends who are more part of your being, your soul, than just people you have known. I am built from details, built for details, built of the way my brain can so easily imagine what another person is thinking, for better and for worse. I am built from the tiny tsunamis of joy that come from stringing together the perfect sentence, from whatever stubborn thing it is that makes you want to write and write and write, even when you’re convinced you can’t. I am built of all of that and more, of a million tiny particles of self that no one will ever own but me. And when I imagine carving any of that away from the core of me, I’ve found that I don’t see me at all anymore. I’ve found that I wouldn’t want to do that ever, not once.
I wish I could tell you that I’ll never spend another minute thinking about my stomach, my body. But I know I will. I imagine I’ll spend many more hours of many more days wondering if everything would be better if I was different. But I like to think that I’ll soothe myself differently now. That I’ll close my eyes and quiet my brain and nod my head and hug myself close with the truth of it, the real story of how I am built.
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